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Originally published Sunday, October 28, 2012 at 9:30 PM

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King County's new approach tries to steer kids away from trouble

King County's new approach to juvenile justice moves toward mending families.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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A few days ago I watched a young woman named Morgan regain custody of her two young children.

She and her family are among the many beneficiaries of a better way of dealing with juvenile-justice and family-court issues.

Last Monday I wrote about the Legislature's embrace of evidence-based solutions to problems.

One of the areas in which that approach has been employed is juvenile justice. The state has been among the national leaders, and King County has led the state in evolving toward practices that yield greater benefits at lower costs.

Instead of breaking families apart, it helps mend them. Instead of housing juvenile offenders behind bars, it keeps them on a short leash in programs that get them to confront and overcome their demons.

The change in practices began in the late 1990s.

Bruce Knutson, director of juvenile-court services for King County, has worked in the juvenile-justice system for 34 years.

We met at the King County Youth Services Center in Seattle and talked about the ongoing changes.

He recalled that in 1998 more than 200 young people were locked up there, and some were sharing bunks.

County officials talked about spending millions on a new facility.

The year before, in 1997, the Legislature passed the Community Juvenile Accountability Act, which called for the use of research-proven methods of reducing juvenile recidivism.

It took time to put those practices in place, but they can claim at least some of the credit for lower juvenile-crime rates in the years since.

The day I spoke with Knutson, the county had 59 kids in detention. King County went from sending 1,500 juveniles to state facilities each year to sending 500.

Knutson acknowledges the general public might not notice the difference, especially when high-profile shootings grab attention. The young people being diverted away from gangs and drugs aren't as visible. How do you chart lives saved?

What we do know is that the kids who come into the juvenile-justice system come with factors that put them and others at risk of harm.

Mark Wirschem, manager of juvenile treatment services, said the system focuses on young people at moderate to high risk of reoffending.

It tries to divert them by using proven strategies, such as aggression replacement training and functional family therapy.

A team of people work together to help the young person improve — lawyers, judges, counselors and others. Family and friends are brought into the process. All aspects of the person's life are on the table because they all affect the outcome.

(When the county's juvenile-justice facility is rebuilt over the next several years, its name will change to the Children and Family Justice Center.)

The juvenile court partners with other arms of government and with nonprofits. That kind of cooperation just didn't happen before the system set out in this new direction, Knutson said.

Knutson said two-thirds of the youth who come in contact with the juvenile-justice system have been touched by the child-welfare system. They've been traumatized in some way.

Seventy percent have dropped out of school or are on the verge of dropping out. Seventy percent are affected by mental-health issues or substance abuse.

Do the math. There is a lot of overlap; these kids have multiple risk factors.

Treating them is complex business. Checks are built in to be sure everyone involved is following the models exactly.

Program completion rates are 80 to 90 percent.

Wirschem told me about several success stories, like the girl the program got out of the sex trade. She and her family used what they'd learned to get two more girls out.

I dropped into Morgan's graduation ceremony. There was Native American drumming and singing.

She said Judge Patricia Clark, who supervised her treatment, had become her role model. Clark helped start the juvenile drug court.

Morgan said that when she was using drugs she didn't think about her kids, but now, thanks to the program she understands what it means to be a mother.

It's the kind of outcome the county keeps pressing for as it continues to add programs and partners and to fine tune its approach.

So today, Morgan is not in jail, and it is much less likely her children will be our problem tomorrow.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @jerrylarge.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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