Diversion Programs: Handling Unanticipated Problems or Setbacks

It's a Speed Bump, Not a Roadblock

  • Overview

    SecureChallenges that may arise while implementing a diversion program can be addressed by planning and effectively communicating with all members of the program. Some of these challenges include availability of treatment services in the community, transportation/infrastructure issues, and miscommunication among multiple agencies. However, anticipating problems, and engaging in problem-solving strategies with key collaborators if an unexpected setback occurs, will help overcome potential problems. Remember that although setbacks may occur, they yield important lessons that can be used in the future to avoid additional challenges or solve similar problems.

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  • Steps to Take: Lessons Learned from the Research

    Steps to Take:  Lessons Learned from the Research

    Be proactive and plan ahead.

    • Learn from the experiences of others by researching similar programs.
    • When a diversion program includes providing treatment to youths, ensure the availability of treatment services in the community.
    • Consider transportation issues that may arise when youths are required to travel to participate in a program.
    • Make sure you have the key collaborators engaged in problem-solving efforts when unexpected problems do arise.

    Acknowledge the potential challenges of working with multiple agencies.

    • Develop a consistent strategy for internal communication.
    • Consider cross-agency staff training to address potential misunderstandings and miscommunications.
    • Be Proactive and Plan Ahead

      The best way to avoid setbacks in program implementation is to be prepared for potential challenges and take steps to avoid them early on.

      • Learn from the experiences of others by researching similar programs. Although you may be in the early stages of implementing a diversion program, other sites may have already paved the way. While it is important to remember that each program is different and each location poses unique considerations for program implementation, there are still valuable lessons that can be learned from past implementation. Searching for information (e.g., reports) about experiences from other jurisdictions (even if they did not implement the exact program you have selected) can provide some important insight and lessons learned.

        An example of a program that was implemented based on experiences of others can be seen in the Hawaii Intensive Home Based Services (IHBS) program, which was modeled after the multisystemic therapy (MST) program. Those implementing IHBS thoroughly read through evaluations and reports on MST and created a list of potential setbacks to look for. They took steps to preemptively address challenges with treatment provider shortages and staff turnover, as these were setbacks indicated in the MST literature (for more information on conducting supportive research, see Do Supportive Research). Taking the additional step to research diversion programs similar to the one you intend to implement can help to guide your development and implementation and eliminate some unnecessary speculation on what may or may not work.

      • When a diversion program includes providing treatment to youth, ensure the availability of treatment services in the community. One of the most common challenges to implementing a diversion program is having an adequate number of services for the diverted youths. Overestimating the capacity of treatment providers to handle large caseloads results in delayed treatment delivery, case attrition, or failure to provide treatment. However, by partnering with treatment providers prior to starting a program or developing treatment provider networks, this challenge can be avoided. For example, the Adolescent Diversion Project (ADP) at Michigan State University developed a longstanding partnership with university faculty and the community to ensure program success. Additionally, when faced with limited treatment resources in the local community, the Maine Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts developed a statewide treatment network to ensure that all diverted cases received the necessary behavioral health treatment services. This treatment network was developed with the help of a grant from the Office of Justice Programs.

      • Consider transportation issues that may arise when youths are required to travel to participate in a program. For some programs, transportation and infrastructure issues are important to consider because youths will have to travel from their homes to the program. Potential issues related to transportation could include parents’ schedules conflicting with program start/end time; having to drive long distances (if youths live far away from a program location); lack of public transportation options (such as in rural areas), and transportation costs. You should handle each problem as it arises, and determine the best course of action to address the issue at hand. For example, the Carroll County (Maryland) Adventure Diversion Program had a goal of serving 35 youths during the year. However, the large geographical area covered by the program meant it would take a long time to transport all participating youths to and from the evening reporting center. To address this, program staff identified specific locations in the county where parents could drop off their children; from there a van from the Department of Juvenile Services would pick up the youths, thereby cutting down on the amount of time the van drove around the county to transport youth. This example highlights how a problem that could have presented real problems for the program was solved with a simple solution (for more information about community infrastructure issues, see Identify Specific Jurisdictional Issues).

