Is Nonprofit Advocacy Gone Awry to Blame for Over-incarceration of Arkansas’ Children?

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no entry Vauxhall / David Howard

August 14, 2016; Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

An alarming article by Dick Mendel of the Center for Public Integrity and published in the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange places the regressiveness of the Arkansas Juvenile Justice system at the feet of what he terms “entrenched nonprofits.”

Mendel begins his article by showing that Arkansas has bucked national trends over the first part of the 21st century. From 2000 to 2014, the number of Arkansas juveniles incarcerated increased by 22 percent as the nationwide numbers declined by more than 50 percent—not only nationally, but among the ten states of the former Confederacy.

Juvenile-Confinement

He continues by citing two reports documenting the conditions in the largest of Arkansas’ juvenile correctional facilities and the state’s trend toward jailing children for “status offenses” like skipping school or running away from home.

Mendel asks, “Why is Arkansas apparently moving backwards when many of its peers, including several deep red Southern states, have turned a corner by embracing more humane and evidence-based approaches to juvenile justice?”

The answer, he says, may lie in the outsized influence of Arkansas’ network of nonprofit service providers, which he describes as community-based and widely respected, with a long history of caring for troubled children. Many launched in the 1970s after the Runaway Youth Act made federal funds available for programs to assist wayward youth. They soon banded together to expand their influence, placing politically connected leaders on their boards and forming the Arkansas Youth Service Providers Association. From there, they “negotiated standard contracts with the Division of Youth Services (DYS) to pay them for community-based services, and some opened residential facilities as well. Rather than fight each other for funding, the 13 providers agreed to carve the state into pieces, and each became the sole recipient of DYS contracts in its given territory.”

Mendel writes that while no one accuses the providers of bad intentions, a number of observers say they are obstacles to real reform.

“The providers have become very entrenched,” explains Paul Kelly, who formerly ran a provider agency and was the first director of the providers’ association. “They very seldom have anyone competing with them,” Kelly said, saying also that they have fought “any really meaningful accountability for the impact of their services.”

Ron Angel, who served as DYS director until 2013, said that the providers told him in their first meeting what was what. “They have been here for 30 years. […] They knew what was needed, and there was nothing that could be brought in that would work any better than what they were doing at the time.”

But at the time, DYS was dealing with lawsuits over abusive conditions in its main juvenile facility, and it turns out that 42 percent of the young people incarcerated had committed only misdemeanors. Angel subsequently implemented reforms and the number of young people in state custody fell slightly.

In 2013, Angel and his allies crafted legislation that would have established local Community Youth Services Boards, thus interfering with the insular world of the service providers. According to Mendel, the providers mounted a lobbying campaign against it.

John Furness, executive director of Comprehensive Juvenile Services in Fort Smith, Arkansas, is unapologetic about killing Angel’s proposal. “I saw that as a complete dismantling of the very established provider network that has been in place for many years and does good work,” Furness told [Mendel]. “I thought it was a bad bill, and we spoke out against it.”

Mendel also charges that the provider association blocked attempts to gather data.

When Angel tried to make service providers report details on the services they offered and their results, “you would have thought we had asked for their firstborn child,” Angel recalled. “How can you base your treatment if you don’t have standards where you can measure what’s being successful and what’s not?”

The dynamic, according to Mendel, has resulted in a rapid turnover of DYS directors. Angel was the agency’s ninth new director in 12 years, and the agency has had two more since with the latest one abruptly resigning.

Still, reports Mendel, there is a groundswell of interest in the field from politicians who see the need for change in the numbers. Mendel writes, “If they continue to resist, the providers will likely squander their credibility and lose their cherished place at the heart of the Arkansas system.”—Ruth McCambridge

  • Madelyn Keith

    I want to comment on this story for several reasons:

    I am the director of a community based youth
    service nonprofit provider in Arkansas and have been for 26 years.

    I am a subscriber to the NPQ through my
    membership with our local nonprofit alliance and I have respect for this
    publication.

    I have met Ruth McCambridge many times and have
    heard her speak on numerous occasions. I interviewed her as a source when I
    wrote my graduate school thesis on how a framework of accountability and
    ethical culture impact the governance of nonprofits. To say that I value her
    opinion would be an understatement.

