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Helping Families in the Juvenile Justice System: The Arlington CSB Court Liaison

By Naomi Verdugo, NAMI Northern Virginia 

In 2003, a landmark report revealed that more than 12,700 children were placed in foster care or the juvenile justice systems so that they could receive mental health services. These children did not necessarily come from neglectful families and often they had not been charged with a crime. Rather, their parents and schools often struggled unsuccessfully for years to find appropriate services for their children; the child welfare and juvenile justice systems were a last resort. Parents seeking services for their children often don’t know where to go for help, and even service providers don’t always know where to direct these families.

Many of the youth involved in the juvenile court system have not been arrested or charged with crimes. Rather, they enter the system because of high-risk behavior. In many states, when parents or school personnel have a concern about behaviors like truancy, running away and substance use, a Child in Need of Services and/or Supervision (CHINS) petition can be filed. For many youth, this is the first time they or their families receive any services. For many families, juvenile court had become the first step in attempting to stabilize the youth’s mental health needs and behavior.

In Arlington County, Va., a new program is trying to help these youth and families by immediately evaluating the need for mental health services when they become involved with the juvenile court, and helping them stay out of the court system when appropriate. The program came about two years ago, thanks to the advocacy of NAMI Northern Virginia and the Arlington Community Services Board (CSB), which had been concerned that too many youth in the court system needed services and had never had access to them before. The CSB provides public mental health and substance abuse services, and received funding for a bilingual mental health therapist to bridge the gap between juvenile court and behavioral healthcare services. This therapist, called the “court liaison,” works full-time at the courthouse. The court liaison is available to meet with any youth and his or her family requesting court intake services (e.g., seeking to file a CHINS petition) or otherwise becoming court-involved. The court liaison also provides ongoing consultation to the probation officers and judges. Because the public is often unaware of the CSB, desperate families often reach out to the court. Now the court liaison is able to directly link children and their families with needed CSB services.

The court liaison provides onsite screenings, information and referrals, schedules intake appointments with the CSB, and coordinates closely with other community providers, including the CSB’s therapist based at the juvenile-detention center. The liaison also serves on a multi-agency committee that meets with truant students and their families, with the goal of correcting the truancy problem and keeping the student out of the court system.

A primary goal of the court liaison is to divert youth with mental health and substance abuse treatment needs from juvenile-court involvement–and it seems to be working. In the last year, 65 percent of youth diverted through the program have not appeared in court 60 days after they first met with the court liaison. Since starting in October 2011, the court liaison has served 257 youth and families. Each has been screened for treatment needs and scheduled for services as needed.

From the parents’ perspective, the program is a success. One parent said, “You have been very helpful. We did not know what to do, and you helped us just in time before this situation went out of control.”

The court also has seen an immediate change with the presence of the court liaison. A court staff member said, “The court liaison has provided an immeasurable benefit to the county through the vastly increased efficiency in the delivery of services to at-risk families. The value of being able to contact the court liaison and receive almost immediate support, consultation, and intervention in the midst of a crisis or high-needs situation cannot be overstated.”

To learn more about the court liaison program, contact Tom Wallace, the Bureau Chief for Children's Behavioral Healthcare Services at the Arlington Department of Human Services at