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Tampa Tribune letter to the editor: Juvenile justice and the community

Dec. 8, 2012

http://www2.tbo.com/member-center/share-this/print/?content=ar580027

As I listened to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice "Roadmap to System Excellence" town hall meeting on Tuesday in Tampa, I was struck by the underpinning of the word "community." Most everyone who made a comment suggested that this community was unique and had innovative and effective programs and practices to support youths in the juvenile justice system to share with the rest of the state.

As a Hillsborough resident and the executive director of the child welfare lead agency in Hillsborough County — Eckerd Community Alternatives — I am a firm believer in the power of communities. I have transformed three lead agencies from nonprofits managing child welfare to true community-based and community-driven systems of care that are uniquely tailored to serve struggling children and families in that specific community.

ECA has been in Hillsborough only a few months and we have a long way to go, but the model for a true community-based system of care is already here. I applaud DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters for her efforts in transforming juvenile justice in Florida and engaging the communities at this level. I know firsthand how challenging such a reform process can be, but I am confident that Hillsborough has the leadership and community resources available to be a model in juvenile justice for the rest of the state.

The central tenets of the DJJ "Roadmap" align well with Eckerd's beliefs that children should be served in their homes with their families whenever it is safe to do so. Youths in contact with the juvenile justice system are much better off being supported in their own community rather than being shipped off to a deep-end residential facility hours away. This is how we operate child welfare, and I wholeheartedly agree that this is also how we should operate juvenile justice.

I look forward to partnering with the DJJ to ensure that the Hillsborough juvenile justice system of care is customized to our community. I hesitate when I see a statewide roadmap that provides a blanket prescribed approach but am comforted by the words of Secretary Walters about the plan for community engagement throughout the process.

We also must use caution as we divert youths from the juvenile justice system as many of these youths are entering child welfare. Although child welfare is set up to support children and youths with varied needs, we are not the system structured to appropriately support those with delinquent behaviors. I hope that this is considered in the upcoming legislative session as the budget is decided, as our child welfare system is already stretched thin with the resources we have.

Together, we can ensure that children, youths and families with challenges that lead them to either child welfare or juvenile justice can receive the local, community support they need to be productive and successful citizens of Hillsborough County.

Lorita Shirley, Tampa