School Psychologist with IWK Youth Forensic Services
“Many adults would be crushed under the weight of what these youth experience, and yet, most of our youth get up every morning and put two feet on the floor. It is their incredible resiliency that gives me hope.”
Peyton Harris, school psychologist with IWK Youth Forensic Services (YFS) works exclusively with youth who have contact with the law. Her goal is to help them reduce their risk to reoffend, either violently or generally, and become more positive and contributing members of their communities. This in turn reduces violence and makes everyone safer.
“Instilling hope in the youth we serve is crucially important so they understand that they have an opportunity to build an alternative and more positive future for themselves,” says Harris. “No matter how far down the wrong road you travel, it is never too late to turn back.”
The work done at YFS, whether assessment or intervention-based, is guided by the Risk, Need, Responsivity (RNR) Model, which is scientifically proven to reduce the risk to reoffend both violently and generally.
“I believe in second chances, and that the science behind the RNR Model helps make them possible, particularly when applied by the dedicated and skilled YFS Team in concert with our Department of Justice partners.”
According to the RNR model, risk level is first assessed, and the intensity of the intervention is matched to the young person’s risk to reoffend. The level of risk for general offending is predicted using specific factors: the youth’s behavioural history, specific personality and behavioural traits, the person’s attitudes and orientation to the world, their family situation, their peer relationships, their opportunities for leisure and recreation, their success in school or employment, and finally, their propensity for substance use.
Next, specific risk factors are identified for the youth that can be changed with specifically tailored interventions to reduce their risk to reoffend.
Finally, any individual characteristics of the youth that will increase the likelihood that he or she will engage in their programming are taken into account. Examples of such factors would be the youth’s learning style, gender, culture and the individual strengths of the youth.
Like her colleagues, Harris is trained in both mental health and forensics but brings the unique aspect of specialized knowledge about complex learning problems to the team. And any work she does employs a forensic lens.
“You can imagine the importance of understanding how someone learns when you are working with a team to help a youth understand their risk scenarios and to change attitudes that contribute to their risk to offend violently.”
As part of her role Harris completes court-ordered psycho-educational assessments. She provides expert witness testimony in court as required, such as when a youth versus an adult sentence is being considered by a judge. She is also called to the Nova Scotia Review Board (NSRB) to present the results and recommendations of psycho-educational assessments and to answer questions from the board when youth are found unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible. Important decisions are made by the NSRB, such as whether youth can be released into the community with conditions, or if they will be hospitalized in a secure environment. In addition to conducting psycho-educational assessments, Harris also completes specialized mental health and behavioural assessments, and provides consultation to youth and their families, to IWK YFS staff, and to other stakeholders such as Department of Justice staff, educational professionals, Youth Advocate Program staff, and the Department of Community Services.
“The public tend to see youth in conflict with the law in terms of their behaviour, and in many ways, this is a natural response,” says Harris. “What people sometimes don’t understand about youth in contact with the law is that many of them face significant personal and family stressors, and have mental health concerns that contribute to their poor choices. With evidence-based treatment these youth can and do change.”
“When the youth buy in to treatment and you see their successes and potential for the future, there is no better feeling. You also know that when a youth learns to manage his or her risk effectively, the safety of our communities is enhanced, and violence is reduced. Instilling hope in the youth we serve is crucially important, so they understand that they have an opportunity to build an alternative and more positive future for themselves.”