County employees do amazing work on behalf of our residents, which I was able to see firsthand in May when I visited King County’s Youth Services Center (YSC) to walk in the shoes of Juvenile Detention Nurse Cynthia Marino and Juvenile Detention Supervisor Dynese Greer. They help youth in King County who enter the criminal justice system leave it with a better chance of living a happy, productive, successful life.
Accompanied by Chief People Officer Whitney Abrams, I met with Juvenile Detention Deputy Director Angela Toussaint who gave us access badges for our tour of secure areas, and introduced us to Detention Supervisor Dynese Greer and the YSC supervising team.
Dynese explained that, as a supervisor, she manages the operational aspects of detention, including staff supervision, emergency management, and quality checks, among other duties. But she and her fellow supervisors also spend a lot of time interacting directly with youth, providing support and serving as mentors, role models, and leaders to promote values and ethics that build a healthy organization and champion the cultural and restorative justice reform efforts within the Juvenile Division.
She put me to work right away providing the Living Hall Staff briefing to the new afternoon shift coming in as our visit began! Her genuine concern and empathy for the youth in her care came through in their interactions and in their discussions about activities, health, and feelings that day.
While our visit went smoothly, staff explained that they work to maintain a safe environment for the youth and fellow staff when there are disruptions. Typically, they happen when youth who claim opposing gang affiliations or who have a history of previous conflicts from their neighborhood or school come into contact with each other in the facility. Staff work to stay up to date on these relationship dynamics and separate or mediate as needed for the safety of everyone involved.
Dynese explained that in the event of aggressive physical contact between youth, YSC officers – who do not carry any weapons – put their bodies between the factions so that conflicts end swiftly without serious injury to the participants.
Staff have also been receiving new training on how to more effectively reduce tensions in a crisis, and how to help youth learn to stop negative responses and interactions before they escalate.
Staff are also moving away from the punishment-based response to youth infractions that has been used for decades in adult and youth detention settings nationwide. Instead, they’ve started using a behavior management system based on adolescent brain science to better meet the needs of youth, especially those who may have experienced traumatic events or who need more practice choosing positive behaviors. The approach is seen as an emerging best practice in detention settings.
As we continued our visit, we spoke with the staff coming on for the night shift and watched as Dynese followed up with them on the briefing and discussed different issues facing the youth in the facility that day. As staff reminded us – and we could easily see – the age and deteriorated condition of the facility is not only disrespectful – it makes it difficult to provide the support services that some young people need while they’re detained until their court date or until the completion of their court-mandated sentence.
Next, we visited the library, where Whitney and I met with several youth currently in detention and asked about their thoughts on issues ranging from the quality and quantity of the food, to their needs, dreams, and challenges in their communities.
Their words reinforced the need for a space that provides young people – whether brought in by police or ordered by judges to be detained – the support, services, and pathways to a different outcome as they mature and work to change their lives. Finally, we worked with them on an art project they were completing as part of the required schooling they receive while in the facility.
As Dynese pointed out, for some of the youth there it is the first place where they have received consistent care, support, and guidance as they try to grow through common – and not so common – teenage struggles, and the consequences of choices they’ve made or the circumstances into which they’ve been born.
I appreciated the staff and youth trusting me with their perceptions and left with a reaffirmed sense of urgency about King County’s continued work to transform juvenile justice in King County from an outdated model based on sanctions, to a tool to create better outcomes for youth and families in crisis. We must continue evolving and providing programs and pathways to help stabilize young lives, so that future contact with the criminal justice system is reduced or eliminated.
Our next stop was the Youth Service Center’s Public Health Clinic, where Registered Nurse Cynthia Marino walked us through the staff’s holistic approach to treating the youth in their care. Their practice includes physical and medical care for the youth, who may not have had access to regular preventative healthcare.
She explained that the staff also provides mental, emotional, and spiritual care for the youth that is integrated across the agencies, services, and healthcare providers they may encounter as part of their stay. For example, to ensure that there are no drug interactions, it’s important for a doctor prescribing medication for a young person’s medical condition to know that they might also be taking or need medications for mental health issues. Because staff have built relationships and trust with some of the young people receiving care, we received permission to observe them being counseled by medical staff.
Cynthia also explained the collaborative partnerships they have with outside agencies to help youth who leave transition back to school, job searches, job training, job placement, and appointments for ongoing counseling if needed.
Dr. Ann Giesel, the medical clinic’s primary mental health provider and team also explained how important mental health services are for the well-being of the young people and stabilization of families who come into contact with the justice system.
It was a full and fast-paced day. Many thanks to Dynese, Cynthia, their co-workers, and the youth who spent time with us and provided an update on the challenges this work presents for both staff and youth, as well as a view of some of King County’s progress in helping youth recover from and get help and on-going resources when they must return to unstable living situations, that may include poverty, addiction, untreated mental health issues, and homelessness.
This is truly an issue of equity and social justice and it is our duty to provide a high level of care for the youth when they enter and leave the criminal justice system and, most of all, to seek to prevent the conditions and eliminate the biases that led them to become justice involved in the first place.
If you would like more information on the county’s Zero Youth Detention work in partnership with families, social service agencies, and courts, click here. To learn about the new Children and Family Justice Center, please visit its site online.
Finally, I would like you, our dedicated employees, to keep sending me your stories about working for King County. Your pride in your work and dedication to serve is inspiring. I look forward to your invitation to walk in your shoes.
King County Executive