Testimony of R. Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director
Good morning Committee Chairman Graham, and members of the Committee on Human Services. My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today at the performance oversight hearing for the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS).
The work that DYRS does in providing services to committed youth is crucial for helping kids get back on track to becoming successful adults. There are three key topics I would like to address today that are critical to sustaining the positive evolution of DYRS: 1) the continued improvement of DC YouthLink; 2) a continued focus on realignment; 3) and a continued commitment to improving in other areas.
The Improvement of DC YouthLink
As it moves into its fifth year, DC YouthLink needs careful management to ensure its continued improvement. YouthLink broadly is achieving its goals of providing wraparound services to youth in the community, improving public safety, and promoting community development. However, to take YouthLink to the next level and fully utilize the potential of the model, the execution of YouthLink’s day-to-day operations must be improved in a number of areas.
Ensuring Needs-Based Individualized Service Plans
First and foremost, DC YouthLink needs to be more intentional about creating and implementing needs-based individualized service plans. The key component of successful community-based services models is that each youth receives services that are tailored to his or her unique individual needs and enable the youth to build on his or her existing strengths and interests. Unfortunately, based on our experience representing committed youth and based on the available data, it appears that many of the service plans being created now are neither needs-based nor individualized.
Currently, too many service plans are not needs based as the core needs of youth are rarely identified because superficial service needs are often confused for deeper core needs. Let me explain. Too often, when creating service plans, we ask ourselves the question: Where are the gaps? The answer to this question is usually: school attendance, a constant positive role model in the youth’s life, and a source of income or training for future employment. This explains why 49% of the funds DC YouthLink spent in fiscal year 2013 went to two service areas. – mentoring and job training.
In reality, the real questions that we should be asking ourselves run much deeper than just service gaps. The questions should be more along the lines of what needs should we address so that the youth can be successful in school? In other words, to succeed in school, does the youth need to feel safe? Supported? Does the youth need additional services? An IEP? A service plan should then be created around addressing these deeper needs, rather than just stating that the youth needs an education.
Improving the Youth Family Team Meeting Process
Relatedly, the process for conducting Youth Family Team Meetings, at which service plans are created, needs to be improved. The YFTM facilitator needs better training regarding identifying youths’ needs and DYRS needs to find a way to invest the time to properly conduct discharge YFTMs and 90-day YFTMs. This includes sufficient time preparing for the YFTM, which, we would suggest requires facilitators to coordinate with the youth to ensure that all of the parties that the youth wants present at the YFTM are contacted and invited to the meeting.
Youth and families need to be at the center of this process, but too often are not included. A key component of rehabilitating our young people who are committed to DYRS is the involvement of their families in the development and implementation of their individualized service plans. While most youth reported that their families participated in the creation of individual development plans, lower percentages reported that their family knew what DYRS expected from them and that their families were informed of their progress while at DYRS. Additionally, slightly more than half reported that DYRS explained to their families what was going to happen to them after arriving at DYRS. While the agency has made great strides in this area and these numbers seem to be improving, we want to note that family involvement must remain central to this critical component of developing future service plans for young people in DYRS’ care.
Third, attorneys of record also need to be included in the YFTM process. Often times, attorneys have known the youth longer than anyone else around the table other than the youth’s family and are able to convey young people’s wants and needs to the other stakeholders participating in this process. In our experience, attorneys’ presence at YFTMs has helped facilitate the development of service plans. DYRS needs to work much harder to facilitate the presence of the attorney of record at all planning meetings and YFTMs.
Clarifying and Expanding the Role of the Care Coordinator and Lead Entity
DYRS needs to ensure that the lead entities and service providers each fully understand their roles in the system and that their efforts are well coordinated. Additionally, the role of care coordinator must be expanded. Currently, it appears that care coordinators typically are focused on just coordinating services through the official YouthLink service providers. They should also be looking at coordinating available services through other DC agencies – such as DBH, DCPS, and PCSB – and informal service connections. They should be helping youth and families not only navigate YouthLink specifically, but also to navigate through the bureaucracy of the other government agencies through which they might receive beneficial services.
