Public Hearing before the Committee on Human Services on the Performance of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services

Testimony of R. Daniel Okonkwo
Executive Director, DC Lawyers for Youth
Committee on the Human Services Performance Oversight Hearing for
     the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services
Wednesday March 1, 2017
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC

Good afternoon Chairwoman Nadeau and Councilmembers.  My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth. DCLY is a non-profit action tank focused on using data, research, evidence, and our experience representing youth to improve DC’s juvenile justice system.  Together with our allies who include juvenile justice advocates, defense attorneys, post-adjudication counsel, education attorneys and community-based service providers we are working to make the District’s juvenile justice system the smallest and best system. By the “smallest” I mean that the system should be reserved for only those young people for whom it is absolutely necessary and the “best” means that we want our young people to touch the system once and that is it—that they will have positive outcomes after coming into contact with the system.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify before your Committee today. 

I would like to begin by recognizing the hard work of the staff, the management team, and the Director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS).  While we do not always or even often agree with the details of the various initiatives that the Department has taken under Director Lacey’s management, all of our work with the agency thus far reaffirm that the agency is data-driven, evidence-based, committed to transparency and community engagement, and deeply dedicated to not just improving the lives of the youth in their care but to doing so in a manner that improves public safety in both the short and long term.  We commend the agency for their efforts and look forward to what we think will be a productive next few years. 

There are four areas to which we believe that this Committee and DYRS should direct its focus for the next twelve to twenty-four months.  The areas are: 1) Reducing overcrowding at the Youth Services Center; 2) Proactively ensuring effective implementation of the Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment Act; 3) Improving community-based programming; and 4) Improving out-of-home community-based placements for detained and committed youth.

Overcrowding at the Youth Services Center

First, overcrowding at the Youth Services Center (YSC) is an urgent problem that needs the immediate attention of all system stakeholders.  Since January 1, 2017, YSC has been at or over its capacity of 88 beds, with its population swelling up as high as 129 youth on February 4, 2017.  The possible reasons for the overcrowding are complex and multi-faceted and many are outside of DYRS’ control.  Are arrests of youth increasing? Are petitions for youth increasing?  Are judges overusing detention?  Are youth being detained longer? Do we not have adequate community-based services and alternatives to detention?  Does DYRS need more shelter home bed or respite care to reduce the number of awaiting shelter care and overnight youth who are detained?  We wish we could tell you the exact reason for the overcrowding, but we cannot with certainty based on the data to which we have access.  However, we can tell you that having an overcrowded facility is dangerous for youth and staff, costly for the District, and counter to the District’s goals of concluding the Jerry M. litigation.  We have three preliminary recommendations to begin to address this issue of overcrowding at YSC:

  1. The Committee should require a comprehensive, independent study of the detention population at the Youth Services Center and DYRS’ contracted shelter homes.  Ideally, such a study would collect data from local agencies – DYRS, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD, and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) – as well as federal parents – Court Social Services (CSS) and the Family Division of DC Superior Court.  The reason we are recommending that the study be conducted by an independent researcher and not a local agency like CJCC is so that the individual or group analyzing the data does not have to consider the possible relationship impacts from drawing conclusions that may be unpopular to one agency or another. 
  2. While CJCC, and thus the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI)[1] that it convenes, are not under the jurisdiction of this Committee, we recommend that this Committee work with the Committee on the Judiciary to better under how JDAI functions in the District and better ensure that JDAI effectively realizes its vision of reducing the District’s overreliance on incarceration.  JDAI should be continuously monitoring the detention population and seeking ways to improve alternatives to detention and reduce the number of youth detained pre-trial. 
  3. This Committee should require DYRS to present a plan and budget prior to the budget oversight hearing for providing respite and transportation for youth who are being detained overnight but would otherwise be released.  Overnight youth[2] are often detained in jail solely because a parent cannot be reached or because the parent cannot come to YSC to pick up the youth.  It is unacceptable that youth are spending a night in jail – often with their cases being no papered the following day – because a parent does not have a phone or cannot get to YSC.  Such a plan for removing these youth from YSC will assist in reducing the overcrowding at YSC. 

