Community-based diversion programs are most beneficial for kids with severe behavioral problems

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Experts say focusing on something positive is better than traditional detention programs

A new study conducted by researchers from Case Western Reserve University explored how young people with behavioral and mental health concerns can benefit from a different approach. 

While kids with severe behavioral issues are often placed in state detention programs, the researchers looked at how things changed when kids were instead enrolled in the Ohio Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice Initiative (BHJJ). As an alternative to traditional detention programs, this community-based program gives young people the chance to contribute something positive to their local areas while working through behavioral, mental health, and substance abuse issues

“The majority of justice-involved youth have a history of mental health and/or substance-use issues, and have experienced a great deal of trauma,” said researcher Jeff Kretschmar. “However, local jurisdictions are often ill-equipped to accurately assess youth for behavioral health problems and provide appropriate treatment. Ohio’s Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice Initiative was intended to transform and expand the local systems’ options to better serve these youths.” 

Promoting better behavioral and health outcomes

For the study, the researchers analyzed behavioral and health outcomes for kids between the ages of 10 and 17 who were enrolled in the BHJJ. Since 2006, over 5,300 kids have participated in the BHJJ -- and the experts have noticed significant improvements in kids who complete the program in recent years. 

Between 2017 and 2019, more than 80 percent of the kids enrolled in BHJJ completed the program, and those that did also excelled in several other areas. The researchers found that school suspensions and expulsions decreased by 50 percent, and misdemeanor charges dropped by more than 50 percent. Additionally, nearly 80 percent of the kids who completed the program were less likely to have dealings with the police. 

The kids also saw improvements to their mental health and overall functioning after completing the program. The researchers found that there were fewer trauma-related symptoms reported, and the kids were less likely to be using substances like drugs or alcohol. 

The BHJJ, and other community-based diversion programs, are important for several reasons, but not least of which is that they evaluate kids comprehensively. At the start of the program, health care professionals perform intake assessments to ensure that the treatment program is best suited to the child’s needs. 

Moving forward, the researchers hope that more programs like BHJJ become the norm for kids who are struggling with behavioral and mental health issues. The benefits are extensive and could make significant long-term changes in young people’s lives. 

“The breadth of the data provides us with an opportunity to examine outcomes for youth in BHJJ from a variety of angles and provide practitioners with enough information to match programming with behavioral health needs,” said researcher Frederick Butcher. 

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