Community-based programs take pandemic changes in stride, continue services to NC juveniles

Author: Cindy Porterfield, director of Juvenile Community Programs

An electronic billboard I pass on my commute to work frequently changes its message. One of its recent one-word messages still resonates with me. The word was “community,” written in such a way as to highlight the word’s final five letters:  UNITY. I continue to ponder its meaning in an environment where there is much need for action defined by this word.

A crisis all too often brings change and change brings an upheaval of raw emotions and a deepened awareness of reality—from an individual or collective perspective. Crisis prompts a deeper dive into the mechanics of how things work or don’t work.  Crisis prompts new learning—a sometimes fruitful by-product of a life-changing event. COVID-19 has created this for us. It is teaching us individually and collectively. Pushing us into the “new reality.” Forcing us to navigate through unchartered waters. Making us recognize that, while we may be forced to do our work differently, we may, in fact, be able to do our work better. COVID-19 reminds us daily that the ship still must sail and that we must respond to the challenges that this pandemic continues to present.  

Juvenile Justice’s Community Programs unit and its local partners have sustained a long history of unforeseen challenges during the last 45+ years of systematic, legislative and departmental adjustments. On the other side of each of these challenges, our unity and collective efforts have made us become wiser, more efficient and effective, improving what we already do best: Assisting and transforming the lives of those whom we serve. I have seen so many examples of this across the state recently. Our community partners have maintained their efforts to reach our youth and families, from organizing food deliveries to youth and their families with known food insecurities, to helping young people overcome risky behavior, teaching them safety practices so as to protect their vulnerable, elderly grandmothers, their sole caregivers, from COVID exposure. The stories are boundless, full of concern and care. Yes, COVID-19 has created pause to ponder and recognize commUNITY.

Here is a recent example from Program Manager Rick Abrams of Vantage Pointe Inc., a teen court program provider in Pender and New Hanover counties. 

The COVID-19 era has taught us that we must adapt to the realities the pandemic has imposed upon us. When North Carolina’s stay-at-home order went into place, New Hanover Teen Court was faced with several new realities: (1) Teen Court referrals would more than likely dramatically diminish, at least until schools reopened; (2) with schools closed teen court volunteer participation would surely diminish to only the most committed students; (3) youth and families who had been referred and admitted to the program prior to the order would continue to need attention and a timely, if modified, intervention response. Yes, an alternative to our regular teen court model was inevitable.

While technology and online platforms offer connectivity options for a virtual teen court, platforms like Zoom and WebEx could not support the complexity of a typical teen court hearing. Furthermore, the unreliability of online connections and the unknowns around Wi-Fi or computer access for our youth and their families, and teen court volunteers, offered additional challenges and barriers. We concluded that a virtual teen court needed to be a lean model, with swift response time and conformity to a variety of online availabilities. 

After thoughtful experimentation (and a lot of trial and errors), we came up with a hybrid restorative justice model: Combining the tribunal, or “grand jury-like” method for teen court proceedings and the sentencing circles practice model. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “a case presenter introduces the facts of the case, and a panel of youth jurors interrogates the defendant directly.” Sentencing Circles, on the other hand, utilize a mediator trained in bringing opposing sides to some common-ground agreement. This restorative justice model works to bring together the offender, his/her parents, victims, community members and trained volunteers/peers. The circle works to develop an Action Plan that rests firmly upon the restorative justice principle of accountability, prompting the offender to take responsibility of his or her actions. 

Here’s how it works. Following admission to the program, a Vantage Pointe staff member, trained in facilitation and mediation best practices, calls the youth and family to discuss the details of the case and to collect any mitigating and aggravating circumstances that may inform the jury’s decision. This call also details how the virtual hearing will operate and offers an opportunity to answer any questions or address any concerns the family may have.

Teen Court volunteers are then scheduled for the evening Virtual Teen Court Sessions. Vantage Pointe staff serve as discussion mediators between the respondent/defendant, and the jury, which is made up of former teen court defendants required by their teen court sanction to serve on the jury, along with other volunteers. The difference between this type of jury and a “normal” teen court jury is that these jurors act also as attorneys, interacting with respondents as prosecutors and/or defenders depending upon  needs. 

Following the discussion, the family is dismissed and the “jury” (again, more like a grand jury) deliberates with mediators now acting as jury monitors. The disposition is recorded on the usual paperwork and families are informed of the jury’s decision the following day. 

Finally, Community Service/ Restitution staff are present throughout the hearings and chime in during the proceedings as they see fit, fulfilling the role as a sanction resource within the circle.”

So, there you have it.  A hybrid program borne from inbred spirit to serve, to help our youth as a collective whole. 

The most gratifying part of my job is witnessing this, almost daily, in the spirit of the JJ team with whom I work, and in the ongoing work of our community partners with whom we entrust to help our youth. UNITY is present in the hearts of our community-based programs as evident by the unique, innovative approaches taken to continue their engagement with youth, even during a pandemic. Thank you, Rick, and all the other Juvenile Community Program providers who continue to exhibit the UNITY within our Juvenile CommUNITY Programs.  

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