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Social Workers: Schools Can Reduce West Virginia Juvenile Incarceration

PHOTO: West Virginia social workers are hopeful about reforms to the state's juvenile justice system. They say new truancy rules and other public school efforts can help keep kids out of jail. Photo credit: Richard Ross, courtesy of Annie E. Casey Foundation.
PHOTO: West Virginia social workers are hopeful about reforms to the state's juvenile justice system. They say new truancy rules and other public school efforts can help keep kids out of jail. Photo credit: Richard Ross, courtesy of Annie E. Casey Foundation.
April 14, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia schools have a key role in reducing the number of kids who end up in jail – and while social workers say preventing truancy is an excellent starting place, its only part of the picture.

As the state works to reduce the number of juveniles in the criminal justice system, Morgan County school social worker Gary McDaniel says they're already seeing good results.

He says moving truancy from a criminal issue to a counseling issue works, and that truancy is an important sign of other problems at home - including substance abuse and domestic violence.

"Truancy is always symptomatic of other problems," says McDaniel. "Undiagnosed anxiety disorders, undiagnosed trauma-related disorders, poverty, chaotic family systems."

McDaniel stresses the state will need to expand the services it offers, in school and out. How to do that is a major topic at this week's National Association of Social Workers (NASW) West Virginia Spring Conference.

NASW West Virginia president Kim White says if it's done properly, much of this can be handled at less cost and more effectively in the public schools - but the effort must be in every school, and broadly applied.

"Early intervention on a universal scale," she says. "These are issues that have to be dealt with early on, otherwise students repeat those patterns."

White says another part of the puzzle is building up outpatient treatment options, especially in rural areas.

"That's a huge barrier right there," says White. "Getting people into McDowell County to offer these services, getting people into Roane County, or Mingo County."

According to McDaniel, the good news is this effort can work to keep kids from getting chewed up in the juvenile system, and eventually, spit out into the adult prison population.

"When kids are young, the trajectory of their life can still be altered tremendously," says McDaniel. "We can probably prevent, in most cases, them from becoming a part of the criminal justice system."

The annual NASW meeting in Charleston is the largest event of its kind on the country.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV