The Front-End Diversion Initiative (FEDI) seeks to divert juveniles with mental health needs from adjudication in the juvenile justice system by using specialized supervision and case management. FEDI was originally implemented in four Texas probation departments: in Bexar, Dallas, Lubbock, and Travis Counties. In Texas, probation intake is the gatekeeper to the juvenile court and therefore was an ideal point to implement a preadjudicatory diversion strategy. The primary diversion strategy was the use of specialized juvenile probation officers. The efforts of the initiative supported the development, implementation, and evaluation of the use of specialized juvenile probation officers.
A central aspect of FEDI is diversion, which is “an attempt to divert, or channel out, youthful offenders from the juvenile justice system” (Bynum and Thompson 1996). Diversion is based on the labeling theory, which suggests that processing certain youths through the juvenile justice system may do more harm than good because of the potential for stigmatization (Bynum and Thompson 1996).
In addition, youths with mental health disorders (such as anxiety disorders, depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) may be at greater risk of experiencing the negative consequences of juvenile justice system involvement. Anywhere from 50 percent to 70 percent of adolescents in the juvenile justice system suffer from a mental health disorder, compared with only 9 percent to 20 percent of adolescents in the general population (Colwell, Villarreal, and Espinosa 2012). Research suggests that those with mental health disorders are less capable of understanding the juvenile justice system, treated more harshly than those without a mental illness, and more vulnerable to delve further into the system as a result of their disorder (Colwell, Villarreal, and Espinosa 2012).
As a result of the Texas Family Code, probation officers, the juvenile, and a caregiver have the ability to enter into an informal agreement of deferred prosecution for up to 6 months. To be eligible to participate in the FEDI program, juveniles had to qualify for deferred prosecution; receive MAYSI–2 scores that indicated additional mental health screening may be needed, such as four or more cautions or two or more warnings; have a current mental health diagnosis; and have a parent or guardian who is willing to participate in the program.
The FEDI program used several specialized supervision and case management strategies that were considered best practices, such as small caseloads, specialized trained officers, internal and external service coordination, and active problem solving (Colwell Villarreal, and Espinosa 2012). In following this model, FEDI included specialized juvenile probation officers whose caseload did not have more than 15 juveniles with mental health needs, which is smaller than a traditional caseload for juvenile probation officers in Texas. These officers were trained in motivational interviewing, family engagement, crisis intervention, and behavioral health management.
Although all the various FEDI program sites implemented a similar framework, each site varied on specific program components. For example, in Dallas referrals to the FEDI program can be made by intake officers, psychological staff, deferred prosecution officers, field assessment officers, and the detention referee. Once a youth is determined eligible–following the same core criteria–a face sheet, MAYSI scores, a case history, a social history, and a psychological evaluation/screen (if available) must be submitted to the FEDI supervisor. Next, the FEDI supervisor assigns a probation officer to the case, who decides whether the FEDI program is appropriate for the youth based on the documentation provided, as well as on information gained through the Family Suitability Interview (Spriggs 2009).
If a child is accepted into the FEDI program, the initial case plan is completed within the first 72 hours. This plan includes the goals for the child and family to work toward, as well as services in the community. The plan also identifies the educational needs of a child and the child’s overall strengths and values. This plan is reviewed monthly during the youth’s participation in the FEDI program. Once a goal is obtained, the officer determines new goals for the child and family to work toward completing. Finally, once the program is completed the officer develops a discharge plan that links the child and family with services in the community (Spriggs 2009).
Colwell, Villarreal, and Espinosa (2012) found that juveniles who participated in the Front End Diversion Initiative (FEDI) program were significantly less likely to face adjudication compared with those who only received traditional supervision while on probation. Only 7.7 percent of the FEDI treatment group were adjudicated, compared with 22.0 percent of the comparison group.
Further, the results from the logistic regression found that juveniles in the comparison group were 11 times as likely to have been adjudicated in the 90 days since receiving traditional supervision while on probation, compared to the FEDI treatment group.
In an effort to analyze the ability of the Front End Diversion Initiative (FEDI) program to divert juveniles from the juvenile justice system, Colwell, Villarreal, and Espinosa (2012) used a quasi-experimental design, with a treatment group consisting of 65 juveniles who received specialized supervision through FEDI and a comparison group consisting of 64 juveniles who received traditional supervision. The majority of participants in the study (64.3 percent) were male, and more than 80 percent of participants were minorities. Specifically, the comparison group was 80.5 percent Hispanic, 9.8 percent African American, 4.9 percent Anglo, 2.4 percent Asian, and 2.4 percent unknown or not reported. By contrast, the treatment group was 36.9 percent Hispanic, 36.9 percent African American, 15.4 percent Anglo, 1.5 percent Asian, 1.5 percent Native American, 4.6 percent other, and 3.1 percent unknown or not reported. Although youths in the treatment group had a mean age of 14, the mean age of youths in the comparison group was not provided. Participants were assigned to the two groups based on the availability of the specialized officer, as well as on the juvenile and his or her guardian’s willingness to participate. Juveniles in the comparison group were matched to juveniles in the treatment group on ethnicity, sex, age, MAYSI–2 scores, and offense.
Data were collected for the following items: demographics, information regarding deferment date, contacts made by the probation officers, links and referrals to community resources, active problem solving, and probation outcomes. A logistic regression was also used to predict adjudication based on four variables: 1) number of referrals to services, 2) number of contacts between the juvenile probation officers and others involved in the case, 3) active problem solving, and 4) caseload. Finally, although data was also collected on the Global Assessment of Functioning and the Ohio Scale, this information was collected only for the treatment group, not the comparison group, and therefore excluded from the outcome evaluation.