One morning this winter, the Benton County Juvenile Justice Center is quiet since most of the residents are in classrooms and only one teen waits in lock-up. A couple of the guards are having an early lunch at a table at the end of the long corridor.

Through the security doors and down a few hallways Jacqueline van Wormer (’90, MA ’92)and her team sit at their desks looking up at a dry erase board with words detailing steps to help these residents and other young people in their community steer away from more time in custody. At the top of the board the team has listed “Truancy,” “Mental Health,” and “Disproportionate Minority Contact” (where a disproportionate number of minorities end up in the criminal justice system). As van Wormer and her team work with police, schools, courts, counselors, and families, they hope to address these issues in their community.

A turning point for Jacqueline van Wormer ('90, M.A. '92) was an internship at the Walla Walla state penitentiary, where she learned that most prisoners had committed their first offenses as minors
A turning point for Jacqueline van Wormer (’90, M.A. ’92) was an internship at the Walla Walla state penitentiary, where she learned that most prisoners had committed their first offenses as minors. (Photo Richard Dickin/Tri-City Herald)

Washington is one of four states to receive grant money from a $120 million John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation project to reform juvenile justice nation-wide. Van Wormer, who is now working on her doctorate in criminal justice at WSU, coordinates the effort, called Models for Change, in the Tri-Cities. She was recently recognized by the foundation as a “Champion for Change” for her leadership, her efforts with schools and juvenile court, and her advocacy for juveniles.

In many fields you run into naysayers who see the research and then focus on how things can’t be changed, says Faith Lutze, an associate professor in WSU’s criminal justice program and van Wormer’s adviser. “Jackie’s first question is, ‘How can we?’ and then she moves on it.” The WSU graduate student has an ability to bring people together and take what she has learned in terms of social science and “take it to the street and make it effective,” says Lutze.

Van Wormer first starting thinking about youth and crime while completing an internship at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla. Reviewing the prisoners’ files, she realized that most had committed their first offenses as minors. The system didn’t help them move away from criminal activity. “There were potential points of intervention that were never offered to them,” she says. “It was one of those pivotal moments for me. I realized work at the juvenile level was a chance for more change.”

In our country the peak crime ages are 14 to 24, says van Wormer. “But the majority of the public resources go to the adult system.” If more resources were spent on juveniles, crime would go down. “It frustrates me so much that juveniles are the fourth priority,” says van Wormer.

After completing her master’s degree in criminal justice at WSU in 1992, van Wormer worked for the youth court in Missoula, Montana supervising juveniles on home arrest. She later served through several legislative sessions in Olympia as a fiscal analyst reviewing the costs and benefits of criminal justice efforts in Washington’s counties. In 1998 she moved to the Tri-Cities and found a job with Benton and Franklin counties as manager of intervention services for the juvenile court. Her job was working with young people who had committed the more serious offenses. She also did a lot of grant writing garnering money to establish juvenile, adult, and family drug courts in the Tri-Cities.

This area of Washington is an interesting place, says van Wormer. Benton and Franklin counties have eight different school districts, several large immigrant populations, and a great deal of diversity.  Today,  68 percent of the youth population in Franklin County is Latino, and the juvenile justice system has to work to be culturally competent and relevant.

Van Wormer left her job with the court in 2005 to focus on completing her doctorate and spending time with her family—she has three children with her husband, Roy ’90. But when the juvenile court administrator Sharon Paradis asked her to write a proposal for the Tri-Cities to participate in the MacArthur Models for Change project, van Wormer, who had learned to write grants as a master’s student, dove into the opportunity.

The two counties were awarded $425,000 for the first two years of a five-year program. Van Wormer was asked to stay on and administer the MacArthur grant. “It’s a fantastic project,” says van Wormer, who was happy to take on the job, “though it has slowed down my Ph.D. work quite a bit.”

Now just a year in, the four-member team has already streamlined the way the court works with high school administrators.  Though the first two years are supposed to be for assessment, the team has already found areas for action and is moving ahead, says van Wormer. The group is also working with social scientists at WSU who have their own $300,000 MacArthur Models for Change grant to study the issue of truancy. University of Washington researchers have a similar MacArthur grant to study behavioral health and the needs of the Latino community in the Tri-Cities.

The Tri-Cities team is taking on the challenges of connecting therapists, parole officers, teachers, and families, says van Wormer. “We want to wrap these kids in more holistic services,” she says. “They didn’t wake up one day and say ‘I’m going to commit a crime.’” Their criminal activity may be the result of problems at school, abuse, addiction, neglect, and negative peers. When the system only addresses the crime, it’s failing the child and the community around him, says van Wormer.

One major effort in van Wormer’s office is to address truancy. The team recently learned that about 3,000 children in the community are not getting to school. Part of the challenge is that the area’s schools all use Washington state truancy law differently, says van Wormer. Some aggressively pursue truancy petitions and some don’t. Others don’t report truancy at all. She’s hoping to get all the districts to work the same way and to look at absences in elementary and junior high, not just high school.  “If the children are not in school, they’re more likely to get into trouble,” she says.

These days van Wormer doesn’t work directly with the young offenders. Instead, she’s trying to reach those around them—their families, their probation officers, their schools, and their counselors. It’s about putting a system in place to catch them before they fall into crime. “These are our kids who are going to stay in our communities,” she says. “The more we can help them out before they get into the court system, the better.”