Operation Youth Success

by Melissa Oomer, Associate Director, FSG 

In 2014, a group of leaders in Douglas County, Nebraska recognized the urgency and opportunity to transform its juvenile justice system. The County’s juvenile arrest rate was ~50% greater than the national rate and too many arrests disproportionately represented black youth and a handful of neighborhoods. At the same time, there were many assets to build on, including the 200 service providers and community organizations that served youth, the successful development of alternatives to detention, the strong track record of the diversion program and most importantly, agreement among system professionals, community organizations, and community members that collectively they could do better for the County’s youth.

In this context, Operation Youth Success was born. It brought together stakeholders to determine what aspects of juvenile justice in Douglas County needed to change and how that change will happen. Conversations with over 200 community stakeholders led to the following shared vision and goal:

Across Douglas County, our vision is a comprehensive, coordinated, and community-wide approach to juvenile services that eliminates the need for youth involvement with our justice system while maintaining public safety.

For all youth who do enter our justice system, our goals are to provide effective, compassionate and individualized support that empowers youth and their families to succeed and to build an environment of mutual trust and accountability.

A year into Operation Youth Success, Douglas County has not solved all the challenges it faces with respect to juvenile justice. But the stakeholders share a sense of hopeful optimism and are beginning to work together differently. How did Douglas County take these steps on the journey to success?

Douglas County adopted the model of collective impact – the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem at scale.

This meant that answers did not come from the customary group of people determining prescribed solutions behind closed doors, but rather from extensively engaging the community in co-creating the solutions to transform the juvenile justice system. Community engagement involved interviewing diverse stakeholders, conducting focus groups, and hosting town hall meetings to get feedback on proposed next steps. Alongside and informed by community engagement, the following structures were developed to collaborate in new ways:

  • A steering committee, comprised of ~20 volunteers who represent key decision-makers, responsible for ensuring the effort moves forward and that changes are implemented.
  • A common agenda that was formally adopted by all stakeholders which describes the baseline situation, the goals, the strategies and a common set of values.
  • A youth council called the “Juvenile Justice League”, comprised of currently or formerly system-involved youth providing input based on their first-hand experiences.
  • Agreement on six priority action areas that included empowering families, prevention, the intersection of the education and juvenile justice systems, case processing, data, and policy.
  • Working groups comprised of 20-30 volunteers deciding what changes to make based on community feedback and their experience – and how that change will happen.
  • A backbone organization, which is a neutral body that supports the partners involved in Operation Youth Success and is funded by a public-private partnership.

The intentionality of these structures, community engagement, and common agenda allowed stakeholders to set a strong foundation for this transformation effort. Next, the effort focused on how to get stakeholders to work together differently to achieve change. Several approaches were used to keep stakeholders at the table, including:

  • Strong meeting facilitation, which allowed diverse opinions to be voiced while keeping the group focused on a shared objective.
  • An atmosphere of trust, which allowed stakeholders to build strong relationships with others beyond those they worked with on a day to day basis. These relationships led to stakeholders overcoming long-standing disconnects in the system – which in turn will improve the system for youth and families.
  • A sense of accomplishment in the short term. With the two elements above, the groups were able to identify some quick wins paired with longer term strategies, keeping people engaged in both immediate and longer term progress.

Operation Youth Success still has a long way to go in transforming the juvenile justice system in Douglas County. But this strong foundation and the committed engagement of stakeholders will ensure that its ultimate goal is achieved.