Diversion Programs: Address Adaptation

To Adapt or Not to Adapt?

  • Overview

    SupportOften, when an evidence-based program is implemented in a community, certain aspects of the original program design may change. Changes can occur for many reasons, such as limited funds, time constraints, jurisdictional or cultural concerns, or lack of support from stakeholders.

    Researchers debate how much a program can be changed to fit a local situation and still achieve its intended purpose. They worry that changing a program too much and not implementing with fidelity to the original design may reduce the program’s effectiveness. However, if you find the original diversion program model does not fit the specific needs of your community, you should consider and plan for adaptations. It will be important to consider certain factors, such as the theoretical foundation or principles underlying a program, before making decisions about adaptations.

    Additionally, after implementing a program, you may find that the diversion efforts are not achieving the anticipated results. In this situation, it will be important to make changes to the program, so that youths are not negatively affected by their participation in diversion.

    This section provides guidance and recommendations about preparing for planned adaptations, and being ready for the possibility of unplanned adaptations to your program. Adaptation is a complicated process that should be approached carefully and with input from program developers, if possible.

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  • Steps to Take: Lessons Learned from the Research

    Steps to Take:  Lessons Learned from the Research

    Consider and plan for appropriate program adaptations.

    • If necessary, adjust the core program components to fit the needs of your community.
    • Make sure changes and adaptations do not conflict with the theoretical foundation of the diversion program.

    Be prepared for potential unplanned adaptations.

    • Use findings from outcome or process evaluations conducted on your program to make necessary adaptations that ensure youths are not negatively impacted.
    • If adaptations are made to the original program design, evaluate the new program to ensure the desired goals and objectives are still being met.
    • Consider and Plan for Appropriate Program Adaptations

      Juvenile diversion programs often include several different components that are important to the implementation process, including staffing and other key players who will implement the program; the format in which the program should be delivered (for example, one-on-one or in a group setting); core topics to be covered by the program or treatment services that should be offered; and setting (for example, in a court setting or community-based setting). It is important to identify the components of your program that are the most critical and understand that adapting these core components may change the expected impact of a program (for more information on identifying the key components of a program, see Do Supportive Research).

      • If necessary, adjust the core program components to fit the needs of your community. One of the trickier aspects of adaptation is deciding how much of the original program design to change (without affecting program effectiveness) based on the specific setting and needs of your community as well as the risks/needs of the youth population you hope to serve. You will need to ask certain questions about your community’s capacity to implement a program to determine what adaptations may be necessary. For example, if you are diverting youth from juvenile court, do you have the resources and staff available? If frontline staff are already handling high caseloads, they may not be able to take on the added work of diversion programming. Also, if you do not have the resources available to implement the original program model, that may mean serving fewer youths or modifying the prescribed dosage that youths receive.

        Similarly, you will need to determine the setting that would be most appropriate for implementing the program. A program you select may have been designed for a court-based setting, but because of constraints on staff time and resources, the program will need to be implemented in a community-based setting. An adaptation such as this could impact the program’s effectiveness. For example, the Independence Youth Court in Missouri was part of a multisite evaluation of teen/youth court programs that was conducted in four cities; private organizations/agencies ran the programs in two cities (including the Independence Youth Court), while the local court system ran the program in one city and the local prosecutor’s office ran the program in another city. Results of the evaluation showed that recidivism outcomes were better in the cities where the program was run by private agencies than in the cities where the program was run by the court or prosecutor’s office. Although this finding is tentative (the study authors did not control for all variables that could have impacted the results), it does suggest that in this instance, running the diversion program outside of the court system may have resulted in better outcomes for youths. This is one example of a factor that communities will need to consider when thinking about adapting a program.
      • Make sure changes and adaptations do not conflict with the theoretical foundation of the diversion program. You also need to keep in mind that some programs are based on important theories or ideas that guide the implementation of primary program components. For example, programs like Indianapolis Family Group Conferencing Experiment and the Canberra Reintegrative Shaming Experiments are based on theories and ideas related to restorative justice. A primary element of restorative justice programs is the active participation of those most affected by the crime, including the victim, the person who committed the offense, and family members and friends of both. If your community would like to implement a diversion program, but does not want to involve victims in the process, then it would be better to select a program that is not based on restorative justice. This is one example where the goals of the program you wish to implement are important to remember, as not all diversion programs can be adapted to address those goals.

