By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications

GeorgetownGroupsmlrThis summer a group of TJJD leaders kicked off a special program for the agency that aims to improve cohesivity, working conditions, youth engagement and behavior management at the secure facilities.

Under the guidance of the Georgetown University’s Youth in Custody Practice Model (YICPM), the agency is pursuing a “Capstone” project that will put strategic changes into play and track and report about them. The aim is to develop a more unified treatment plan for TJJD youth that can make a big difference in youth outcomes, starting with the girls in residence at Mart. At the end of the project, TJJD will receive a certification from GU recognizing the agency’s work to improve and establish best practices.

Antonio Houston, Superintendent of the McLennan County secure facility at Mart, is a key leader of the project and his campus will serve as the flagship program for the Capstone initiatives.

“This is going to give our agency a better toolbelt to help these kids,” Houston said. And an important feature of the project is that the people who work day-to-day at the facility will shape the operational changes, he said.

Houston has already had focus meetings with Juvenile Correctional Officers, Case Managers, and other staffers to gather input that will drive the direction of modifications.

“In the past we’d have Central Office say, ‘Hey, you’re going to do this program.’ Instead of that, we’re getting the staff feedback and saying give us your ideas.”

“We had a training (at Mart) and we talked about the culture and how we can align that with this new program.”

Developing the Plan

TJJD was accepted to participate in the Georgetown University program in May. In June, 12 TJJD executives and program leaders traveled to Washington DC for a week-long training at the GU Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.

In addition to Supt. Houston, the group included: Executive Director Shandra Carter, Director of Structured Programming and Accountability Henry Schmidt III, Deputy Executive Director Sean Grove, Sr. Director of Integrated Treatment Evan Norton, Deputy Director of Treatment Lacey Evans, Training Director Chris Ellison, Senior Director of Secure Facilities Alan Michel, Director of Research Emily Knox, Senior Strategic Advisor Cameron Taylor, Manager of Institutional Clinical Service Erin Nemons and Clinical Director for Forensic Mental Health Services at Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex Autumn Lord.

The TJJD team participated alongside other state juvenile justice professionals from South Carolina, Maryland, and Hawaii. That alone was instructive because everyone shared useful ideas, Houston said.

The hard work came as the facilitators led the state groups through a process of evaluating their programs, benchmarking against best practices, and developing improvement plans.

TJJD leaders concluded that the Texas system follows many best practices but could use improvement in getting everyone out of their departmental silos to better coordinate and collaborate as they make plans for a youth’s progress through the system and beyond, into reentry and back home, Houston said.

“A youth’s case plan is primarily driven by case managers and the youth also have to deal with mental health providers, floor JCOs and dorm leadership. That can be confusing to kids, right?” he said.

The Capstone group knew that implementing a "one case plan" would require that all the adults working with a youth would have to collaborate, practice a team approach and be “speaking the same language, so the kids are not confused,” Houston explained.

AntonioDiving deeper the group identified barriers to implementing the plan and came up with ways to overcome those barriers by looking at all areas -- case planning, education, behavioral health, behavioral management, transition/reentry and community-based services, Houston said.

At the same time, they kept the top-level goals in mind of promoting a “safe, fair and healthy environment for the youth” while properly equipping and empowering staff, he said.

The overall case plan would have to include everyone on the ground at the facility and reach outward to include probation officers and families, who are vital to a youth’s enduring success.

“We don’t do a good job of asking the families what their needs are,” Houston said.

The Capstone plan recognizes that shortcoming and is building in multiple ways to engage families more thoroughly throughout their youth’s justice involvement, at TJJD and beyond.

Treatment is Paramount

Another beneficial aspect of moving to a unified case plan approach is that it recognizes the foundational importance of specialized treatment, said TJJD Strategic Advisor Cameron Taylor, who helped outline the Capstone project goals.

Only when youth and their treatment teams effectively address antisocial or dysfunctional behaviors can the youth move forward to make progress mentally, socially, and academically. Conversely, unaddressed dysfunctional behavior will perpetually block their progress.

That’s why the Capstone effort at Mart will encompass a specific treatment protocol already underway at the campus, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which has proven effective in correctional environments. DBT is a form of therapy developed by the psychologist Marsha Linehan that places high value on helping clients with problem-solving, incorporating aspects of acceptance and mindfulness.

Mart staff who work with the girls in residence have been getting training in DBT that includes learning a protocol for managing youth crisis behaviors, such as suicidal, self-harming or assaultive acts.

The training directs staff to consider and explore the antecedents – life events or prior experiences – that lead to these behaviors. Through understanding root causes, the staff learns to strategize solutions for and more effectively manage these behaviors.

“Understanding that youth disruptive or dysfunctional behaviors are their efforts to solve legitimate problems in their lives is core to beginning to offer meaningful treatment to them,” said Dr. Schmidt, who is leading the treatment training at Mart. “The cognitive-behavioral protocol for responding to these behaviors helps the youth and staff understand the youth’s intent and goals, so that we can work to offer them tools to more successfully navigate the challenges of life.”

“We can help youth by providing them with skills to regulate their emotions, tolerate distress, and navigate relationships with others; these are challenges that we all have experienced and share in common.  Our primary task is helping youth to clearly see and evaluate their goals (short-term and long-term), have a variety of options for responding, and to increasingly use skillful means,” Schmidt explained. “We do this by balancing our support for change with acceptance of the challenges of learning new behavior and ways of thinking and acknowledging that change takes time and practice.”

The staff need to be aligned in their help for the youth, he said, and “working from the same sheet of music.”

“The unified treatment plan will assist us to do that, with line staff, case managers, mental health staff, and security all coaching and encouraging the youth in the same direction.”

Far-reaching Impact

The Capstone project is a big endeavor that touches many areas of operations and requires all oars in the water as the team at Mart pilots this project with the girls’ program.

And while it focuses on an effective, unified treatment plan for the youth, it reaches outward to incorporate many adjustments to operations that will facilitate the core goals and have intrinsic value as well.

For example, Supt. Houston is looking at ways to improve the work/life balance for staff to improve the overall campus culture, creating an environment that fosters success. This and other modifications lay the groundwork for the Capstone project, but extend to improve all lives, staff, and youth.

So far staff have told him they’re eager for innovations that will ripple outward.

The Capstone project plan, for instance, calls out that TJJD will cultivate “teamliness” and shared responsibility to meet its new goals of more effective treatment and case management. It’s not hard to envision how that can positively affect many operations at TJJD campuses.

It also calls for reaching out to families, and probation officers and community groups that can help address needs as a youth moves through their proscribed program and prepares to reenter their community.

The hope is that staff at all levels and across departments will be engaged in both developing and finetuning the unified treatment plan and the final set of processes developed will be clear and comprehensive so staff can easily and consistently apply the behavioral interventions they have learned.

As the Capstone plan notes, the quality of services provided to youth is contingent on the quality of training and support provided to the staff. Only when all the parts come together – the training, shared vision, positive work culture and team energy -- can staff most effectively assist and empower the girls at Mart.

Houston says that watching the early progress at the campus, he is optimistic.

In this early stage, everyone is working in concert, setting goals and taking baby steps, but what staff have reported to him after discussions has been positive. “What I heard was ‘thank you,’ for getting our input," he said.

Like them, Houston wasn’t sure what to expect when he was tapped for the Capstone project.

"Going into it I felt kind of apprehensive,” he recalls of the trip to DC. “Is this really going to work? Or will this be a program where we go through the motions? But after going through the training and listening to the presenters and the ideas that the executive team had, I feel confident about it.”

(Photo above: The Capstone team in DC; McLennan County campus Supt. Antonio Houston.)