For kids with behavioral issues, diversion treatment more effective than discipline

CLEVELAND, Ohio — For decades, the playbook for dealing with problem children mostly focused on punishment and discipline. Now, a new study finds providing diversion for kids with behavioral issues may be the best way to foster positive changes. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University report that Ohio’s state juvenile diversion treatment program has been very successful in recent years. They add many adolescents in the system are showing great improvements in areas including substance abuse and mental health.

Consider these stats for a moment: among the 5,300 kids enrolled in the Ohio Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice Initiative (BHJJ) since 2006, 21 percent have had someone close to them die via murder in just the past year. Additionally, roughly half of the boys and a quarter of girls are dealing with both a substance abuse issue and a mental health disorder. Everyone is ultimately responsible and accountable for their actions, but it isn’t hyperbole to say the vast majority of these adolescents were dealt a rough hand in life.

Diversion treatment turns children’s lives around

On a positive note, the new BHJJ report reveals about 81 percent of all kids (ages 10-17) enrolled in the diversion program successfully completed the course between 2017 and 2019. From that group, 79 percent reduced their contact with police while undergoing the diversion treatment.

Researchers believe these findings make a strong case that “young offenders” stand to benefit more from community-based diversion programs rather than being sent to local or state detention centers.

“The majority of justice-involved youth have a history of mental health and/or substance-use issues, and have experienced a great deal of trauma,” says study co-author Jeff Kretschmar from the the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education in a university release. “However, local jurisdictions are often ill-equipped to accurately assess youth for behavioral health problems and provide appropriate treatment. Ohio’s Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice Initiative was intended to transform and expand the local systems’ options to better serve these youths.”

Researchers only included adolescents currently enrolled in the diversion program in their study. Kretschmar explains they decided to do this to “identify emerging behavioral health trends and better understand the effectiveness of the model as it operates across Ohio today.”

Keeping young people out of prison

The study also reveals participating youth reported a big decrease in trauma symptoms, reduced addictive urges, and an overall improvement in day-to-day functioning. Moreover, dating back to 2015, only 3.8 percent of the youths in the program have been committed to a state-run detention facility since starting the diversion treatment.

Financial considerations are another appealing aspect of the diversion approach. It costs $196,000 for every child who enters a state-run detention facility. In comparison, it only costs $5,200 to enroll a child in the Ohio Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice Initiative.

“The breadth of the data provides us with an opportunity to examine outcomes for youth in BHJJ from a variety of angles and provides practitioners with enough information to match programming with behavioral health needs,” concludes Fredrick Butcher, research assistant professor at the Begun Center.