Monday, December 11, 2006

DJJ's Proposed Juvenile "Call Center"

Late last week, we mentioned the backsliding plans of Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice to close the local Juvenile Screening and Detention Center, which serves both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Yesterday, the Pensacola News Journal editorialized against the proposal, too.

We saw the chief policy issue as implicating concerns about public safety, child care, and professionalism. Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice is poorly funded, field workers are struggling under massively increased caseloads, and DJJ administrators at the highest levels seem interested only in camouflaging that reality with cheap sloganeering and obfuscations.

The News Journal has a darker view. They see the problem as symptomatic of a broader range of problems facing state government that have been allowed to pile up over the past several years. Though his name wasn't explicitly mentioned, in effect the newspaper is saying that Jeb Bush's chickens are coming home to roost:
With health care for the physically and mentally disabled, the housing of mentally ill jail inmates, the handling of arrested juveniles, and maybe Medicaid in the near future -- years of policy development at the state level is coming to fruition with the state backing away from past responsibilities and dumping the problems on local governments, non-profit agencies or whoever else can be handed the ball.
No doubt, the governor and his supporters are sticking all the thumbs they can into the leaky dike that is state government. With a month before he leaves office and starts plotting a path to the White House, the last thing Jeb Bush needs is to have his 'privatization' programs exposed for the shams they are.

Thumbs in the dike, okay. What else can you expect from a politician? But imitating Microsoft?

Today, Local radio reports say DJJ remains adamant that it will "convert the [juvenile screening center] operation into a call center, where youngsters picked up by police will be screened by phone. "

Screening for mental health and public safety of children by telephone? Under DJJ's "call center" model a screener could be fifty, or a hundred, or even a thousand miles away from the juvenile who is being assessed for physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as suitability for pre-hearing release to a parent or guardian. Interviewers would have no eye contact with the youth, no body language to read, no visual (or odorous) clues at all to the mental and emotional state of the juvenile.

When was the last time a doctor or nurse who didn't know you personally was willing to diagnose you over the telephone? When was the last time a judge was prepared to grant bail to someone they hadn't even met based on a telephone conversation? When was the last time a lawyer or an accountant took your case without meeting you in person?

What DJJ is proposing isn't mental health or pre-release "screening." It's a telemarketing campaign.

And members of the public are the suckers. It's exactly like calling for help when your computer dies and getting a voice on the other end of the line that sounds like Gunga Din the water carrier.

If DJJ administrators are serious about "call center" screening for newly detained delinquent or runaway juveniles, they may as well go whole hog, like any other profit-hungry enterprise without a soul, and hire Bangladesh tele-technicians. They will work for pennies a day.

A Bangladeshi "call center" screener may not be able to assess troubled kids worth a damn, but on the fourth or fifth call he might be able to fix their computers.

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