A juvenile court officer who’s based in Sioux City says she’s engaged in a “fundamentally different” way of working with troubled foster care kids, to try to keep them out of the prison system. Lisa Nelson is part of what’s called a “crossover team” in Woodbury County.
“We are continually reminded that this work is a living relationship and that each case brings a set of unique needs,” Nelson says. “The fact that there are ongoing struggles and, at times, failures may lead individuals to question the process or the effectiveness of the model, but overall we believe the model forces a fundamentally different way of thinking and working with this population.”
The team includes law enforcement and court officials like Nelson as well as staff in group homes for foster care kids and mental health therapists.
“We were also able to employ an educational specialist who tracks educational transcripts for every child in our system who enters care,” Nelson says.
One of the team’s goals is to keep foster care kids from being sent from a foster care group home to juvenile detention, because it means the kid then gets a criminal record.
“If they’re in a facility and they’re not doing well and they’re acting out, we don’t want to criminalize that,” Nelson says, “and so we tried to help them come up with levels of intervention and things they could do absent of calling law enforcement and having that child detained.”
About one-third of the foster care kids who wind up in the prison system got there because they were involved in some sort of incident in a group home. Nelson’s team has been working with Georgetown University on this project since 2008. Nelson made her comments during recent testimony at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.
More than 415,000 American kids are in foster care today. Iowa ranks among the top 10 states in the percentage of its children in foster care.