Historically, Missouri was no exception to the problems that still plague many juvenile justice systems around the country. In 1938 the Missouri Reform School for Boys at Boonville, which held as many as 650 youth at a time, was labeled one of the worst juvenile correctional institutions in the nation. In 1969 a federal report condemned Boonville as severely substandard in its efforts to rehabilitate and educate youth. In the 1970s, Missouri officials began to mandate fundamental reform, emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment.
A shift in philosophy brought with it development of smaller facilities and commitment to placing kids as close as possible to their families. Young people were gradually transferred to smaller regional facilities and by 1983 both of Missouri’s training schools were closed. The reformation movement was clearly motivated by discontent with the system; and the shift to smaller facilities in itself did not create the culture change and practices observed today. This simply created the opportunity for the innovation that followed.
Missouri’s transformation was guided by innovative directors and administrators at both the state and regional level. Those initiating and shaping the innovation are far too numerous to name, but for many DYS has become more than a job; it is a movement and life-style. Throughout the process, the guiding force has been a bi-partisan Advisory Board whose members were judges, former legislators, civic leaders and concerned private citizens representing all regions of the state. The Board holds the system accountable, vitalizes it with new thinking, and partners with leadership to solve problems. To this day, it is a crucial part of Missouri’s ongoing evolution and sustainability. The support of the Advisory Board provides the protection and support that fosters the courage it takes to continue the culture of innovation.
Now, when visitors come to Missouri Division of Youth Services (DYS) facilities they are inevitably surprised by the calm and home-like nature of the programs. Tours of one of Missouri’s 32 residential programs and 11 Day Treatment Centers are always led by the young people themselves, who are friendly, knowledgeable, and articulate. The punitive culture of the early days has been replaced with an intensely warm and therapeutic one. Residential facilities are home-like with regular furniture, comforters on beds, and young people’s artwork on walls. Many have dogs, cats, or fish tanks, as well as manicured campuses the young people take pride in helping to maintain.
Young people spend their days with a very full schedule of school, vocational training, community service, individual and group counseling, and therapeutic recreational activities. Young people are in the constant presence of caring staff, learning firsthand what it means to have healthy relationships with peers and adults. Many view the group as a surrogate family.
Safety is maintained through structure, supervision, relationships, and group process. Smaller humane facilities are further divided into groups of 10-12 young people who do everything together – daily chores, school, activities, and group sessions. When a conflict or concern arises, a group circle is called by a group member or staff. Everyone stops what they are doing to share observations, feelings, discuss alternatives, and help each other achieve their goals.
Front-line Youth Specialists and Group Leaders provide treatment 24 hours a day/7 days a week, working as a team to support success. As this occurs a powerful culture and system is activated on behalf of young people and families, making Missouri communities safer in the process.
Key Milestones in the Evolution of Missouri DYS
1970’s – Systematic agency planning for de-emphasis of large rural institutions and establishment of smaller treatment facilities. Aftercare services expanded.
1971 – DYS Advisory Board reappointed, replacing the Board of Training Schools.
1972 – First Group Homes established. DYS ventures into the community.
1974 – The Omnibus Reorganization Act established DYS within the Missouri Department of Social Services. Age ranges were changed to 12 through 17.
1975 – Scope of responsibility broadened to include prevention services, comprehensive training programs, consultation, and technical assistance to local communities, and a statewide data information system. DYS Advisory Board expanded to 15 members.
1975 – Initial stages of re-organization defined in DYS Five Year Plan. The plan called for the closing of the training schools, expansion of community-based services, delinquency prevention programs, staff development and training, improved quality of programs, better education for youth, and effective research and evaluation. The Department of Elementary Education authorized to set educational standards for DYS. All schools within DYS become accredited.
1980’s – Expansion of the regional continuum of treatment, regions work to apply beliefs and philosophies to actual practices. Regional treatment facilities continue to absorb youth and decrease the size of the Training Schools.
1980 – Juvenile Court Diversion program established to divert youth from DYS.
1981 – Family Therapy initiated as part of the spectrum of care.
1981 – Training School for Girls closed.
1983 – Training School for Boys closed.
1986 – Division of Youth Services’ educational programs entitled to state aid, providing greater legitimacy to the educational services provided. Local school districts, pay toward the per pupil cost of educational services based on the average sum produced per child by the local tax effort.
1987 – Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations result in greater appropriations for DYS.
1990 & 1991– Day treatment and intensive case management services begin. Northwest and St. Louis Regions develop and implement expansion training to strengthen treatment practices.
1992 – Community Liaison Councils developed to link facilities to the local community.
1995 – Juvenile Crime Bill included provisions for determinate sentencing to custody, granted DYS the ability to petition for increased stay up to age 21, removed the lower age limit for commitment and provided for the development of dual jurisdiction. As a result of the Crime Bill and the Fourth State Building Bond Issue, a number of new facilities for DYS were authorized.
1997 – Department of Elementary and Secondary Education authorized DYS to graduate high school students who meet all the graduation requirements of the state of Missouri.
1999 – Expansion of residential capacity by 200 beds through new regionally-based facilities.
2003 - National recognition of Missouri’s DYS grows, frequent site visits from other states.
2005 – DYS develops and implements Advanced Group Facilitator Certification process.
2007 – High Performance Transformational Coaching is adopted to strengthen teams, develop leaders, and ensure long-term sustainability of the DYS culture and approach.
2008 – DYS wins the Annie E. Casey Innovations in American Government Award in Child and Family System Reform from the Ash Institute, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
2010 – DYS expands and strengthens non-residential supports and services through strategic alliances with Missouri’s Community Partnerships throughout the state.