County, restorative justice group team up to bolster area kids

With grants available for youth programming, the entities discussed what kinds of resources and support services could be helpful to lakes area kids.

Representatives from Crow Wing County and Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project, along with other community members, discussed resources and potential programming to help support area youths during a workshop Aug. 20, at the Northland Arboretum. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Less than half of Crow Wing County students in fifth, eighth, ninth and 11th grades feel adults in their community care about them.

According to the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, 41% of the students surveyed at Brainerd, Pequot Lakes and Crosby-Ironton schools reported feeling cared for by adults in the community. Crow Wing County officials are working alongside Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project to raise those numbers.

Members of both groups met in two workshop sessions Aug. 20 to discuss how to increase resources for area youths and spend county grants available for those purposes.

Kara Griffin, division manager for Crow Wing County Community Services, told the second group of workshop attendees gathered at Northland Arboretum about grant opportunities the county has for funds to support youths with social and recreational activities, transportation and mental health programs. But before delving into ideas, Griffin shared statistics from the latest Minnesota Student Survey, a joint initiative from the state departments of health, education, public safety and human services. The survey is issued every three years to students in grades 5, 8, 9 and 11 with questions in areas like mental and physical health, home life, school life, relationships and substance use.

In addition to the 41% of Crow Wing County students who said they felt like adults in the community cared about them, 32% of students in the survey said they feel like they can talk to an adult at school about their problems, and about 25% feel like their teachers are not interested in them as a person.


When asked about treatment for mental health, emotional or behavioral problems, about 18% of eighth graders said they had been treated in the past, as did 26% of ninth graders and 33% of 11th graders. About 28% of eighth graders reported feeling down, depressed or hopeless at some point in the last two weeks, while 40% of ninth graders and 46% of 11th graders reported the same.

In terms of substance use, 21% of 11th graders reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, as did 11.5% of ninth graders and 7% of eighth graders.

The real numbers are likely higher than reported, Griffin said, adding Crow Wing County tends to have a higher rate of alcohol and tobacco use than the state average.

So what can Crow Wing County and Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project — a program working with first-time juvenile offenders — do to help the community’s youths?

“We want to focus — or want to make improvements — in health outcomes,” Griffin said. “We want to reduce risks and recidivism for involvement in the delinquency system. We want to create equity as well as empower youth. We want youth to really feel like they’re part of their community, that they’re giving back, and so if they went through this program that they come back and mentor others through it.”

Griffin said the county joined forces with the organization recently because both groups have common goals and want to see kids succeed.

Community involvement

Those in attendance represented the restorative justice project, Crow Wing County Community Services, the county’s probation department, Crow Wing Energized and Brainerd Public Schools. They brainstormed ideas for youth resources in eight categories: health, community service, transportation, communication, social/recreation activities, mentorship, independent living skills and values.


“What can you as an individual or us as a community collectively do to make a difference for Crow Wing County youth?” Griffin asked the group. “And there’s no idea too big or too small.”

One of the big questions seemed to be how to get to kids before they make potentially life-altering mistakes and prevent the need for restorative justice programs in the first place. Juveniles who participate in the local nonprofit work with trained facilitators, community volunteers and those harmed by their actions to determine how to repair any harm caused and build a stronger community.

A countywide youth survey could ask kids what kinds of resources or programs they need to thrive. An even more focused survey could ask kids who went through the restorative justice program what they could have used that might have prevented them from making the decision they did.

When justice project Board Member Mark Prince asked about the potential for classes to help kids deal with stress or other mental issues, Kalsey Stults, Crow Wing Energized community health specialist, said Crow Wing Energized is working to roll out Sources at Strength, a nationwide suicide prevention program. Sources of Strength recruits adult advisers and student peer leaders to spread messages of hope, help and strength to their fellow students who might be struggling with mental health issues. Stults said COVID-19 prevented the program from being implemented as planned, but Crow Wing Energized still plans to roll it out at Brainerd High School.

A services resource fair could highlight all the programs and resources available to local youths, and incentives — like prize drawings — could drive kids to attend. And even if resources are available, how do 18-year-olds or younger teenagers without parental support navigate those resources — like finding a doctor? Could there be a program like Kinship Partners, but for teens and older kids who need positive adult mentors in their lives?

Additional follow-up from justice project facilitators could make sure kids are staying on the straight and narrow after their restorative justice journey.

Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project is located off Charles Street in Brainerd. Jennifer Kraus / Brainerd Dispatch


And what about kids who have been referred to Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project but have parents who aren’t engaged in the process? Could a child advocate program establish adults who are willing to walk through the process with kids who need support?

Another big question weighing on the group was how to convince kids to communicate their problems to adults if they really don’t want to.

Trust and compassion seemed to be the most important values attendees agreed they wanted to convey to kids. Jennifer Fundine, a special education teacher at Brainerd High School, said when working with kids, adults need to keep in mind the poverty rate in Crow Wing County. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey, about 14% of Crow Wing County kids under age 18 live in poverty, which amounts to more than 2,100 kids.

“We need to take the kids where they’re at and work really, really hard at not imposing our white middle class or upper white middle class values upon them,” Fundine said.

Provided with large posters for each category of resources and a list of ideas for future programs, attendees were encouraged to write their names and contact information on sticky notes next to the ideas they may be able and willing to help out with.
Griffin said county and restorative justice leaders plan to have follow-up sessions to hone in on what kinds of programs would be feasible given budgets, staffing constraints and volunteer commitments.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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