Implementation of the Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment Act of 2016    

Second, DYRS should be focused on proactive and effective implementation of the provisions of the Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment Act of 2016, which is expected to take effect on April 12, 2017.  While there are a number of provisions that require DYRS action, three standout to us as being among the most urgent: 1) The transfer of custody of the Title XVI youth from DOC to DYRS as of October 1, 2018; 2) Eliminating the use of solitary confinement; and 3) The prohibition on the secure detention of status offenders.  With proper planning and execution, all of these areas present an opportunity for DYRS to substantially improve the agency itself, public safety overall, and the lives of individual court-involved youth.

While October 1, 2018 seems a while away, youth advocates have been fighting for at least the last ten years to improve the conditions of confinement for youth who are tried as adults to little success.  As we highlighted in our testimony at the recent DOC oversight hearing,[3] the physical plant at the current Title XVI unit is wholly inadequate for its purposes; effective programming (including education and mental health services) is virtually non-existent; in person visits with family are very limited; and the staff is inadequately trained.  And to be honest, this is all despite the fact that the unit is probably functioning the best that it has in the last ten years.  Setting aside the fact that an adult jail is no place for kids, if DYRS plans to assume the management of this physical space to effectuate the transfer of custody, DYRS has an uphill battle to ensuring that this unit meets the high standards we have come to expect from the Youth Services Center and New Beginnings.  As a result, DYRS needs to start planning now for the transition and needs to budget money in the FY18 budget to prepare for the transition.  This cannot be left to the last minute.  Indeed, the time between now and October 2018 presents an incredible opportunity to be intentional, deliberative, strategic, and innovative about the changes we as a District would like to see made to the Title XVI unit.  We recommend that the Committee require a timeline from DYRS regarding when it will have a finalized plan for the transfer of custody and how much it needs for next year’s budget specifically to aid an effective transition of custody.

While we all know about the great harm that youth suffer from being subjected to solitary confinement, eliminating its use is about more than just locking kids in rooms – its about moving to a more effective, trauma-responsive culture.  As a result, the passage of this provision in the CYJAA provides DYRS with an opportunity to further improve the culture at the agency through the adoption of more effective alternatives to solitary confinement – like restorative justice – that will pay off dividends not just in terms of making the facilities safer overall, but also in building greater youth buy in.  That is, so long as restorative justice is adopted as a philosophy and implemented with fidelity.  Often times, when restorative justice is implemented, schools or community groups borrow some of the practices for select occasions, but do not fully adopt the overall philosophy or weave the practices throughout every thing that they do.  Applied to this particular instance, we would caution DYRS not just to use the practices (i.e., not just use mediation as an alternative to solitary confinement), but instead to weave the philosophy and the practices throughout the entire agency.  This would mean a commitment to holding frequent and regular dialogue circles in the facilities, in shelter and group homes, and in the community to build rapport with the youth in its care.  This would mean training for all of DYRS staff and all of its contractors to ensure that they are well versed in the philosophy and practices.  This also means retaining high quality trainers and TA providers who are regularly checking in to make sure that restorative justice is being implemented with fidelity.  We recommend that DYRS develop a clear plan and clear policies to ensure that restorative justice is fully and faithfully implemented throughout all aspects of the agency. 

Prohibiting the secure detention of status offenders not only aligns with the research regarding what works, but also has a broad base support nationally, including by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.[4]  One of the reasons why it has such a broad base of support is the recognition that the availability of detention means that the programs and services that would actually address the root causes of why the youth is truant or running away from home.  We must take advantage of this moment to improve our juvenile justice system.   While the burden to offer or scale up new programming in order to address these root causes does not fall solely on DYRS, the most important role DYRS can play is to cultivate evidence-based out-of-home alternatives to secure detention where youth can be placed.  Essentially, our recommendation is not to recreate the traditional shelter home model for status offenders, but instead to add a host of high quality, truly therapeutic foster care homes that borrow principles and key components from the Multi-dimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC) model.[5]  These homes will better serve the needs of the youth coming through the status offense system than either of the currently used options (i.e., YSC or traditional shelter homes).     

