Committee on the Whole, Public Hearing on B19-0211

Testimony of Eduardo Ferrer, Chief Operating Officer, DC Lawyers for Youth

Good Afternoon Chairman Brown and Councilmembers. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on Bill 19-0211. My name is Eduardo Ferrer and I am the Chief Operating Officer of DC Lawyers for Youth and a homeowner in Ward 1. I am here today to express my support for the youth behavioral health portions of Bill 19-2011; urge the Council to change the truancy prevention portion of the Bill to rely on school-based, evidence-based truancy prevention practices in lieu of earlier court referral; and offer assistance in creating and improving the tool kits and resource guides available to District Parents.

Behavioral Health Screening & Services

First and foremost, I would like to commend Councilmember Catania for bringing attention through the introduction of this bill to the need for improved behavioral health screening and services for the youth of our city. Among our core values at DCLY is the belief that one of the best ways to improve the DC juvenile justice system is to invest in youth early so that they do not become court-involved in the first place. As we all know, our city’s chronically truant youth typically come from disadvantaged neighborhoods and families where they have lived in poverty, witnessed violence, often been the victims of violence, and experienced various types of trauma. While I am constantly surprised by the resiliency of our youth, the trauma our most disadvantaged youth experience from a young age leaves scars and wounds that need to be healed. I encourage the Council to pass the provisions of Bill 19-2011 requiring that behavioral health screenings and services be provided through the school system, and urge the council to ensure that the behavioral health screenings and services implemented pursuant to the Bill be evidence-based, fully funded, and vigilantly monitored to ensure that are actually and effectively provided to our youth.

Truancy Prevention

Second, while DCLY supports the provision of evidence-based behavioral health screening and services to youth through the schools prior to court-involvement, we urge the DC Council to consider adopting a rigorously-tested, evidence-based truancy prevention program through the schools to reduce truancy instead of simply more quickly referring truant youth to the Court.

As introduced, Bill 19-2011 essentially proposes two different truancy interventions – a truancy conference at five unexcused absences and referral to the court at seven unexcused absences within a 30-day period (four for students who have previously been referred to the Courts for truancy) or ten unexcused absences over an academic year (seven for students who have previously been referred). The purported goal of this proposed intervention scheme is to reduce truancy.

However, there currently is little to no evidence demonstrating that such a scheme, which relies heavily on court referrals, will have the desired truancy reduction outcomes we all want.[1]Currently, it appears that there is a dearth of rigorous, quality evaluations of court-based interventions.[2] As a result of this lack of analysis, the Washington State Institute of Public Policy (WSIPP) conducted an analysis of its own state’s truancy petition process in order to study whether such court-based interventions had positive effects. Unfortunately, despite rigorous statistical analysis, WSIPP could not confirm whether the court-based intervention had any effect – positive or otherwise – on student outcomes.[3] However, the analysis did find that students receiving petitions had higher drop-out rates, lower on-time graduation rates, lower rates of graduation or GED completion, and more criminal justice involvement.

As a result, instead of rushing to refer youth to court at seven or ten unexcused absences when court-based interventions have not proven to cause truancy reduction, the Council should focus on implementing evidence-based truancy reduction programs in the schools just as it is recommending evidence-based behavioral health programs in the school. For truancy, the “off the shelf” evidence-based practice that seems to have had the most significant effect on truancy reduction and drop out reduction is the Check and Connect model.[4]The model focuses on mentorship, monitoring, intervention, and home and school communication in order to reconnect youth with their schools and resolve the issues underlying the student’s chronic truancy.[5]

I want to make clear – we favor early intervention for truancy, just not through referral to the courts. We support a truancy conference at five unexcused absences, but recommend that a youth be referred to a school-based, evidence-based program like Check & Connect at seven to ten unexcused absences instead of referring youth directly to court at this stage. If the school-based, evidence-based intervention does not work at seven to ten absences, the youth can still be referred to the court at twenty to twenty-five unexcused absences.

Family Resources

This bill directs the creation of a resource guide for families who end up in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems. Last year we released the first edition of our DCLY Parent Handbook (provided), copies of which we provide on[6]and off line free of charge. We created this handbook because we heard from a number of the parents with whom we worked that they had tried to get services for their child but either did not know where to go for services, did not understand how to navigate a particular system to get services, or were told that no services were available unless the youth ended up in the juvenile justice system. We applaud the drafters of Bill 19-2011 for thinking of ways to empower parents and families, offer our support in creating such a family resource guide, and offer our current Parent Handbook as a resource in the meantime.

Closing Remarks

In closing, we support and encourage the Committee’s attempt to better equip school officials and families to deal with behavioral health and truancy issues. We hope that everyone will be committed to the new policies, programs and services. We also look forward to continued work with the Committee to ensure the realization of its vision. Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I am available to answer questions.

Key Recommendations

  1. Maintain the language requiring a truancy conference at five unexcused absences
  2. Strike the provisions of the Bill that provide for referral to the Court and instead require referral to a school-based, evidence-based truancy reduction program (like Check and Connect)
  3. Add provisions to the Bill requiring referral to the Court for twenty-five unexcused absences (twenty if the subject of a previous petition) in one academic year

[1]See “What Works? Targeted Truancy and Dropout Programs in Middle and High School,” Washington State Institute for Public Policy, June 2009.

[2]See id.

[3]See “Washington’s Truancy Laws: Does the Petition Process Influence School and Crime Outcomes?” Washington State Institute for Public Policy, February 2010.

[4]See U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences' What Works Clearinghouse, “Intervention: Check & Connect” September 2006; “What Works? Targeted Truancy and Dropout Programs in Middle and High School,” Washington State Institute for Public Policy, June 2009.

[5]“Check & Connect is implemented by a person referred to as a mentor. The person is a cross between a mentor, an advocate, and a service coordinator whose primary goal is to keep education a salient issue for disengaged students and their teachers and family members. The mentor works with a caseload of students and families over time (for at least two years) and follows them from program to program and school to school. Check & Connect is structured to maximize personal contact and opportunities to build trusting relationships. Student levels of engagement (such as attendance, grades, and suspensions) are “checked” regularly and used to guide the mentors’ efforts to increase and maintain students’ “connection” with school.” See

[6]Download a free, printable copy of our DC Lawyers for Youth Parent Handbook.