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Tallahassee Democrat: Stacy Gromatski: DJJ is indeed on the right track

Written by
Stacy Gromatski

The Democrat’s editorial has it right: The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s Roadmap to System Excellence is just plain common sense. As we all know, common sense isn’t so common, nor is it frequent that individuals would take stock of the obvious and effective.

We have all sorts of sophisticated ways of justifying closely held opinions, based on bad facts and worse thinking, so having the Democrat’s support as Secretary Wansley Walters makes her way around Florida is especially gratifying. There is much to do, much we must change, and lives we must save before it’s too late.

For too long, Florida has played defense. In football, some say defense wins games, but a good, solid offensive strategy that anticipates, collaborates, makes use of best practices and relies on the traditional safety valves of family and community, will have a much more cost-effective result than a system that preferences the delinquency end. What we want for high-risk teens who are making mistakes typical of adolescents is not bars and cells, but an environment that matches their needs.

One effective and cost-efficient prevention program is the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services, funded by DJJ. For 35 years, we have been at the forefront of prevention, doing our best to guide policy in a direction that yields the greatest good for the 31 agencies we represent as an umbrella organization, and their work on behalf of a vulnerable young population.

Here in Tallahassee there is Capital City Youth Services. CCYS works with youths in a rough spot, with problems at home or in school, or who are homeless — in essence, “throwaways,” the ones we often forget in a world full of distraction and busyness. Our other 30 agencies do similar work within their communities, and what the Florida Network does is provide support services in the areas of contract management, training, quality assurance, data collection and a host of other oversight activities.

Our work is crucial to helping these local agencies do the healing that they accomplish, and we believe in operating at the greatest operational efficiency so that the greatest number of dollars go to on-the-ground work. In fact, both DJJ and the Justice Research Center have written reports that demonstrate that our programs have a 90-percent success rate.

Moreover, a study conducted in 2011 found that, for every dollar spent within Florida Network agencies, the Florida taxpayer saved $5.50. In other words, there is a return of 5½ times the initial investment.

The “Roadmap” that Secretary Walters envisions gives us greater room to do right thing for the youths who need our programs, doing it in a way that reaches them when they need it most. In the end, saving lives. And as a secondary benefit, saving dollars.

With this new turn in DJJ’s direction, prevention services advocates find themselves being heard. There’s nothing like having the wind at your back, the ball in play and lady luck on your side. Every day, we have worked extremely hard to weed out bad practices, self-correct and constantly scrutinize our data for results and forward-looking ideas.

Along with supporting Secretary Walters’ Roadmap, we propose some “right sizing” of our own. We offer proposals and ideas for the upcoming legislative session. With an improved fiscal outlook, we hope to increase the services we provide to rural communities, which often do without. We want trained nurses to help us care for the medical needs of the youths being served in our facilities. We expect to add another 730 beds to help young people who have avoided the deep end.

DJJ Secretary Walters is a breath of fresh air. The DJJ mentality and culture is changing under her watch; her innovation and smart thinking will enhance our system. I look forward to working with her as we enter this new era of innovation and new beginnings.

We look forward to broad support for this paradigm shift within the juvenile justice area. We consider it heroic. Together we can stop damaging young lives, instead giving them a second chance and a hand up. It suggests a great truism: A good offense is a good defense.

Stacy Gromatski is the president/CEO of the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services. Contact her atstacy@floridanetwork.org.