Jacque van Wormer has seen too many kids cycle through the juvenile justice system who could have taken a different path.
She wonders if those troubled youths would have steered clear of the courts had they been matched earlier with the right services.
Intervention is the key, van Wormer said, but at what age do you start? That's one question van Wormer hopes to answer as Benton-Franklin Juvenile Court participates in a national initiative that's addressing the current challenges and concerns in the system to make sure youths are treated fairly and have access to the right services.
"Juvenile justice is very complicated," said van Wormer, a longtime juvenile court worker, honored with a national award last month for her dedication to improving the system.
Many people think the kids are either getting a slap on the hand or should all be locked up.
But one thing people need to think about, she said, is "when we're talking about kids, we're talking about families too."
Depending on the services offered and the steps taken by the youths, they may be diverted and never come back or they may end up spending their adult years in and out of prison.
Juvenile justice reform is the focus of Models for Change, a project of the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Van Wormer is the Models for Change coordinator for the bicounty system.
The idea behind the $120 million initiative is that the reforms developed will be a model for change across the country. Washington is one of four states researching select topics and analyzing the data with the goal of strengthening the juvenile justice system.
The Benton-Franklin Juvenile Court was given $400,000 for the two-year project, which goes through 2009. It is joined statewide by four other judicial districts doing similar work.
"Washington is very innovative in the juvenile justice field," van Wormer said.
Communities in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Illinois also are participating. The information collected last year from community focus groups and juvenile justice and school statistics will now be compiled into databases.
Coordinators then will be able to see where they've been effective, identify the problems and know where more money and services are needed.
Van Wormer was selected in December by her Washington colleagues to receive one of the inaugural Champions for Change.
The honor, given to one "juvenile justice reformer" in the four lead states, was for those who "create effective approaches to improving the lives of young people, while inspiring us all with their determination to succeed," according to MacArthur Foundation President Jonathan Fanton.
Van Wormer received the award during a national conference in Washington, D.C.
"It's very humbling because there is so much important work going on across the state and I just feel fortunate to get to participate in the Models for Change project," she said. "In my whole career I've been very passionate about reform efforts ... and making sure we have the most effective and efficient system that we can have."
Van Wormer also praised Juvenile Court Administrator Sharon Paradis and Superior Court Judge Dennis Yule, saying "you're only as good as the people you're surrounded with."
Yule said he wanted it clear that van Wormer is the one who pulled the team together and makes it function. They are fortunate to have someone with her skills, talent and commitment to bettering the lives of young people, he said.
"It would not be the success that it's proving to be without her," Yule said.
In addition to her work with juvenile court, van Wormer is a doctoral candidate in the criminal justice program at Washington State University. She has bachelor's and master's degrees in criminal justice, with her master's emphasis in public administration.
The Richland mother of three also travels around the country as a national drug court trainer.
She was selected for the honor because of her commitment to results and "the demonstrable impact" she's had on the lives of juveniles.
"Truancy reform is a great example of her talents," retired state Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge said in a written statement.
She is the founding president of the Center for Children & Youth Justice in Seattle and director of the Models for Change Washington.
Bridge said the youth of Benton and Franklin "are lucky" to have van Wormer in their corner.
"Jacque somehow unites the brain of a research wonk, the heart of an advocate, and the personal touch of a skilled team-builder," she said.
The Washington efforts -- boosted by $10 million from the MacArthur Foundation -- are being led by the nonprofit Center for Children & Youth Justice. In addition to Benton-Franklin courts, Spokane, King, Pierce and Clark counties are involved.
The three target areas in Benton and Franklin were chosen after a series of MacArthur Foundation meetings across the state in 2006.
Community members resoundingly agreed the juvenile courts should look at truancy and the number of truancy petitions filed, the coordination of mental health services and the possibility of disproportionate minority contact.
The project is tapping into a cross-section of the community, including law enforcement officials, social service workers and educators. Coordinators are also trying to capture the voice of citizens, including the Latino residents given the large population in the bicounty area.
"We've had just a flurry of activity in the first year," van Wormer said, noting that the new databases are allowing the courts to look at the youth and some of the causes behind their troubles.
"We're trying to build a community awareness about these different issues and get people involved," she added.
Court officials are looking to partner with the schools to better serve the students, so the schools are safe and the kids are getting the help they need.
"It's about systemic change. It's unique," van Wormer said.
The project also is teaching people how to pool resources by "getting smart with our money" so the court can focus its intervention and rehabilitation efforts.
In his nearly 23 years on the bench, Yule said, "this is certainly the most exciting and invigorating initiative that I have been involved in." Yule's retirement starts Monday but he will continue to co-chair with Judge Cameron Mitchell a juvenile justice advisory board. The community board oversees the Models for Change effort in Benton and Franklin counties and will ultimately receive a list of recommended improvements.
Yule said initial data is expected early this year.
Citizens interested in knowing more or participating in focus groups can contact van Wormer at 783-2151, ext. 2471.
More information on the national initiative can be found at modelsforchange.net.