Interagency Collaboration

On January 21, 2015, the Vera Institute of Justice held its seventh juvenile justice briefing, titled Connecting the Dots: How Interagency Collaboration Can Better Serve Vulnerable Youth. This briefing is part of a larger Vera series, titled The State of Juvenile Justice: A National Conversation About Research, Results and Reform.

Watch a video of the event.

The panelists included Jessica Heldman from the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice; Mike Lawlor, undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning for the State of Connecticut; and Ryan Ward from the Center of Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. Jim Parsons, the vice president and research director at Vera, moderated the briefing, which focused on information and data sharing between agencies involved in the juvenile justice system. 

Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts opened the briefing, thanking the panelists for leading an important discussion about protecting our nation’s vulnerable youth. He explained that an interagency approach to juvenile justice, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach, is the most effective way to improve the current system. 

Jim Parsons began by mentioning the trust and ethical issues that discourage the sharing of information between treatment providers and law enforcement agencies. He then opened the discussion to the panelists by asking about the collaborative partnerships each has with other agencies, as well as the challenges and misunderstandings they face with information sharing. Mr. Lawlor began by saying that when it comes to juvenile justice reform, regardless of political affiliation, most people agree on what changes need to be made, and that interagency collaboration is indispensable. He said the real obstacles occur when agencies misunderstand the lawfulness of sharing data and information about youth with other agencies. Despite common confusion, Mr. Lawlor explained that there are provisions under many privacy acts that allow agencies such as schools and medical providers to share data with the justice system. 

Mr. Ward has also faced the challenge of working with those who do not understand the information they are allowed to share. Additionally, obstacles specific to Native American youth include lack of technology—mainly computers—and staffing for social workers and probation officers in their communities. To get information-sharing initiatives and education off the ground, Mr. Ward advised that heads of agencies—those who have the authority to make decisions—be involved, and Ms. Heldman added that lawyers also need to be present at these discussions. He also indicated the importance of including youths’ guardians in conversations between probation officers and social workers. 

Ms. Heldman continued by indicating that her foundation provides resources to jurisdictions that are looking to collaborate, because one agency alone cannot handle all the issues youth bring to bear. Beyond providing education, this also includes the introduction of an information-sharing toolkit to eliminate the technical barriers faced by agencies seeking to share data and to address the areas where training is needed. All of the panelists shared information-sharing success stories, both on an individual and systems-change basis, and offered many recommendations to achieve results. Ms. Heldman encouraged the continued use of multiagency case conferencing, which is a system of bringing together agencies on a case-specific basis to develop an individualized plan for each youth. In order for the federal government to clarify guidance on information-sharing regulations between agencies, the panelists suggested placing a link on each government agency’s main website explaining the regulations, and designating an authoritative person who could be contacted with questions. Mr. Ward specifically recommended that the government stay connected and keep communication open to eliminate the unnecessary waste of duplicating services. 

In concluding the briefing, Mr. Parsons asserted that youth are malleable and ripe for change. To better serve these vulnerable youth, it is imperative to use interagency communication and information sharing, and to continue government support in funding, technical assistance, and demonstration projects.