Success in a juvenile mental health court – what is it? Most people would say that success in a Juvenile Mental Health Court (JMHC) is successfully graduating from the program or “reaching maximum benefit.” Most JMHCs have different steps or levels toward completion of their program with requirements such as passing drug tests, attending school, and participation in appropriate treatment. If a youth does not move through the phases, they are considered “unsuccessful,” and those who move through these steps and reach graduation are said to have “successfully completed the program.”  However, I challenge you to look at success in a different way.

Think of it this way: one youth graduated from a JMHC program, completed the steps, and has been in and out of jail since. S/he is still considered “successful” in the minds of the court, as they completed the program. Another youth does not successfully complete the program; perhaps s/he went into the program addicted to heroin, was sent to treatment, and stopped using heroin. However, s/he could not stop using marijuana, failed the drug tests, and, therefore, “failed” the program. Is this really a failure? This is the story of one of the kids we spoke to in a series of focus groups about JMHCs.

Throughout 2012 we conducted focus groups as part of a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) grant to study Juvenile Mental Health Courts.  These focus groups took place with people 18 years old and older who had been in a JMHC program. We had some participants who had “successfully” completed the program and some who didn’t. While listening to these young adults, we began challenging our own ideas of what success is. When we asked them about where they are in their lives, some would say they were in college now, or some even raising their own children. However, they did not graduate the program. One young man who did not graduate from the program responded, “I would be dead,” when asked where he would be today if it weren’t for the program. How is this not success?

Success is not necessarily program graduation. Success is youths being able to soak in what they are being told – even if their behavior doesn’t reflect it at the time. Success is looking back as adults and realizing that things that the judge, probation officers, treatment providers, peers, and mentors were telling them actually sunk in. Success can be graduation, but it can also be changing something negative in life, finishing school, repairing relationships with family members, getting out of a bad situation, and moving into adulthood.