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Creating Systemic Resiliency 

Spokane County Juvenile Court has become a system dedicated to addressing inequities

click to enlarge CALEB WALSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

It's so easy to complain about our social systems. There are problems with efficiency, cost and overall performance. And when it comes to equality for all, they have very bad reputations.

Our education system is plagued by a disproportionate out-of-school suspension rate, where more kids of color are kicked out of school, often for less-concrete reasons than their white counterparts. The state Department of Social and Health Services' Children's Administration removes children of color from their parents, placing them in foster homes more often, and for longer periods of time.

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In a 40-page study on race, Eastern Washington University discovered (with the cooperation of the Spokane Police Department) that within city limits, people of color are more likely to be contacted by police. Once contacted, they are more likely to be searched, and more likely to be arrested after that search. This is a systemic problem, one that SPD has said it is committed to addressing through training its force.

But on any given day, these systems aren't doing all that is possible to address implicit bias in the people working within those systems, and they aren't addressing that bias in a systemic and holistic way that actually creates outcomes which change things for the better.

There are so many stories and so much data that tells us how horrible our systems perform when it comes to equity. It can be overwhelming. It can be disheartening. But there is hope. For example, Spokane County Juvenile Court has done some amazing things in the past 13 years, despite the prosecuting attorney's aggressive conviction practices. What began as a journey in 2004 with the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative has developed into a full-scale reformation.

Spokane County has been one of the first counties in the state to make use of truancy boards, a community-involved intervention tool for youths who skip school that keeps them out of detention for school truancy. They've turned out to be such a great method when it comes to helping reduce detention rates and keeping kids in school that they've been replicated statewide.

It takes a serious commitment to begin tracking data by race, ethnicity, age and gender, so that a system can be honest about what the problem truly is. But that is what Spokane County Juvenile Court has done. They committed to gathering appropriate data, and analyzing it in a way that allows them to see an honest picture of equity.

They also have reduced the number of youths in the secure detention center's daily population by nearly 45 percent. That alone is an accomplishment. But they fully admit that it hasn't changed the disproportionate rate at which youths of color are detained. In 2015, African American and Native American youths were four times more likely to be admitted to detention than white youths.

So over the past two years, Juvenile Court has committed money, time and resources to train every staff member in cultural development and childhood trauma. In all my years, I have never seen a system so willing to create a dedicated line item in the budget to do the necessary cultural competency work.

Talk to anyone at Juvenile Court, and they will tell you that work still needs to be done. But you'll also find a system that is willing to look hard at its own outcomes. As Bonnie Bush, Juvenile Court Administrator, says: "In order to be effective child- and youth-serving systems, we must recognize the impact of implicit bias, racial disparities, poverty, childhood trauma, mental illness and substance abuse."

Personally, I take heart that a system can be as strong and resilient as we expect our youth and families to be. ♦

Tara Dowd is the Executive Director of Excelerate Success, an organization dedicated to eliminating the opportunity gap for all kids. She has done paid consultant work for the juvenile justice system.

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