        Another example is that of programs based on therapeutic jurisprudence. Certain types of diversion programs, specifically specialty/problem-solving courts (such as drug courts and mental health courts) are based on principles of therapeutic jurisprudence, where the focus is on using a problem-solving, treatment-focused approach in a non-adversarial forum to address youths’ problem behaviors. For instance, in the Court for the Individualized Treatment of Adolescents (CITA), a juvenile mental health court, various members of the court team (including the probation officer, district attorney, defense attorneys, and the court judge) work together to provide wraparound services and coordinated care for youths with mental health needs. Programs informed by therapeutic jurisprudence generally require refocusing the approach of the court, so that all key players work together to improve the health and well-being of youths (note that this is counter to traditional court processing, where defense attorneys work in opposition to prosecuting attorneys to reach the best outcome for their clients). Therefore, if your community does not have the capacity to support such collaboration, you would not want to select a program like CITA or other problem-solving courts. This example again shows that the goals you select for your program are important to remember in the adaptation process (for more information, see Establish Program Goals).

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    • Be Prepared for Potential Unplanned Adaptations

      Although it is best to make adaptations to your program before it begins, you may find you need to make changes along the way for a variety of reasons (for example, the needs of your target population may change or new problems may arise). Ongoing program and process evaluations may also point to issues with the program that need to be addressed. Although it may be hard to avoid unplanned adaptations, you can still be prepared for the possibility of changes that will need to be made to the program.

      • Use findings from outcome or process evaluations conducted on your program to make necessary adaptations that ensure youths are not negatively impacted. In some situations, research has shown that a program is more effective for one group than another. Before adapting the program to fit a certain population, consult the research to determine whether adaptations make sense. Outcome and process evaluations can show whether your program is achieving the desired results of improving outcomes for youths. When an evaluation shows that a diversion program is negatively impacting youths in some way, it is important to make necessary changes to ensure youths are not being hurt by programming or treatment services.

        For example, an outcome evaluation of the Adolescent Diversion Program in New York State found that participation in the program reduced the likelihood of rearrest for all participants; however, when looking at youths by level of risk, lower-risk youth were actually more likely to be rearrested. In this instance, a program like ADP should be changed so that only high-risk youths are targeted. This may require changes to the inclusion criteria or to the screening process to ensure that lower-risk youth are properly identified and diverted to another program. This example shows the importance of being prepared to change a program, if results are not what you expected, as well as the value of conducting evaluations to inform decisions about adaptations.

      • If adaptations are made to the original program design, evaluate the new program to ensure the desired goals and objectives are still being met. When adaptations are made to the original design of an evidence-based program, you should conduct another outcome evaluation to determine whether the program is still meeting its goals and to assess whether the adaptations are working. While an evaluation may show that a juvenile diversion program works well in a particular setting and with a specific target population, the implementation of a program in other settings (such as in community-based settings) needs further evaluation to ensure the program is still working as expected (for more guidance about conducting an outcome evaluation, see Ensure Long-Term Sustainability).

        For example, the Indianapolis Family Group Conferencing Experiment program was originally implemented and evaluated in a juvenile justice setting, as a diversion program for young juveniles who had committed their first offense. The program was later adapted for use in a school setting as an alternative to arrest and/or expulsion for students. The program has been evaluated in the justice setting (and shown to reduce the number of rearrests of program participants), but the program has not yet been evaluated in a school setting. Therefore, it is unclear how effective the program is when implemented in schools.

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