Improving community-based services

Over the next 18 months, creating a truly effective continuum of collaborative community-based programming must be a priority.  While there have been a number of starts, stops, and different iterations of DC YouthLink over the last 8 years, we are still not serving youth as effectively as we should be in the community.  Based on our experience representing committed youth, a key barrier to achieving an ideal continuum has been the lack of a robust cross-sector collaboration between DYRS and other District agencies.  Going forward, we would recommend greater collaboration with DBH and the core services agencies, the Department of Employment Services, DC’s housing and development agencies, and DCPS and public charter schools. 

Additionally, we have high hopes regarding DYRS’ Credible Messenger initiative as an important tool in the continuum of community based services.  However, we still have a number of practical questions regarding the Credible Messenger initiative based on our experience representing committed youth.  In particular, we have questions regarding the role, accountability structure, assignment process, caseload, and goals of the Credible Messengers.  Again, while we fully support the initiative, we would like more clarity and intentionality regarding its use. 

Improving out-of-home community-based housing

Over the next 6 to 12 months, the District should make a push to significantly improve its continuum of out-of-home community based placements.  Earlier, we mentioned the need to expand our continuum of pre-trial out-of-home community-based housing to include therapeutic foster homes based on the MTFC model for pre-disposition status offenders who would otherwise be ordered to shelter homes.  In addition to adding these short-term homes for pre-disposition youth, we recommend that DYRS also add a number of actual MTFC homes for committed youth. 

Additionally, DYRS needs to work on both improving its existing shelter and group homes and better integrating them into its overall philosophy and policies.  First and foremost, there is very little that is therapeutic about most shelter and group homes.  While particular staff members at particular shelter homes and group homes are fantastic, there is much that can be improved in terms of being trauma-responsive.  Second, there is little consistency or integration between DYRS-run facilities and the shelter and group homes.  For instance, while DYRS has shown commitment to implementing restorative justice in its facilities, we have seen no indication that the shelter homes and group homes will be implementing restorative justice as well.  Additionally, while New Beginnings has a level-program that provides set expectations for youth who go through the program, the group homes have no equivalent.  Instead, youth are often placed at group homes for an indefinite period of time.  Third, both the shelter and group homes have substantial language access issues.  Few staff speak Spanish and make little effort to provide translators.  This often leads to miscommunication and frustration among the Spanish-speaking youth who are placed in the facilities.  Fourth, and unfortunately we see this a lot, but youth often have their clothes stolen while at shelter and group homes. Needless to say, this is wholly unacceptable.  We recommend that DYRS conduct a full, detailed evaluation of its shelter and group homes with an eye toward created more standardization and more integration with the goal of significantly improving those home with whom they contract. 

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify.  I am available to answer any questions. 

[1] The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative is an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation that seeks to help jurisdictions decrease their over-reliance on the pre-trial incarceration of youth.  See

[2] According to DYRS, overnight youth “are brought in to YSC prior to an initial court appointment but are released the next morning when court opens.  Youth brought in on Saturdays or prior to a holiday can have 2 day stays and remain classified as overnight youth.”  See

[3] Testimony of R. Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director, DC Lawyers for Youth, Performance Oversight Hearing for the Department of Corrections, Committee on the Judiciary, Feb. 13, 2017, at

[5] A profile of Multi-Dimensional Treatment Foster Care can be found at:  As these homes would be used for shorter-term stays prior to disposition, the strict MTFC model itself – which typically lasts 6 to 9 months – is not wholly appropriate for this stage of the system. Nevertheless, the key components of the intervention are instructive and should guide the creation of these homes.  It is particularly important that such therapeutic foster homes be developed as an alternative to detention for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC).

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