Saving youth the Missouri way

Fights, bland food, barred windows and high fences. 

These are some of the words and images that might come to mind at the mention of juvenile correctional facilities. 

In the mind’s eye, they look a lot like prison. 

Unfortunately, the reality of juvenile correctional facilities is often not much different, and the results they produce are usually equally discouraging. 

That is why, after the 2009 Constitution mandated that juvenile offenders had to be separated from adult offenders, the Cayman Islands government decided to use the opportunity to completely change the way that juvenile offenders are handled in the justice system. 

“The current juvenile facilities, Eagle House, Bonaventure and Frances Bodden, [do] not have qualified personnel in therapeutic services and they do not offer education to correct the students’ challenges,” says Michael Myles, the Ministry of Education Programme coordinator for At Risk Youth.  

 

In their bid to completely overhaul the existing juvenile correctional facilities in the Cayman Islands, the government contacted the Missouri Youth Services Institute. 

 

The Missouri model 

When MYSI was founded, the rate of juvenile recidivism in Missouri was very high. Nnow, 40 years on, it is one of the lowest in the United States. 

“For the past several decades we’ve been able to keep well over 90 per cent of these young men and women from going to prison or coming back into our juvenile system,” says Mark Steward, founder and director of MYSI. 

The results that they’re achieving are really what got our attention, explains Minister of Community Affairs and Housing Michael Adams. 

The programme achieves results because it places emphasis on rehabilitation. 

“It’s basically a treatment, therapeutic model rather than a correctional model which, unfortunately, [is what] most countries and states basically provide you,” Steward says. 

The Missouri method has 11 stages, beginning with assessments and site visits, and ending with training, coaching and implementation.  

“The Missouri model seeks to address the core problems of youth issues. They will offer a holistic approach to youth rehabilitation, similar to BEST,” says Myles, referring to the Behaviour Education Support Team programme. 

Rather than merely supervising the young offenders, the Missouri method encourages interaction to help staff recognise and respond to the physical, mental and emotional needs of the facilities’ residents. 

“It’s a total different refrain from the old ‘keep your mouth shut, clean your cell and go do your work’,” Steward says. 

The benefits of singing a different tune do not stop with a low recidivism rate, however: The Missouri model also boasts decreased incidents of violence within juvenile correctional facilities and a 40-year record of no suicides. 

“It’s much, much safer for the staff and the youth,” says Steward. “In fact, in Missouri compared to other juvenile correctional facilities, at least in the states, youths are over four times more likely to be assaulted in other youth correctional facilities.” 

Staff, Steward says, are 13 per cent more likely to be assaulted in other facilities. 

The effectiveness of the Missouri model may have something to do with the fact that the programme emphasises constant interaction between the youths and the staff members. 

“You have to look at each kid as an individual then you develop a relationship instead of a position of power,” Steward says. “It’s a totally different system than what was there before, not only in Cayman, but in most other places [where] it’s not really interacting with them, it’s just watching them, and that’s not helpful in changing the kids.” 

 

Cayman-ising the Missouri model 

Although the Missouri programme originated in the United States, months of preparation have gone into adapting the programme to suit the local community. 

By the time training officially began with the staff of the Frances Bodden Girls Home on Monday, 27 June, MYSI was very familiar with the juvenile justice system in the Cayman Islands. 

“During the past six to nine months we’ve been preparing for this,” Steward says. “We’ve looked at the existing facilities there… we’ve talked to the judges and the police.” 

In fact, Chief Magistrate Margaret Ramsay-Hale travelled to Missouri in order to visit the facilities in place there and learn more about the programme itself. 

“The primary distinction between the Missouri model and our youth facilities is that the facilities are primarily treatment facilities,” she says. “The young persons are engaged in rehabilitative work whenever they are not sleeping.” 

Having seen many troubled youths come through her courtroom, Ramsay-Hale emphasised the fact that the MYSI programme recognises the many factors that can lead youths astray 

“The Missouri Model recognises that most of the young persons who come before the Courts have educational and emotional needs that underlie their offending behaviour and frequently have substance abuse issues,” the magistrate explains.  

“In my view, adopting this treatment based model, the Missouri Model, is our best chance of changing the lives of the young offenders who come before the Courts,” she adds. 