      • Make sure you have the key collaborators engaged in problem-solving efforts when unexpected problems do arise. Although you can prepare for obstacles ahead of time, sometimes issues will come up that cannot be predicted. However, if you have the right people involved in the implementation process, you can overcome potential obstacles. For example, at the beginning of the Indianapolis Family Group Conferencing Experiment, two police officers were selected to receive training in facilitating a restorative justice conference. The two officers were specifically selected not only because they were good at problem solving, but also because they had the respect of fellow officers in the agency. The officers were later heavily involved in training others in the police department to facilitate family conferences. The officers’ good reputation and credibility helped to overcome skepticism of the program and get buy-in from other officers. In addition, the juvenile court judge in Indianapolis supported the restorative justice approach, which helped to gain support from court intake officers (who were key players in ensuring youths were diverted from court processing).

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    • Acknowledge the Challenges of Working with Multiple Agencies

      Diversion programs are unique in that they involve the coordination of multiple agencies. Agencies that could collaborate in diversion efforts include juvenile justice (prosecutor’s office, defense attorneys, etc.); child welfare; mental health/substance use; community-based treatment providers; and other youth-serving agencies. Though the number and variety of agencies involved in a diversion program can vary, there are still challenges that may arise when diverse parties collaborate for the first time. Different routine practices, terminology, and goals can make communication among partners challenging. To avoid the potential challenges arising from multi-agency coordination, you should consider the following:

      • Develop a consistent strategy for internal communication. Once a diversion effort is underway, it can be easy to overlook the need for a consistent and clear flow of information until a circumstance arises where you need to decide. Implementation team meetings to share information, resources, and data should occur on a regular basis. For instance, the Reclaiming Futures model implemented in Kentucky recommends meeting at least twice a month for the first 6 months and then at least once a month thereafter. This is an efficient way to ensure that all team members will be able to engage in problem solving with the most accurate and up-to-date information.

        Program staff and participants are an excellent resource to tell you what is (or isn’t) working in the diversion program and what aspects of the program are potential problems. For this reason, you should try to get information from all people who are involved in the implementation effort. What may seem to be flowing smoothly for one group may be causing problems with another. Having avenues for staff and program participants to provide feedback on how the diversion effort is running are good ways to figure out potential problems before they become larger setbacks.

        The regular meeting of the implementation team is also an avenue to build rapport across agencies and ultimately facilitate quicker resolutions to conflict. The resulting familiarity with team members, shared vision about the program, and the underlying trust lays the foundation for effective collaboration and provides the platform to diffuse a possibly contentious situation among partners. For example, staff from the Court for Individualized Treatment of Adolescents (CITA) program reported that challenges with communication improved after recognizing (and remembering) that each agency also sought to improve the mental health of youth.

      • Consider cross-agency staff training to address potential misunderstandings and miscommunications. With multiple agencies, each with different missions, functions, and practices, you will need to remind all program staff that they are on the same team and share the common goal of helping youths. Multi-agency coordination requires that all members step out of their traditional roles and work toward a common objective.

        One of the more commonly cited challenges with diversion programs is difficulty understanding the roles that staff from other agencies play in the implementation of the program. To avoid challenges rooted in misunderstandings and miscommunications, it is beneficial to cross-train individuals from the various agencies so that each side can understand the unique goals of the agencies involved in diversion efforts. For example, in the King County Systems Integration Initiative, which aimed to help youths involved in both the criminal justice and welfare systems, evaluators recommended cross-training probation officers and welfare agents so that each understood the routine practices of the other organization. Following the training, program staff reported better communication between agencies along with greater understanding of their own roles within the program. Cross training can help program staff recognize that each agency has an important role in making the program work. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of other partners can also help establish a mutual division of labor that balances the resources of each organization.

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