Advocates work to keep troubled kids out of court

NEWPORT — A few months ago, a confident teenage girl, getting straight A's at school and entertaining thoughts of college for a business career, said goodbye to NorthKey Community Care.

She came to NorthKey a year ago as a prescription drug abuser who had overdosed. She was a truant and a suicidal girl who had been neglected by her mom and abused by her mother's boyfriend.

The girl had been living with her grandmother, removed from her mother's care at 12, and was suffering from anxiety, depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.

NorthKey clinicians worked with her for 10 months, and at 16 she was ready to leave their care and get on with her life.

It's not easy to ensure such results as the number of teens referred to community services by Campbell County Juvenile Court grows.

But thanks to two grants and a lot of determination, Campbell County children's advocates are working to meet the dual goal of keeping troubled kids out of court and getting them into appropriate services.

This month, NorthKey Community Care Family and Children's Services was awarded the Kentucky Adolescent Treatment Enhancement and Dissemination grant. It's a $337,500-a-year, three-year grant from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services to help court-referred adolescents in Campbell County who have substance abuse and mental health problems.

The funding follows a grant the county received in September: $25,000 for six months, also through the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, for a pilot program to keep kids out of detention and get them into community-based programs. It's a grant awarded to eight states as part of a national initiative of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and MacArthur Foundation National Initiative.

Keeping troubled kids out of lockup

Status offenders are kids who, if adults, would not be considered criminals. Their offenses are usually behavioral or mental health issues, or acts like truancy and substance abuse that stem from problems at home.

Kentucky is focusing on keeping these offenders outside of detention. Counties across the state have been struggling to find alternatives to locking up children. Kentucky detains the second-highest number of youths in the nation for acts that would not be considered illegal if committed by an adult.

Status offenders in detention is especially a concern in Northern Kentucky. In 2010, Kenton and Campbell counties ranked first and third in the state in the number of juvenile status offenders locked up. That despite they ranked third and sixth in the state in the number of status offenders.

Boone County, which ranked 13th in the state in number of status offenders locked up, ranked seventh in number of status offenders.

Jefferson County, the most populous county in the state, generally does not lock up children for skipping school, running away or not obeying parents or teachers.

"Status offenders can end up in a detention facility along with juvenile offenders that have committed crimes, even violent ones," Campbell District Judge Karen A. Thomas said. "These kids need to be out of the criminal justice system altogether."

The judge, NorthKey, the Brighton Center and the Kentucky Court Designated Worker program are leading the Beginning Status Offender Project. They look at status offender cases and provide what they call a "warm handoff" of kids to the care provider that is best able to meet their needs.

The grants from the Cabinet of Health and Family Services help ensure Campbell County will be a model for other juvenile justice systems and their communities, Thomas said.

"This is our chance to influence the state."

Other states that received funding for a status offender project were Arkansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina and Virginia.

Status offender drop seen statewide

Campbell County was selected for both grants because of its high number of status offenders and "the judge's involvement and community willingness to work on these issues," according to the cabinet.

In the last three years, the number of juvenile status offenders in Campbell County has ranged from 136 to 175. Numbers were at their lowest last year and in 2011.

While a Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts report stated the reason for a drop statewide is uncertain at this time, Campbell County leaders believe their work with juvenile status offenders is showing results here.

"We got all the stakeholders — the Brighton Center, NorthKey, the schools, the courts — and we asked them to do their job differently," Thomas said. "We do case management twice a month with everyone in the room."

"It's really working," Thomas said. "It's unbelievable."

The latest grant provides resources to keep the concept going, said NorthKey's Lawrence Lindeman.

"The exciting part about the timing of this new funding is that it builds on current steps we have been working on over the last year to better integrate services," said Lindeman, the agency's Child & Family director.

Three-year grant will let NorthKey add staff

The million-dollar grant not only will assist the effort to getting kids to proper caregivers but will help ensure NorthKey can provide them with dual care for substance abuse and mental health.

NorthKey served 175 clients under 18 with juvenile justice referrals in 2012, records show. The cases are only those documented as court referrals and don't' reflect what Lindeman said are more such clients not on record.

Campbell was one of two counties statewide — the other was rural Whitley — that received the Kentucky Adolescent Treatment Enhancement and Dissemination grant.

NorthKey will use some grant money to pay for treatment costs for teens who do not have adequate insurance coverage. Some money will go to new staffing for the court-referred adolescents, Lindeman said.

One of the new positions will be a youth support specialist from the Brighton Center. The specialist will go to children's homes and help them with coping or behavioral skills, substance-abuse issues, study habits, relationships and more, said Wonda Winkler, vice president of the Brighton Center in Newport.

NorthKey also will add clinical staff and training to focus on the needs of the growing number of teens who need care outside the juvenile justice system, Lindeman said.

'Making all the difference'

The core team for the status offender project has met regularly since July.

A Cabinet for Health and Family Services report says the effort is realigning kids to appropriate services.

Judge Thomas said she couldn't be happier about the results she's seeing: "It's making all the difference in the world."