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Evergreen Youth & Family Services conference: Judge advocates for collaboration

Evergreen Youth & Family Services hosted its annual two-day conference this week with a theme of “Building Resilience in Youth & Families.” A popular session, “Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning,” was taught by Liz Letson in the arena at the Sanford Center. Pictured, from left, are Ann Lundquist, Brian Lietz and Shawn Whiting, linked together to gain the trust of a horse. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – While advocating for cross-system collaboration to better address the needs of youth affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, a retired Seattle, Wash., judge used a case study as an example.

A boy lived in poverty in a secluded, affluent island. He was raised by an alcoholic mother who spent their money on booze and cigarettes. He often fled into the woods to escape from home, where he was physically assaulted and his mother often told him she wished he was dead and threatened to kill him.

Just once, the child was removed from his mother’s home, for 10 days before he was returned home.

He was a demanding infant with sleep-onset problems. At 2 years old, he was diagnosed with a language development delay. At age 6, he was taken out of special-education classes, which he’d been attending since age 3.

At age 12, he had his first juvenile criminal conviction for possessing stolen property. He had broken into a neighbor’s house to get food.

That boy, Colton Harris-Moore, would grow up to become the “Barefoot Bandit,” a Washington man now serving a seven-year sentence after stealing, among other things, five airplanes, which he learned to fly from reading magazines.

“What he didn’t learn was how to land the planes without crashing. He crashed all five,” said Tony Wartnik, the retired Seattle judge, from the Sanford Center’s ballroom Friday morning.

Wartnik addressed about 250 professionals gathered for the annual Evergreen Youth & Family Services conference. The conference, with a theme of “Building Resilience in Youth & Families,” featured Wartnik as the keynote speaker on the second morning of the two-day conference.

Wartnik said Harris-Moore was diagnosed as having an FASD, alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, the result of brain damage caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. A psychiatrist concluded his deficits and problems can be remediated, and he has a favorable prognosis with a low risk of recidivism.

“(This case study) points out the fact that when the department doesn’t respond the way it should … we’re looking at the potential of disaster,” Wartnik said.

Wartnik’s presentation advocated for cross-system collaboration among all affected parties – such as social workers, prosecutors, judges, school officials and treatment providers – to effectively manage the cases of the children and families.

“In my own experience, when I can get the parties to agree on a solution, it’s a lot more effective than when I’ve got parties disputing,” Wartnik said.

He reported that 60 percent of children with an FASD end up breaking the law.

The majority of FASD cases, he continued, can’t be identified until secondary disabilities are apparent.

The key, Wartnik said, is similar to other development disorders: obtain an early diagnosis and start interventions quickly.

“The earlier you can get a child into early developmental programs and therapy, the better the chance the child has,” he said.

Becky Schueller, executive director of Evergreen, said Wartnik has been an advocate for getting professionals to collaborate across disciplines.

“He has sort of made a life’s work of trying to work down those silos and understand how those systems need to work together to best serve our clients,” she said. “Building resilience is not just something that happens on the individual level, it is something that also happens on the community level.”