Law and Social Work: the Juvenile Justice System

Originally posted April 1, 2010

As a dual degree student, I am constantly looking for overlaps between the professions of law and social work. Sometimes it is easier than others, but one place where I have found that the two professions go hand in hand is in the juvenile justice system. The juvenile delinquency system attempts to provide an alternative system for children who commit acts that would be considered crimes if they were committed for adults. This system is designed to provide an opportunity for rehabilitation for children under the premise that they are not as culpable for their acts as an adult would be. This semester I am simultaneously taking a juvenile law class and doing my field placement at Child Protective Services in a pilot unit aimed at helping older youth place out of the CPS system without a permanent home and stay out of the criminal justice system.

As part of my juvenile law class, I recently visited the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center to take a tour of the detention facilities and observe a detention hearing. This experience drew close to home because many of the youth that I work with at CPS are also involved in the juvenile justice system. On my visit to the detention center, it sunk in that the facility was strikingly similar to a jail. While the youth attend class in their “units” and have some recreational time, they are forced to wear navy blue garb (similar to that worn by adult prisoners), sleep in small concrete cells locked behind a glass door and holding a bed, toilet and sink. The kids stay here up to 10 days (and sometimes longer) while they await an adjudication hearing to determine if they committed a violation and what their punishment will be.

I found some hope among the bleak detention center walls in the probation officers that work with the youth while they are detained especially the director who gave me a tour. While a college degree is not required to become a probation officer let alone a degree in social work, my tour guide informed me that all of the staff in the detention center acted as social workers to try and address the many needs of the detained youth. Some studies have shown that up to 90% of detained youth in Texas suffer from some sort of mental illness. I saw that some of the youth were already bonded to my guide as we toured through the girls unit while they were in class. Because I know that the youth that I work with at CPS struggle with permanency in relationships, appropriate relationships with detention center staff can be important to the youth. Despite my observations at the Houston facility, there have been some egregious violations committed by juvenile detention workers against youth in the past. This visit really made me think about the role of a social worker and how our common values and ethics would be useful in the detention setting. The presence of social workers at these facilities may prevent the types of violations against children that happen in detention facilities while addressing an important need for support and services to youth who have been detained. It is social policy questions like this one that I hope to address in the future as an advocate and social worker.

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