It is widely acknowledged that the construction of a new juvenile remand centre will better accommodate the services required by youths under the Missouri model. 

Originally proposed to be built on the eastern end of Grand Cayman, MYSI recommended that the new centre be shifted to George Town. 

The new juvenile remand centre, to be known as the Cayman Islands Youth Centre, will now be built on what is a trailer park behind the Fairbanks Prison for female adult offenders. 

“The Fairbanks site [was] considered the most appropriate site after careful assessment by the Missouri Youth Services Institute who actually visited the various site options and came to this conclusion,” said Sean Evans, lead architect for the Cayman Islands Youth Centre and acting deputy director of the Public Works Department. 

The building is predicted to cost approximately $6 million and $3 million has been set aside in the 2011/2012 budget for its construction. 

In the meantime, however, the Bonaventure Boys Home is undergoing renovations to accommodate the programme. The changes include creating open dorms for the residing youths. 

“Once [the boys] relocate and move to the purpose-built centre, Bonaventure will already have been outfitted to accommodate the programme, so our offending young females will then go to the Bonaventure site 

,” explains Debbie-Ann Whittaker, senior policy officer with the Ministry of Commuity Affairs and Housing, adding that the Frances Bodden home will most likely remain in use as well. 

 

Training the Missouri way 

The staff of the Frances Bodden Girls Home recently went through theoretical and  

practical training exercises under the guidance of Kenneth Ellis Sr., senior consultant with MYSI. 

Angela Sealey, chief executive officer of the Children and Youth Services Foundation, said that the aspect of training staff found most helpful was how to use the group process. 

“The group process basically is groups of individuals gathered together to achieve a goal or objective,” she says, explaining that the group has to progress through stages of individual and collective discovery to determine how the group will function. 

“These stages are a function of a number of variables, not the least of which is the self-identification of the role each member will tend to play, and the emergence of natural leaders and individuals who will serve as sources of information,” Sealey says. 

According to Ramsay-Hale, one of the most interesting aspects of the MYSI approach was how the group held each other responsible for breaches of conduct. 

“The young persons are held accountable for all their actions, not by the adult counsellor but by the group to which they have been assigned and with whom they live and study 24 hours a day,” the magistrate explains. “Conflicts between members and breaches of rules are resolved immediately in group, by the group.” 

The group process represents a significant shift away from the traditional authoritative relationships formed between staff and youths, and toward a more equal and interactive relationship. 

“The biggest changes that will take place is the implementation of the group process,” Sealey says. “This approach will take some practice by the staff.” 

As a result, MYSI trainers have remained on-island to help the Frances Bodden staff use the skills and practices learned during training to deal with everyday situations. 

“ 

This is a significant component of the training, whereby, the MYSI staff works with the staff at Frances Bodden to implement and supplement learning from the training modules, which provides the link or transition from theory to application,” Sealey says. 

 

Going forward with MYSI 

Although training and coaching have ceased, MYSI’s job is not yet complete. 

Staff will return, first to train the staff of Bonaventure Boys Home, and second, to provide revised training and coaching once the Cayman Islands Youth Centre is completed. 

“ 

Now we’re providing the initial training to use with the existing population and then once the new facility is built, we will evaluate what kind of training needs to be done then,” Steward says. 

According to Evans, the new facility has been designed with the Missouri model in mind. 

“This will be a purpose-built facility constructed to hurricane shelter standards, which will convey a softer home like warmth to the youth that reside there as well as to visitors approaching the facility,” he says. “It will be equipped with many relevant modern amenities and systems dedicated to the learning, growth, rehabilitation, recreation, security and housing of the youth that reside.” 

Adams says the public should keep in mind the results that the programme has been proven to achieve before criticising the new facility. 

“When you talk about cottages and dorms and things like this, people think it’s a softer approach, but it’s not. It’s where you have to sit with your peers and confront them and deal with your issues one on one,” he says. “If they go to Northward, they’re just a mark in time.” 

Though the facility will certainly help the young offenders to receive the care they need, those who have experience with the Missouri model seem to agree that it is the programme itself, and not the facilities, that have the greatest effects on the youths. 

“The most important aspect… is having ‘hearts on’ the young people,” says Ramsay-Hale, “which simply means that they are treated with respect and love, no matter what.” 

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