Expanding the Scope of DC YouthLink
Relatedly, YouthLink must look at expanding the scope of its service continuum and examine the possibility of partnering with other agencies to pursue some form of blended funding. As I mentioned earlier in my testimony, creating needs-based, individualized service plans for young people requires a wide array of possible services. DYRS is limited in scope by the number of young people in DC YouthLink (where as jurisdictions like Milwaukee and Wayne County have higher numbers of young people receiving services in the community). Notwithstanding that however, we believe that DC YouthLink could expand its ability to meet the individual and varying needs of youth by partnering with other District agencies. For example, DYRS could pursue blended funding with the Department of Behavioral Health to provide a different assortment of mental health and therapeutic services. In fact, it would be beneficial to youth if mental health providers were either a formal member of the services coalition or a formal partner of DC YouthLink. At its core, our suggestion for expanding the scope of DC YouthLink is that idea that young people have individual strength and needs which, if met by the proper mix of services, will benefit and contribute to their development and will help them transition out of DYRS supervision and into a productive young adult life.
A Continued Focus on Realignment
DYRS has done an amazing job where realignment is concerned. By realignment I refer to the process of moving DC youth and District dollars from out-of-state back to the District. DYRS and the Council should be focused on shifting youth and money from out-of-state placements to meaningful and effective investments in DC youth, families, and communities.
I have appeared many times before this committee to talk about the high price of out-of-state residential treatment facilities, whether or not they are effective for our young people, and how to reinvest those resources locally. Such placements are costly and separate committed youth from their families in the District. In its budget oversight testimony last year, DYRS rightly identified continued reductions in the number of out-of-state placements as a goal for the last fiscal year. I do believe that DYRS is doing an excellent job in this area. For example, in January 2012, 187 young people were placed out of state. By March 2013, that number had fallen all the way to 85 youth and in January 2014, there were only 75 young people housed in out-of-state residential treatment facilities. We are encouraged by this progress and urge DYRS to continue to work to limit the use housing our youth in out-of-state facilities.
This committee should be not just pay attention to the notable reduction in these types of placements. It is critical that the resources previously allocated to them and the cost-savings recognized from reducing out of state placements be reinvested in the District’s continuum of community based service providers. Earlier in my testimony, I called for DYRS to expand the variety of services available to young people in DC YouthLink; the costs saved through the reduction of extremely expensive out-of-state placements could fund much of this service provision expansion. The benefits to this realignment are numerous; it allows young people to have individualized service plans that are more tailored to their strengths and needs and therefore more likely to be set them up for success. This reinvestment can also expand the number of community-based organizations available to serve DC youth, both those connected to DYRS and those who are not.
A Continued Commitment to Improvement in Other Areas
Mr. Chairman, we are also heartened by DYRS continued improvement in the area of transparency and measuring success. We encourage the agency to continue to release regular reports on its performance and to find ways to include the public in their successes. We are pleased that the rate of recidivism and abscondence has dropped in the last few years. These numbers have always been a focus of the oversight of DYRS and we commend the agency for focusing on reducing these important measures of success. Additionally, using multiple measures for measuring effectiveness and success of DYRS interventions will help the committee and the Agency track and report on their performance and measure the growth and success of individual youth. Measuring public safety, personal growth, and life outcomes is critical to determining whether we are effectively serving our youth and to communicating and celebrating their successes at DYRS.
In closing, I appreciate the work that the Council is doing to that committed youth receive the services they need to become successful adults. We look forward to working with stakeholders to continue to improve the functioning of our youth justice system. Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify today. I am available to answer questions you may have.
 Performance Oversight Responses 2014, Attachment 11 –Conducting An Assessment Of Family Engagement At The Department Of Youth Rehabilitation Services: A Final Report To DYRS (Vera Institute of Justice, Figure 13).
 Performance Oversight Responses 2014, Attachment 10 – Service Providers (Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, 2014).
 Performance Oversight Responses 2014, Attachment 11-- Conducting An Assessment Of Family Engagement At The Department Of Youth Rehabilitation Services: A Final Report To DYRS (Vera Institute of Justice), Figure 10
 Neil A. Stanley, “Testimony of Neil A. Stanley, Director, Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services” (presented at the Budget Oversight Hearing, Committee on Human Services, Washington, DC, April 15, 2013), 5, http://dyrs.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dyrs/release_content/attachments/FY14-NAS-budgettestimony-for4-15-13.pdf.