Child in trouble? Parents have options

First-time juvenile offenders — and those in danger of offending — have access to programs to help them stay out of court and stay clean

Diversion programs, designed to hold youth accountable for disruptive behaviors while also addressing the root causes, may be the most underutilized resource for first-time juvenile offenders in New Hampshire.

“Many parents and caregivers do not realize this is an option for a child who has committed a first-time offense,” said Nicole Rodler, board chair of the NH Juvenile Court Diversion Network, which administers the programs statewide.

These programs are also effective. According to a recent study of 444 youth who went through a diversion program, 78 percent were arrest-free one year later with 58 percent arrest-free after three years.

“Diversion is effective if provided after a first incident — not after a habit of risky or delinquent behavior has been developed,” said Rodler, who also serves as Rochester Police Department Juvenile Court Diversion Coordinator.

There are 21 accredited juvenile court diversion programs in New Hampshire, which serve upward of 700 youth per year arrested for a first-time offense.

Rodler said parents and caregivers have the right to ask for diversion for their child if he or she is a first-time offender. In fact, diversion programs are mandated by the state of New Hampshire under RSA 169-B:10.

“Parents are encouraged to advocate for their youth and ask for a pre-court diversion option as soon as they receive notice they are being charged,” she said.

Susan Ashley, Judge, 7th Circuit Court-Rochester Family Division, is a strong advocate for diversion, which she said keeps juveniles out of court and free of a juvenile record. She said diversion also “provides benefits for both the youth and community.”

“Diversion programs are able to explore the strengths and weaknesses of each youth, including family connections, and, therefore, are able to tailor the consequences for these youth,” she said. “Having young people address community members, either through a diversion panel, or letters of apology, or restitution or community service, can strengthen their connection to their community and diminish the likelihood of re-offending.”

Accountability is a big component of diversion, which she said promotes acceptance of responsibility, according to Ashley.

“Youth learn how their behaviors impacted individuals and the community and how they can avoid such behaviors in the future,” she added.

How diversion works

Youth referred to accredited diversion programs can expect to:

• Participate in an assessment to identify areas of strength and those that require assistance and screening to assess for mental health or substance misuse concerns;

• Include their parent or guardian in discussions about their well-being;

• Meet with a panel of volunteers (some of whom may be teens) or staff members to discuss their case and develop a contract or written agreement;

• Spend approximately three to six months working on goals outlined in their contract/agreement; and

• Attend educational classes or workshops included in the contract along with participating in community service and/or paying restitution.

Youth who successfully complete the program can expect to have their case closed without a juvenile court conviction provided no further offenses have been committed.

For past Rochester program participant Dillon Guyer, who is now 26 years old and a resident of Portland, Maine, the benefits of diversion extend well beyond that of a clean record.

“It taught me how to hold myself accountable for actions while also moving forward in a positive manner,” he said. “Today, that still holds valid, and I maintain a positive precedent within myself. Knowing how to admit faults, take responsibility and possess the power to create the outcomes I desired was a direct result of this program.”

For him, his entry point into diversion was due to drug use and abusing ecstasy, alcohol, marijuana, prescription pills and other substances.

“The program opened my eyes to the devastating effects substance abuse and bad mental health can have on a person and their loved ones,” he esaid. “The stigma associated with it not only consumes the one addicted, it consumes those willing to help.”

Such learning outcomes, said Meme Wheeler, executive director of The Chase Home, which began its diversion program in Portsmouth in 2016, only result from programs like diversion as opposed to traditional punitive measures.

“If we can help it, we want youth to stay out of the Juvenile Justice System,” she said. “It’s not where they need to be, especially if we want to help them understand how they got to where they are and how to make better decisions moving forward.”

Different kinds of diversion

In addition to diverting first-time youth offenders with a delinquency charge, some diversion programs provide services that are grounded in prevention, which Rodler referred to as little “d.”

“Little ‘d’ diversion is conducted in a similar manner to what we call big ‘D,’ but it can be provided to any youth that is identified as at-risk and without a delinquency charge attached,” she said.

“RSA 169B:10 promotes big “D,” which is where youth has a delinquency charge, but research points to both kinds of diversion as effective.”

At The Chase Home, both little “d” and big “D” diversion services are available to youth.

“We felt it was important to offer both services,” said Wheeler. “The earlier we can ‘intervene’ or ‘divert,’ the better the long-term life outcomes.”

The takeaway

For Guyer, who now owns his own travel agency, the takeaway for him regarding diversion is that parents and caregivers should take an active role in their children’s lives.

“Being involved with your child’s everyday life is the best way to prevent and be proactive about these negative decisions,” he said. “Talk to your children about difficult subjects, be that safe zone for them if they need to talk to you…The more information we directly provide in a positive situation, the less they will go seek it in an uncontrolled outlet.”

For youth in trouble or on the proverbial precipice, Rodler said she wants parents and caregivers to know that NH Juvenile Court Diversion Network is available to provide assistance.

“We can help you find a program that offers little ‘d’ or big ‘D’ diversion services,” she said. “We want every parent out there to know about diversion and know we are here to help.”

To learn more about diversion, or the NH Juvenile Court Diversion Network, visit www.nhcourtdiversion.org. Rodler may also be reached at nicole.rodler@rochesternh.net.

Longtime contributor Rob Levey is president of the board of the Chase Home for Children in Portsmouth. Rob never strays too far from his roots as a freelance writer and has a special interest in writing about education and mental health.

Categories: Behavior and Learning, Teens

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