DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICES, SCHOOLS, SERVICE AGENCIES 

COLLABORATE  TO HELP TROUBLED STUDENTS

In Alabama, the Helping Families Initiative—a unique collaboration between Volunteers of America Southeast and the State of Alabama—supports local district attorneys’ offices as they work with community leaders to fight crime and improve the academic performance of students who exhibit problematic behaviors.

The Helping Families Initiative, created in 2003, is based on several core tenets:

~ Student absenteeism and behavioral difficulties have root causes in individual, family, or neighborhood problems.

~ There is a correlation between student absenteeism and behavioral difficulties, and crime and violence.

~ HFI’s early intervention to assist young people and their families and young people — based on trust relationships — has proven to be a cost-effective strategy for improving outcomes for youth, avoiding their inclusion in the juvenile and adult justice systems, and enhancing safety for families, schools and communities.

Community agencies can serve young people and their families more effectively when they work together to deliver coordinated and comprehensive services, knowledge, and resources.

~ HFI’s intervention services to at-risk students are one of the most effective ways for schools to move the needle on improving student attendance, behavior, grades, and outcomes.

HFI centers, based in local district attorney’s offices, are staffed by a team leader and case officers  — one case officer for every 6000 students enrolled. HFI Center Inter-Agency Teams, comprised of 10 to 15 representatives of public and private agencies serving youth, meet regularly to discuss root causes of problems and intervention strategies for participating students and their families. HFI Center Inter-Agency Teams bring together a deep knowledge of local neighborhoods and services that are available, while the district attorney and local school superintendents provide the high-level leadership and influence to support HFI.  

HFI Centers intervene with students who have exhibited truancy or other behavioral issues, and their families.  The process begins with a letter from the district attorney inviting a family to meet with a case officer to explore problems, interventions, and supports.  There is no obligation on the part of the student or the family to participate.  Over the years the program has built trust within our communities by affirming each family’s dignity and delivering on the message that “we are here to help.”

Case officers meet with families, establish trust, assess family strengths and challenges, and develop individualized intervention plans that are student-, family-, and neighborhood-specific.  The HFI Centers’ Inter-Agency Teams evaluate all interventions and assist in identifying available supports and services.  A “Chinese Wall” of confidentiality surrounds HFI Centers and insulates students’ and families’ information from access by the criminal justice system.

HFI currently includes ten local district attorneys’ offices, with plans to expand into all 42 Alabama jurisdictions.  Each local HFI Center receives training, development, operational and technical support from the state support team at Volunteers of America Southeast, comprised of director John Tyson, Jr., a former district attorney and state school board member; training and operational coordinator Jayne Carson, a licensed professional counselor and community leader; and technical coordinator Dr. Phillip Feldman, a former university associate dean and educational expert.

The cost for each case officer is about $70,000 per year, including equipment and expenses, financed by a combination of state and local revenue streams such as school board, municipal, and/or county funds, and grants. Volunteers of America Southeast also receives an appropriation from the Alabama Legislature for the state support team. Alabama stakeholders consider HFI a cost-effective way to reduce truancy and other problem behaviors; boost family, school, and community safety; and improve life outcomes for youth and their families who may be facing steep hurdles and significant challenges.

During the 2018-2019 school year, HFI delivered direct services to 13,272 families and indirect services to 118,603 preK-12 students. All faculty and staff in these jurisdictions also received indirect services. There is every reason to expect that the number of families receiving direct services will more than double during the 2019-2020 school year. 

For more information, please visit our website: hfialabama.com

Organization Mission

The Helping Families Initiative (HFI) helps preK-12 students in trouble at school for truancy or other bad behavior build productive futures while improving the safety and learning environment for all students.  HFI:

  • identifies the root causes of students’ bad behaviors,
  • plans and delivers combinations of services that meet individual and family needs, and
  • communicates human and statistical results to the public and other stakeholders.
Population Served

During the 2018-2019 school year HFI directly served 13,272 families. 126,453 preK-12 students received indirect services, as did 7,468 faculty and staff employed in the participating school systems.

Organization's Accomplishments

Benefits of the work include:

~ better school attendance

~ better behavior at school

~ better grades

~ better learning environments in school,

~ improved safety and security of families, schools, neighborhoods and communities

Important Factors for Success

By identifying underlying root causes of bad behaviors students exhibit and brokering services to address those problems, the HFI puts teachers in a better position to deliver the education that schools were designed to provide.

HFI offers coordinated, cooperative, and comprehensive plans for students and their families in their own neighborhoods. Many helping professionals and agencies are committed to helping kids, but these professionals and agencies often work in isolation. HFI provides solutions to this communications gap.

Requirements for Success

To be successful, the HFI requires buy-in from district attorneys, school systems, public and private social services, local and state government, and families. A modest budget is needed to pay for the state support team and staff the Helping Families Initiative Centers in district attorneys’ offices. Local agencies must contribute personnel to staff the HFI Centers’ Inter-Agency Teams. Local private and public social service agencies, including faith-based institutions, must provide needed services to students and families in their neighborhoods. Finally, the program relies on the training, materials, case-management systems, information technology support, trouble-shooting, budgeting, and coaching provided by the state support team.

Timeline

The first HFI efforts began in 2003. The program has been operating in some form in participating district attorneys’ offices ever since.

Overcoming Challenges

Challenges were overcome through hard work, creativeness, persistence, and stubbornness.

Lessons Learned

The HFI has shown that providing coordinated, cooperative, and comprehensive services can improve outcomes for youth; provide safer families, schools, and neighborhoods; and enhance the value of existing tax dollars and charitable funds.

Future Goals

The HFI is expanding into 10 of Alabama’s 42 district attorneys’ offices by the end of fiscal year 2019-2020. The goal is to continue expansion into all 42 district attorneys’ offices in Alabama. However, the work is not easy and it takes time to bring the program to maturity at each location.

Major Takeaways

This is from the abstract of an article about the Helping Families Initiative in the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal in 2009:

“School-related violence and school infractions pose a significant problem for schools, families, and communities… [In] an effective community partnership and prevention effort operated by the District Attorney’s office… high-risk students and their families were assessed, assigned case workers, and referred to community services. Findings indicated… scores on the North Carolina Family Assessment Scale (NCFAS) improved significantly from pretest to posttest… [and] were significantly correlated with measures of school performance (grades, unexcused absences, suspensions, and school infractions). These findings demonstrate an effective collaboration of social service providers and the District Attorney.”

Helping Families Initiative: Intervening with High-Risk Students through a Community, School, and District Attorney Partnership, Turner, Powell, Langhinrichsen-Rohling, & Carson, Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal (2009) 26:209-223.