Every year, the Oregon Juvenile Department Directors Association recognizes outstanding juvenile justice professionals who are nominated by their peers throughout the state. And every year, Multnomah County nominates exceptional people who not only perform the duties of their jobs, but do so with sincerity, creativity, and a deep commitment to their clients and co-workers.
This year’s nominees made quite the impression on their peers. Whitney Burch was nominated as Multnomah County’s Detention Worker of the Year, and Candace Johnson was nominated as Multnomah County’s Juvenile Justice Professional of the Year.
Winners of the awards statewide were announced on Sept. 19. To simply be nominated is an accomplishment of its own. As both nominees shared, the positive impact they can have on a young person’s life makes their work worth it whether they win or not.
Multnomah County and Oregon Juvenile Detention Worker of the Year winner: Whitney Burch
Whitney Burch launched her career as a juvenile custody service specialist during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Literally, the day we started wearing masks was the day I started working,” she said.
She began work in the Assessment and Evaluation program, then moved to serving youth in detention in July 2021. She has been the lead of her unit ever since, serving as a point person for questions and various matters related to youth.
Her shift — 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Thursday through Monday — keeps her busy. The work can be painstaking — some days are easier, while others are tougher.
“But the most rewarding part of the work that I do is giving kids the skills that we teach them or try to teach them, and (seeing them) apply them to their lives,” said Burch.
“When you actively see these kids that are struggling, and we put in work, and work to teach them skills, and you see them process before they act or respond — they’re considering what we say. Those are my small wins.”
While she’s on the clock, Burch is on her unit at all times. Her duties include ensuring a safe, supportive and nurturing environment for youth who are temporarily in detention. She helps organize and run projects for youth, while also working with them in prosocial ways to change their life trajectory.
Burch also facilitates the development of strength-based programming and tailors behavior interventions to individual needs instead of using “a one-size-fits-all“ approach.
It’s important to keep each youth’s history in mind. “We work hard to meet kids where they’re at concerning (their) behavior and consequences,” she said.
Growing up in Northeast Portland, Burch sought a career working with youth. There were times growing up that she felt like she didn’t have someone to rely on.
“I saw the decisions that many people were making and how it was hindering them,” she said. “And I just wanted to be that safe space for people to experience, like, this doesn’t have to be you.”
Burch started working at the Boys and Girls Club when she was a senior in high school. She worked at the organization for seven years and eventually became a club site manager.
Her transition to the Juvenile Services Division was a natural one.
“There are so many reasons I got into the field, but one was just giving back to my community,” she said. “It’s another reason I want to stay in Northeast Portland, because I want to give back to the community that helped raise me.”
Burch’s managers and peers describe her as skilled at building interpersonal relationships with custody staff, on-call staff, and internal and external partners.
She works to build rapport with everyone, not just the kids. She constantly strives for creative solutions and works to meet the youth where they are in order to help them move forward.
“It’s a lot of processing and managing of emotions, but learning to get through the day and having a daily routine, even when you face challenges,” Burch said.
“I work hard to help people see that even when you make poor choices or poor decisions, that doesn’t have to be it for you. Sometimes all it takes is that one person to tell you, ‘I got you’ or ‘I believe in you,’ or someone to see that (you) can do better.”
Multnomah County Juvenile Justice Professional of the Year nominee: Candace Johnson
Juvenile Services Division staff members nominated their colleague Candace Johnson, a 30 year employee of the department, for the Juvenile Justice Professional of the Year Award.
As a juvenile court counselor with Multnomah County’s Adjudication Unit, Johnson completes investigations and provides snapshots of a youth’s life, and makes recommendations to help youth avoid re-engagement with the justice system, while also protecting the community.
An internship in college led her to this career path.
“One of the best things I did was an internship with the Marion County Juvenile Department. I was so glad that I did,” she said.
Johnson has always enjoyed work as an adjudicator, a role that is heavily involved in court processes.
“I enjoy listening to youth, and sitting and talking with families and understanding their circumstances and striving to ensure the youth does not re-offend,” she said.
“We make verbal and written recommendations to the court. You are constantly working to do what is best for the community and for youth. We work hard to help youth make positive choices.”
As her co-workers and managers attest, Johnson delivers outstanding customer service and quality of work in the Adjudication Unit. She contacts schools, teachers, parents, therapists, coaches and mentors, and works to determine the risks and needs of young people.
The work over the last several years has not been easy, thanks to the pandemic and increases in community violence. But even after 30 years as a juvenile court counselor and the recent intensive work, she remains optimistic.
“It’s always hopeful to me because these are youth, and they can always change,” she stresses. “I think some youth really want someone to help them. There are youths who just need help in going in different directions.”
Johnson treats youth and their families with respect and dignity. She takes time to explain things and will reword and break things down to help people understand.
She also has a sincere commitment to the wellness of her colleagues, participating as a member of a peer support group. She is always willing to lend an ear and a shoulder to cry on. So, too, have her co-workers, who have helped her through the intensity of the work.
“There’s a sense of camaraderie and support,” she said. “I absolutely could not make it through this work without the support of this team.”
Before she served as juvenile court counselor with the Adjudication Unit, she was a lead worker for almost a decade and trained numerous other juvenile court counselors. Her dependability and excellence distinguish her as a role model for the department.
In December 2022, Johnson will have officially served 30 years at the County.
The job has never been about the paycheck, she says, “rather a passion for service in the community and serving youth.”
“If I can be a positive influence and encourage positive change for a few kids, it’s been a good 30 years. I’m proud of my work and that I’ve done this. It’s a job worth doing.”