A House Divided: When Juvenile Drug Courts Do Not Operate Under a Unified Mission

Written by Logan Yelderman

When talking to several juvenile drug court (JDC) teams about specific qualities and characteristics of JDC team members, a common response is that the team members truly care about the youth. This is consistent with the general JDC mission, which is to care about JDC youth and their well-being. In fact, caring about youth is fundamental to virtually every JDC. However, the ways JDCs can show that they care about the youth varies dramatically across juvenile drug court programs and sometimes among team members. In the Juvenile Drug Courts: Strategies in Practice Monograph, the second strategy (of the proposed 16 Strategies), teamwork, emphasizes the need to develop a mission under which the juvenile drug court team operates. This mission provides a standard for each team member to work from and acts as a framework for creating program components, policies, interventions, and team members’ roles and responsibilities. Although the term mission is often used, this can refer to a court’s vision or to specific goals set by each JDC team according to their self-defined purpose and needs of the youth in their community.

JDC mission statements are developed and created to unify all JDC practices and team members according to an explicitly outlined purpose for that particular court and community. Thus, when JDCs deviate from their mission statement or when JDC team members begin operating under their own individual missions, JDCs can become ineffective and policies/practices can be potentially detrimental to the youth. Several outcomes of this can include: disengaged team members, competing interests among team members, polarized opinions of team members, JDC teams operating independent of judges, policy and program contradictions and inconsistencies, unpredictability and uncertainty in program components, and the neglect of youth and youths’ families (among other things). In these cases, if identifiable, it would behoove JDC teams to revisit both their JDC mission statement and their program structure. Typically courts have policy and procedures manuals that include their mission statement, which can help team members re-address the purpose of their positions and the JDC overall.

If your court is not operating under a unified mission, your court might be committing one of the 7 deadly sins!

Short-Term Solution:

Designate part or all of a JDC team meeting to reviewing the JDC mission and goals for both the youth and the court. This will help team members re-align their personal practices with the goals of the overall JDC program.

Long-Term Solution:

Re-structure any and all components of the JDC program under the guidance of the JDC mission. It might first be wise to review the mission and make sure it still applies to the current context of the juvenile drug court program (e.g., some JDCs have recently developed co-occurring disorders policies/programs and the mission should be re-defined to account for these changes). This can include re-defining team members’ roles and responsibilities, approaches to incentives and sanctions, the incorporation of new or different treatment, and the inclusion of youths’ family.