Sheryl Goodman remembers one of the highest compliments ever paid to her. It happened by chance at a neighborhood yogurt shop. “You saved my life,” said a young woman working at the cash register. Goodman recognized her previous client, who had successfully completed her program and was now gainfully employed.
“It caught me off guard that I had such an impact on someone’s life”, said Goodman. “At Juvenile, I work with highly-dedicated staff and it’s not often we get this type of positive reinforcement.”
It’s those life-changing moments that Goodman strives for --intervening to offer services and support that can change the course of a young person’s life. It came as no surprise to her friends and colleagues when she applied for a new and unique position with the Juvenile Services Division, one that seemed to be a natural fit for her passion to help youth.
The resource connection specialist/intervention position was created in 2013. The job serves as a liaison between Multnomah County’s Juvenile Services Division and School Resource Officers from Portland Police Bureau’s Youth Services Division. All schools in Portland, Parkrose and David Douglas School Districts utilize Goodman for early intervention services.
“I call myself the connector,” said Goodman. “I’m a mentor, coach, resource connector, essentially preparing youth and families for services.”
The work involves a new approach to prevention by identifying youth, in-or-out of school, who are struggling and at-risk of suspension, expulsion or referrals to Juvenile Justice System.
Goodman collaborates with Portland Police Bureau school resource officers, school personnel and community partners to pinpoint who is at greatest risk. Connection to services in the community are provided to youth and their families. These can also include face-to-face visits by Goodman at school or at home based on the needs of the youth.
The goal is to reach out to youth and their families before a police report is written and connect them to services in the community. Those services can include: drug treatment, mental health counseling, parenting classes, gang-prevention, mentoring, job search programs and pro-social activities like summer camps.
The youth Goodman serves range in age from 8 to 19 years-old. They are often dealing with heavy issues from early drug use, gangs or mental health issues. Goodman, who is painfully aware of the statistics, works to intervene.
“Kids who smoke, use alcohol or drugs before the age of 13 are more likely to come through the system,” said Goodman.
A crucial component to intervention is building trust and relationships, which often involves overcoming pre-conceived notions about “officials” in school and a general resistance to services.
“I think most of the time when I come in, the kids think here’s another adult telling me what to do but you break through judgmental exteriors by being on their level and having them participate in the discussion and finding out what’s important to them," said Goodman. “It takes treating them with respect and letting them know that I want to hear their side of the story and not blame them for past issues but have each person (parent and youth) take responsibility for how to move towards what they want.”
In her first year, Goodman worked with at least 56 different families and had 159 face-to-face visits. Much of it resulting in connections to services or follow-ups to support families. Her successes were noticed by colleagues, managers and eventually directors of Juvenile Justice Departments. She was nominated by her peers and then selected as the “Juvenile Justice Professional of the Year” by Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties Juvenile Justice Directors.
“Sheryl’s commitment, advocacy, tenacity, and belief in our youth and the strength of families is inspirational. The heart she bring to her work every day makes a difference in the lives of many people in our community. Sheryl is truly an exemplary juvenile justice professional,” stated Christina McMahan, Juvenile Services Division Director for the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice.
For Goodman, the award was unexpected, rewarding and a testament to her drive to help youth overcome barriers to success. Her work is rooted in restorative justice principles that work to keep kids engaged in school but also addresses the prevailing concern of racial and ethnic disparities.
“Being one of the forces to give services to populations that are often over-represented in system in general is rewarding.”
Goodman acknowledges the work is intertwined with successes and failures. Some young people she has encountered will still be the subject of police reports but Goodman gauges success on whether they can be moved away from risky behaviors and towards more pro-social ones.
“I ask myself have we given them more resources than they previously had. Did they feel like they had better communication with their families and did they feel like they had a positive experience with a system that would make it more likely for them to be open to future interventions.”
“This is the best position I’ve had by far. I think getting to intervene before kids get into the system is the most important thing we can do as an agency and a community.”