    I want to set the record straight about grossly erroneous information contained in the article written by Mr. Mendel because there is so much wrong in his article, I hardly know where to begin. I realize
    that everyone comes from a different perspective and believes that their perspective is correct. However, the overwhelming lack of balanced perspective in Mr. Mendel’s article from all sides does not fit with the basic concepts that I learned in my undergraduate journalism class or even my high school journalism class. Therefore I am compelled present additional information.

    Since I came to work in youth services in 1990 the primary objective and goal of East Arkansas Youth Services, Inc. has been to prevent as many youth as possible from being committed or recommitted to
    the Division of Youth Services for acts of delinquency using the array of community based services that we provide with the very limited resources available. Further, to intervene in as many cases as we have resources to do so to prevent any further penetration into the juvenile justice and/or child welfare systems and toprovide meaningful and therapeutic supports to these youth and their families
    to assist them in leading productive lives.

    Over this period of time we have adjusted
    to whatever system changes were made in order to be able to continue to work
    with this population including some unfunded mandates: 1) to expand the age
    range of the youth we serve in our aftercare component to include 18-21 year
    olds and 2) to increase the amount and types of data that we collect and input into the MIS in an effort
    to establish benchmarks and measure outcomes and enter this data into a
    statewide system. Further, over the course of the years, the state agency has changed the funding formula, the services areas, the methods of contracting or payment from a unit rate contract, to an
    actual cost contract, back to unit rates and currently to scheduled payments. Each time going through a formal bid process or “Request for Proposals” where anyone could apply for thesecontracts. I used the term contract contextually because these are not open ended contracts but more liken to a“grant in aid” or maximum liability situation where the amount that is drawndown is capped and not based on what is provided or what is spent. So for former DYS employee Mickey Yeager tosay that “providers do whatever they want to do” is so ridiculous that it is laughable if not so disappointing. As a DYS provider my agency has done what the agreement with the State agency says we do and using the method that the
    agreement specifies, not what we want.

    With regard to collecting data for outcomes, the community based providers worked with the State agency of DYS and other stakeholders through an Outcome Measures Committee which was a joint effort, through which we revised, adopted and implemented a tool for frontline staff to collect
    the data and support staff to enter it into the DYS Rite Track MIS. Our agency (EAYS) was already collecting our own data for outcomes as required by our accreditation through The Council on
    Accreditation (a national human services accrediting authority), but because we
    did not have resources to do both, we had to abandoned our internal efforts to accommodate
    the new contract requirements.

    Mickey Yeager actually served on this Outcomes Committee with me so I was stunned to read his comments in Mr. Mendel’s article. I did an e-mail search and found numerous e-mails to and from Mr. Yeager. In one e-mail on Jan 29, 2014 at 2:36 PM, Mr.Yeager wrote to me in an e-mail about a report format that I developed to do a trial run. He said, “I’m excite that we are making progress and using data to gather useful information. Thank you for the form and for your work.” (The then DYS Director Tracy Steele and Scott Tanner, Juvenile Obudsman and Outcomes Committee Member were copied on the e-mail and I can provide it if needed.) Then on May 15, 2014, I received an e-mail from Mr. Yeager that advised that he was leaving DYS. The e-mail reads, “I’ve enjoyed working with you over the past years and I appreciate all you have done with the CPER.” (CPER refers to Client Performance Evaluation Record. The name of which has changed numerous times.) So Mr. Yeager left DYS before full implementation of the new outcomes tool used to collect data on family status, school, court, community, substance abuse and mental health condition of youth served by DYS Community Based Providers at
    intake, discharge and 6 months after discharge to see if they made progress in
    these areas of their lives after receiving services.

    Ron Angel refers to the providers’ protest of another method of collecting data that did not measure outcomes but rather collected monthly information on how many days of school clients missed,
    how many times they went to court, how many disciplinary fractions, etc… Providers did register our complaints about this method and its return based on the investment of time and effort. Also, the fact that it did not provide an outcome measurement was problematic. In a meeting with several legislators
    regarding this method, the former DYS CFO who was over the data management
    system at the time was asked what kind of report could be produced with this
    tool/method. The DYS staff person reported than no report could be produced and that the request for the information from the MIS in report form had completely shut down the system when
    it was asked to produce one. If Mr.Mendel was interested in presenting a true and accurate picture perhaps that former DYS staff person would be willing to talk to him. I don’t know. OR, why
    not talk to some people who actually work for DYS now.

