West metro police agencies launch diversion program for runaway youth

Callan Gray
Updated: October 28, 2020 11:07 PM
Created: October 28, 2020 10:50 PM

In just a few short months, the Zanewood Recreation Center will be at the core of a new outreach effort to help runaway youth get on the right track. 

“One of the unique things that we see about runaway cases is it's more than what meets the eye,” said Brooklyn Park Deputy Police Chief Todd Milburn. 

There are about 80 to 100 runaway cases in the city every year, involving children 17 years old and younger. More than half of those cases involve girls, said Milburn. 

“That really jumped out to us,” he said. “It really is a root cause, a first step, a sign that a youth might be in trouble and so once that happens a youth might get themselves into a situation they weren't anticipating.”

Milburn said they noticed the trend about two years ago while exploring the need for diversion programs with the Brooklyn Center and Crystal Police Departments.

“When you combine all three cities together, that number is pretty concerning,” said Brooklyn Center Chief of Police Tim Gannon. “This is one of the first offenses young people will commit but it also puts them in danger when they’re out in the streets, not with the family unit.”

They told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that without intervention, youth who runaway can be at a higher risk for involvement in criminal activity, drug use and sex trafficking.  

“When we can get in early on and intervene and redirect to resources, that's a great thing for everyone across the board,” said Milburn.

The three police agencies have developed a classroom-based program that will be offered specifically for female youth. It starts in the first quarter of 2021 in collaboration with the YMCA.

It will provide educational programs and counseling services to girls that officers encounter while responding to runaway calls.

“The officers will oftentimes find them, bring them home and leave it up to the parent's discretion for what they want to be the next stop,” said Gannon. “This is going to be a great program where we can give this to the parents and say this could be a logical next step for you, not prosecution, not the justice system but basically diversion. How do we get this so it doesn't happen again?”

It’s a voluntary program for both youth and their families. 

“We really want to start intervening at that point of time because if we fail to do so that can really take a left hand for that youth and compound and get worse,” said Milburn. 

Gannon and Milburn told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS it’s designed to address the issue in a holistic way.

“Really give a child in that kind of circumstance a clear understanding of how to make improvements, how to help themselves out and really plug them into resources,” said Milburn. “What’s going on in that family? And what are the resources that the family might need that the YMCA and that we can plug those services into?” 

They hope it will prevent youth from entering the juvenile justice system. Data from 2019 shows the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office received 5,205 juvenile cases, with 2,569 resulting in a charge. 

“Research shows putting a child into the criminal justice system, it's not good for the kid and it's not good for the family and so if there are things we can do early on in the process to redirect, that's a great thing for the child,” said Milburn. “We want to see the child be successful later on in life.”

This month, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners approved $180,000 in funding for the pilot program through December 2022.

A report released in January by the Robert F. Kennedy Children Action Corps outlined areas for improvement within the county’s juvenile justice system.

It cites 2017 data, which showed the County Attorney’s Office received 6,074 juvenile cases that year. Sixty-eight percent involved youth of color. About 50% of the total cases resulted in a charge being filed against a youth. 

The report recommended the County Attorney’s Office, Juvenile Probation Division and other stakeholders create additional diversionary programs. It specifically mentioned the Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Crystal Police Departments’ initiative as a model to implement.

“What I really hope it to be is an open discussion,” said Gannon. “What is it that the officer can help them with and come up with solutions?"

Gannon hopes it can also encourage youth to consider a career in law enforcement. 

"I’m very hopeful this program will allow our officers to be engaged with the youth in a very positive mechanism,” he said. “I hope some of the takeaways of some of these relationships will be really long-lasting."

Milburn sees a potential mentorship program developing out of this in the future.

“Just be at a different level to have just a dialogue and you never know where those dialogues are going to go, they could turn into great relationships down the road,” said Milburn. “The more opportunities we can bring everyone together to continue that work and can continue to build those relationships is just a win-win for everyone across the board.

A new advisory committee for the county’s juvenile justice system, called the Youth Justice Council, will review the pilot diversion program over the next two years and determine how it moves forward. 


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