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Juvenile justice research helps shape state policy
Jacqueline van Wormer
PULLMAN – When it comes to keeping kids in school and out of jail there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
WSU social scientists Leana Bouffard (criminal justice), Nicholas Lovrich (political science) and Paul Strand (psychology, WSU Tri-Cities) are conducting research on truancy that will help guide future juvenile justice policy and practice in the state of Washington.
Their research is being funded through a $300,000 grant from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative, the first-ever award from the foundation to WSU.
The aim of Models for Change is to create successful and replicable models for juvenile justice reform through targeted investments in the states of Pennsylvania, Illinois, Louisiana and Washington, which was selected because of its track record of using evidence-based interventions with juvenile offenders.
The initiative in Washington is focusing on five areas: the coordination of mental health services, information sharing among agencies, multisystem collaboration, the problem of truancy and whether or not there is disproportionate contact between minority youth and juvenile justice.
According to Strand the research seeks to identify predictors of problems and barriers to youth success. Strand said, “We are really interested in how kids transition from primary to middle school and then to high school. … We are trying to identify periods where youth are more vulnerable to truancy and contact with the juvenile justice system.”
Jacqueline van Wormer, the Models for Change site coordinator for Benton and Franklin counties in Washington and a doctoral candidate in the WSU criminal justice program, is working with the WSU research team.
In Benton and Franklin counties, Van Wormer said, “We have a high rate of minority youth entering the juvenile justice system, and we are looking more deeply at why that is. … Also, kids don’t just skip school to skip school, there is usually a reason. … Why are they skipping school?”
According to van Wormer, those reasons may range from language barriers to providing care for younger siblings while their parents are at work to issues related to drug and alcohol abuse.
The WSU research team has developed survey tools to gather data at high schools and from court personnel that will provide a factual basis for analyzing the problem of truancy.
Work groups, comprising court personnel, judicial figures, school administrators and community members and facilitated by the academic research team, have been assembled and like a think tank, they are charged with looking at the data and developing collaborative solutions that leverage limited resources.
Van Wormer said, “We have been able to gather data, and we are now allowing our data to shape our programs. … We are going to create programs and services that are truly responsive, programs that really move toward focusing on matching services to youth and families early on. … This is an issue for all of us to tackle to create healthy families and kids.”
The WSU research team is now expanding its efforts in Washington and is currently working with Spokane and Clark county juvenile justice programs to conduct similar research.
About Jacqueline van Wormer:
Jacque van Wormer, entered the field of juvenile justice in 1992 after completing a master’s degree in criminal justice at WSU.
She has returned to the WSU criminal justice program for doctoral studies and expects to earn her Ph.D. in May 2010.
Van Wormer says her experience as a graduate student has had a strong impact on her work in juvenile justice.
The mother of three works full-time as the Benton–Franklin bi-county site coordinator for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation national Models for Change initiative.
Last fall, van Wormer was chosen by Washington colleagues as the state’s inaugural Champion for Change for her work in juvenile justice. She received the award in December at the annual Models for Change leadership conference in Washington, D.C.
Faith Lutze, associate professor of criminal justice and chair of Van Wormer’s doctoral committee, said, “One of Jacque’s greatest strengths is her ongoing passion to utilize the power of her education from WSU to influence statewide policies that empower agencies at the local level to be effective in achieving positive change for individuals and the community.
“She epitomizes WSU’s land-grant mission, which is to bring what is learned through scientific research to the community as evidence-based best practice. This is why her work is so relevant and so important.”
Van Wormer said, “Best practice is driven by what is happening in the academic field that can inform the work I do in the courts. … I have one foot in research and the other in practice.”