    Again, the efforts of the Providers Association and DYS working together to produce information on client outcomes are well documented as are the limitations of the management information system
    that we are working with. Short of the providers withdrawing from the State
    effort and developing this on our own, I am not sure how we can change this.

    Of all of the misinformation that was
    included in this piece (the full article not published here) I think one of the most offensive to me was the
    allegation that providers are the reason that DYS Directors have left their
    position. Yet, the only former DYS Director that was interviewed was Ron Angel.
    I don’t recall why Mr. Angel left or not sure if I ever really knew, but
    I am sure if Mr. Mendel spoke to Tracy Steele or Marcus Devine or any number of
    other former DYS Directors he would find that is not the case. Further, Mr.
    Mendel referenced an incident in his piece of former director Marcus Devine
    taking heat in the press about his proposal to limit DYS commitments to only
    felons, but he falls short of telling that whole story. It was only a couple of
    days after that incident occurred that it was announced that he was leaving his
    position. No part of this incident was related to youth service providers.

    Then there is the overarching theme that
    Mr. Mendel presents that youth service providers have this incredible political
    power that is preventing reform. (I am not sure that the other nonprofit
    employees, school personnel, business employees, ministers, private attorneys
    and former clients “the constituent’s voice”, who serve or have served
    on our EAYS board over the years would consider themselves to be politically
    influential but committed people who care about this cause.) Never mind that Mendel acknowledges that we have good reputations in the communities and are well respected for our
    efficiency and for being representative of our community that we serve, or for
    advocating and serving youth, or that the network of the organizations provides
    a system of care through which ever county and community in the State is
    covered and provided with services because if a provider wants to be a DYS
    community based provider then the DYS contract requires that all areas in a
    service area are covered. While not all DYS community providers have remained
    the same over the years, this system and continuum of care remains constant. Why is this a bad thing? And further, if youdon’t have one provider or contractor responsible for a service area then how
    do you measure effectiveness or hold anyone accountable for effecting
    commitments to DYS? Why should Youth Service Providers be apologetic for opposing legislation that would do away with this system? It is the only thing that insures that youth in remote rural
    areas have access to services, as well as those in populated or metropolitan
    areas.

    Further, if Youth Service Providers are so
    politically influential, then why is it that we have the same level of funding
    for community based services in Arkansas that we had in
    2006 even though, minimum wage has increased
    significantly during this decade as have inflation and many other factors that
    increase the cost of doing business. The only significant increase that
    occurred in provider funding during this time was temporary stimulus (ARRA)
    funds. During this temporary increase to community based funding was the same
    time period that Mr. Mendel references as showing a 20% reduction in
    commitments of youth to DYS, but Mr. Mendel acknowledges no possible correlation
    in the increased community services and the reduction in commitment. Those facts just didn’t help with his “spin”.

    Finally, I do not understand why Arkansas Advocates Paul Kelly would paint such a bleak picture of our efforts when wehave worked literally side by side with him over the past several years on
    reform efforts. The legislation thatformed the Youth Justice Reform Board was Youth Service Provider Association and Arkansas Advocates joint legislative initiative and we have been “partners”
    in this effort from the beginning. I do not believe that Paul Kelly believes that Youth Service Providers are impeding reform. I know he was not happy that the “Close to Home Act” did not pass in
    the previous session and I am sure that was at a great cost to Arkansas
    Advocates in many ways, including financial.

    I will end these comments by saying that if there
    is political influence in this network it is because in every county of the
    State there is a young person, a caseworker, a board member, a school counselor,
    a juvenile officer a judge or someone tied to this system who has or has had a
    connection with a youth service provider. I make no apology for this either
    because this is called doing our job.
    Madelyn Keith, Executive Director/CEO
    East Arkansas Youth Services