Where do youth stay when they can’t go home, especially during a pandemic?
Many go to Attendant Care, an essential, statewide, 24/7 service that safely and compassionately takes care of children and youth when they get in minor scrapes with the law or it isn’t safe for them to go home.
Even as you read this, nine Attendant Care stations are open and operating statewide. Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota runs one of these Attendant Care site out of its Grand Forks Program Center, providing a safe, comfortable, non-secure rest stop for kids who have been accused of minor delinquent acts or unruly offenses, as well as crisis placements (referrals by child welfare or situations like child protection). We are proud to be part of a statewide network of Attendant Care providers, which also include counties, private providers and one tribal agency.
Although Attendant Care is non-secure, staff provide constant awake supervision during this 24- to 48-hour stay, while youth await a juvenile court hearing or human-service zone workers determine if it’s possible for a child to return home or stay somewhere long-term.
“It really is a treasured and valued resource by local law enforcement and also by our human service zone staff who primarily do foster-care and child protection work,” says Janell Regimbal, who oversees LSSND’s Grand Forks Program Center and is the agency’s vice president of Children’s Services.
Now, more than ever, Attendant Care is filling a vital gap in the juvenile justice system.
Detention centers “have basically said they are limiting their intakes while they deal with COVID-19,” Regimbal says. “So some of our more minor delinquent activities, that traditionally would have landed them in a locked juvenile detention center setting, are now being turned away and we’re being counted on in order to help.”
From March 16 through April 23, AC staff have seen a 58.33 percent increase in Attendant Care clients from the same span of time last year. Staff also have seen child-welfare referrals double due to the added pressures placed on families when sheltering in place.
Here, Regimbal answers some frequently asked questions about the important part Attendant Care plays in keeping children and youth safe.
How long has Attendant Care existed and why is it important?
“Attendant Care has been provided by LSS since 1990. It’s really tied to a federal act, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, which … in general, really sets a boundary and an incentive for states to do the right thing for kids so they are not put into a secure setting if (their actions) don’t demand a secure setting.
“I think most people would be shocked to know that in 1990 when we first started offering Attendant Care, there were 1,400 kids across the state of North Dakota who were held in adult jails. And now, because of the advent and the infusion of AC sites – not in every community, but in just nine strategic locations in North Dakota – we have now reduced that, in general, to maybe once a year a juvenile in North Dakota is held in an adult jail.” – Janell Regimbal
What are some of the reasons why children and youth are placed in Attendant Care?
A common scenario is a youth has been charged with an unruly or delinquent act and, for some reason or another, can’t be immediately returned home. A minor delinquent act is something that would be against the law regardless of your age, but which is within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. An unruly, or status, offense, is something that’s only against the law because of your age (running away from home, alcohol or tobacco-related offense, willful disturbance at school, etc.).
Staff provide constant awake supervision to youth to ensure they are safe and well-taken-care-of as police, social workers or the courts determine the best “next step” for the youth, whether it be a hearing for a charge or a determination that it is safe for them to return home.
Why is it important to keep children and youth in non-jail settings?
“There are lots and lots of reasons why we don’t want kids in adult jails. Now more than ever, we’re more aware of trauma and the impact that trauma has on kids’ lives. And taking those situations that I described earlier – those more minor delinquent offenses or those things that are status offenses – is like a human rights kind of issue, right?
"Why on earth would you lock up a kid if you wouldn’t lock up an adult for doing those things?”
What do kids do when they’re in Attendant Care?
Trained staff are constantly with them and beside them, providing constant awake supervision. But we also know that we have to keep them engaged. They may do homework, watch appropriate movies, do art projects or play board games and cards.
Most importantly, we process the situation. Although the trained staffers don’t try to be counselors, they do provide an empathetic ear and compassionate approach that can be therapeutic for kids.
This might include discussing what brought them to Attendant Care, what they learned from their actions or if they owe mends to someone they’ve harmed.
"Many times, kids are scared because they don’t know what will happen next when they leave Attendant Care. They may have a detention hearing and wonder about the outcome. It helps for them to be able to talk about it. "
Staff “have to be good listeners and have a caring and compassionate way about them … and help them cope just by being alongside them during that difficult time.”
How have operations been modified to adjust to COVID-19?
We’ve had to stay on top of what the Department of Health and CDC are recommending, and we also rely on our LSSND Pandemic Task Force for vetting information and guiding us.
We use the same decision tree that others are using: If you are sick or having symptoms, if you’ve traveled, don’t come into work.
We’ve added an additional screening question to our intake: If the child has had close contact with someone who is positive or is under protocols for being assessed for testing, they will not even be brought into the facility. Law enforcement is helping us by asking that critical question before transporting for our safety and theirs.
We’ve also increased cleaning and health and safety standards and rearranged our site to keep physical distance in mind.
What do you wish more people knew about Attendant Care?
Kids aren’t brought to us to be punished, they are brought to us to be kept safe, and to take a time in their life that can, in many ways, be seen as a crisis for them and make it an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to be more self-reflective, to think about what might happen next time … or sometimes kids are there through no choice of their own, just because of a very difficult situation and we can be a support to them.
“Just to be listened to and to be cared for by someone who they’ve never met before, and to have an affirming and positive relationship for 24 hours with a handful of adults can really change their perspective on things and to have a profound impact on your life, really.”
– Tammy Swift
Click HERE to see the complete interview with Janell Regimbal.