Juvenile justice systems across the U.S. are experiencing a staffing crisis that spans corrections, probation, and service provider agencies. The inability to recruit, hire and retain staff amid the COVID epidemic is putting youth at risk and affecting the government's ability to make sure their needs are met, experts say.
Jill Mata, Chief Probation Officer at Bexar County, Tx., Juvenile Probation Department, and Brett Peterson, Director of Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services, discussed the issue in a webinar co-hosted by Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and the University of Cincinnati Corrections Institute and supported by the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Utah operates intervention services including detention, home detention, community programs, secure care facilities, and aftercare.
Peterson said that before COVID, there were rare instances of high staff turnover rates, but when the pandemic hit, entire units had to be shut down, meaning fewer services were offered to youth.
"You can't hire maintenance staff, you can't hire graveyard staff, you can't hire kitchen staff..." Peterson said. The most significant job category affected was youth development specialists.
The existing staff faced increased workloads and responsibilities, which Peterson said directly affected the quality of care for youths.
Mata said her department had similar problems during the pandemic. Mata's county department includes a 24/7-hour detention facility for children who have not yet gone through the court process. The county also operates a post-adjudication secure care facility.
She said during the pandemic, supplying care became challenging even with alternatives such as direct care. A direct care worker is responsible for the care, welfare, safety, and security of young people. The work involves physical care and custody, guidance in personal hygiene, work and study habits, and social, spiritual, and recreational activities. Fear of catching COVID, a shortage of vaccines, and the lack of information about the virus presented a huge barrier to direct care.
As a result, Mata said, "Our county like a lot of counties started worrying about the budget and so there was a real effort to reduce the number of staff..."
Once the pandemic became manageable, Mata said her department had fewer qualified applicants and was unable to get new people to join, forcing the remaining staff to deal with more work.
One challenge Mata faces when hiring is that new employees are unprepared for what the position requires from them. New hires struggle with the difficulty of the work and schedules.
"The impact of that is huge because it's so hard to build and maintain morale when your ratio of new to experienced staff is so out of balance," Mata said.
Young people in the justice system must become involved with less experienced staff. The relationship between staff and youth becomes unsteady as they struggle to understand each other. "That lack of competency results in that lack of safety and security, and then that only exacerbates children's behavior," Mata said.
Retaining staff also is an issue. Peterson said some employees leave because juvenile justice work can be stressful.
Trying to have a positive impact on the lives of youth can involve much hard work, passion, and commitment that can contribute to fatigue and burnout, leading to low staff retention rates, Peterson said.
Mata said that some staffers start their work with a focus on law enforcement rather than wanting to help youth succeed, which may prompt some employees to leave.
"So those with that law enforcement focus, they're confronted with the reality that we do not treat children like jailed adults, nor would we want to..." Mata said.
Both speakers focus on training staff to ensure that they have the proper skills to empower children, promote growth and encourage long-term success.
Peterson said his department uses so-called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) for both staff and youth. It is a type of treatment centered on having conversations about how to develop healthy ways to cope with stress, regulate emotions, and improve their relationships with others.
"They all are learning the skills and we're starting to kind of create a kind of ecosystem of dialectical behavior therapies," Peterson said. "The dialectic component of it is that it can be both things, it can be both fulfilling and heartbreaking."
Peterson said strategies to promote staff wellness and encourage longevity, beyond increasing bonuses and pay, include creating an environment where all staff can have a voice in what goes on.
Actions to promote inclusive environments for staff include building formal peer support, budgeting for staff incentives such as holding a lunch for the employee of the month and structuring a staff council.
Mata hopes to retain staff by providing more personal connections. "For those that were on the floor we really made sure they were seen, and they were acknowledged by their supervisor chain, including leadership," Mata said.
Encouraging compassion among staff is another goal. The probation department promotes team efforts to build a solid foundation among staff, making sure they are well-trained so they feel capable.