Recent Juvenile Aftercare Initiatives
The Michigan Nokomis Challenge Program

The Nokomis Challenge Program was started in 1989 by the Michigan Department of Social Services (DSS) as an alternative placement to traditional custodial settings for medium- and low-risk juveniles. Instead of placement in a long-term residential facility, the program offered 3 months in a remote, 40-bed wilderness challenge facility, followed by 9 months of aftercare surveillance and treatment. The model called for a three-stage wilderness challenge experience that included orientation and assessment, challenge, and community survival. The model emphasized cognitive/behavior training, social and survival skills, and family work. During the residential stage, the youth and their families were to be seen every 2 weeks at the facility by a community treatment worker (CTW), who was also expected to meet with the family once a week in the community. CTW's were provided under contract by seven different private agencies located across the State.

The aftercare component included a number of distinct phases, each with separate tasks and goals for the youth and family. Reentry into the community was marked by virtual house arrest for 30 days. During the initial 3 months, the minimum level of contact required of the CTW was three contacts per week with the youth, including one with the family. The program placed great emphasis on family participation in the treatment process, with the CTW acting as the primary family worker. The private agencies also provided community contact workers (CCW's) to conduct surveillance, initially at least three times per day with the youth and once per day with the family.

Using a quasi-experimental design, Deschenes, Greenwood, and Marshall (1996) evaluated this programming effort. Participation in the Nokomis Challenge Program was limited to adjudicated youth who were 14 years of age or older. The majority (64 percent) of the juveniles targeted for Nokomis were African-American youth who were approximately 14 years old at the time of their first arrest, with an average of three prior arrests plus two prior adjudications. Their average age at the time of placement in the program was 16.5 years. Roughly 29 percent of the offenses committed by the youth entering Nokomis were crimes against persons. Thirty-seven percent were property crimes, 16.5 percent were drug-related offenses, and 17.5 percent were other types of crime. Approximately 20 percent of youth participating in the experiment were known gang members; 42 percent were drug dealers; and 55 percent were drug users.

The outcome evaluation was based on an analysis of 97 youth in the Nokomis Program and a comparison group of 95 youth in a traditional residential program. The evaluation focused on basic social adjustment and familial functioning and also on criminality and drug use. Although both the Nokomis and comparison group participants showed some positive changes in coping mechanisms during the residential period, both groups had experienced setbacks by the 24-month followup. In the area of family functioning, the evaluation revealed a general decline in both groups at 24 months. Arrest records indicated no difference between the groups at 24 months in the overall proportion with a new felony arrest; however, the Nokomis youth self-reported less involvement in drug sales than did those in the comparison group. Overall, the self-reported frequency of substance use declined slightly from intake to 24-month followup, but there was no difference between the two groups.

What might explain the overall similarity in impact? One possibility is suggested by the finding that Nokomis participants only received formal substance abuse treatment during the residential phase and that, compared with traditional residential programs, the alternative program apparently offered less family counseling. Even so, the families of youth in the experimental program were no worse off than the families of youth in traditional residential care.

Nokomis also encountered a substantial problem in successfully retaining participants during the first 12 months (including residential and community phases). A staggering 60 percent of youth in Nokomis were either transferred to or placed in another custodial program during the first year, and an additional 10 percent were rearrested during the second 12 months of the 24-month study period. In contrast, only 16 percent of the participants in the traditional residential program (where length of stay averaged 15.5 months) did not successfully complete the program; 14 percent were rearrested during the remaining months in the 24-month study period. Deschenes, Greenwood, and Marshall (1996) conclude that the main weakness in Nokomis was related to the community phase, which is the ultimate test of any sanction or disposition. During that phase, youth in the traditional residential program were rearrested at about the same rate. It should also be noted that the initial 3 months of residential placement in Nokomis could well be regarded as relatively short-term, particularly since that was the only time spent by offenders in drug treatment. Deschenes, Greenwood, and Marshall (1996) conclude that, regardless of the intervention, youth who were released back into the same environment faced the same difficulties in readjusting to the community setting without relapse. The researchers recommend strengthening the community phase, particularly with reference to treating substance abuse, improving family functioning, and targeting younger juveniles.

Reintegration, Supervised Release, and Intensive Aftercare Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  July 1999