Casi O’Neill works at the heart of Maryland’s youth legal system, but she rarely does her job.

If she did, the specially trained social worker hired by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender would be assessing the complex needs of children charged with low- to moderate-level crimes.

As a forensic social worker and member of Baltimore’s juvenile division, O’Neill is trained to uncover why a child may have committed a crime in the first place.

Instability, stressors, mental health issues and fixable problems like food insecurity, homelessness, safety or learning gaps — O’Neill can connect the child with services for all those issues.

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Lawmakers deemed delivery of services to these kids as a major deficit in the system during legislative debate. O’Neill is uniquely qualified to assess what help kids need. But O’Neill is the only forensic social worker for all of Baltimore’s juvenile division. And exigencies in the system mean she is often working on more dire problems than the ones she was hired to address.

Instead of diverting some of the hundreds of children charged with less serious crimes away from the system the first time they land in trouble — and sending them and their families on a better path — the bulk of her time is spent triaging the teens charged as adults and attempting to fish those kids out of the deepest well into which a minor could stumble.

“The stakes in those hearings is so high,” O’Neill said. “Those youth are looking at years in prison, potentially.”

Earlier this year, legislators tightened juvenile laws in response to an outsized perception of juvenile crime. The changes expanded the reasons children under 13 can be arrested and gave more power to prosecutors and judges.

But much of the conversation surrounded connecting kids who enter the system with services. Decades of research show a child has a better chance of turning their life around the sooner they get the right kind of help.

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This is also part of O’Neill’s speciality. She is intimately familiar with what services are available and can clinically assess a child to see which service would suit their needs.

O’Neill teams up with state-funded lawyers who defend indigent children whose families cannot afford an attorney. The public defenders and judges use her detailed, independent analysis, and sometimes expert testimony, to determine whether a child’s case should transfer back to juvenile court.

She estimates about 90% of her time is spent with teens charged as adults. That almost always leaves kids in juvenile court without a social worker, and decisions left to judges, prosecutors and others without O’Neill’s expertise.

Forensic social workers provide a key service

The forensic social worker field is spreading across the country, but slowly, said Amy Borror, senior youth policy strategist at The Gault Center, a national nonprofit that trains attorneys and other advocates who work in the youth delinquency field. Her outfit supports and trains professionals working to uphold children’s constitutional rights.

Borror said the focus should be on treating clients as a whole person from the moment they enter the system, she said.

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“We can really pour resources into the front end,” she said. “Or we can not invest in that front end and wait for things to spiral and wait until they are in the deep end and then it really just becomes an expense.”

At New York City’s Legal Aid Society, having a forensic social worker assigned to a juvenile case is common. The defense attorneys have been using the multidisciplinary approach, called holistic defense, for decades. Holistic defense is a form of early intervention and allows trained professionals to review a child’s case.

Sheneka McKenzie-Sage heads the social work division. She said it’s key to have a social worker in children’s defense cases who views them as more than the allegations against them. Her team starts investigating a child’s psychosocial profile and family circumstances as soon as they’re charged with a crime.

“You can’t solve Johnny’s problems without addressing some of those other problems in the household,” McKenzie-Sage said.

Legal Aid Society has about one social worker for every three attorneys, and juvenile court judges have grown dependent on their input, McKenzie-Sage said.

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Given that social workers are on the defense team, they are bound by attorney-client privilege. Information a client shares with a forensic social worker can’t be shared with others without the child’s permission.

A youth’s illegal activity could be linked to family problems at home or scarcity, such as food insecurity or housing issues, and this confidentiality helps reveal root causes.

“It could be a situation where we may feel that the jurist and the other players are actually trying to litigate poverty” McKenzie-Sage said.

A depleted workforce

Part of providing children an adequate defense means access to a social worker who can find out what’s going on in their lives, Terri Collins-Green said. She heads the social work division for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and is O’Neill’s supervisor.

“We cannot deny the fact that when children get involved in the criminal legal system, it’s generally because they have some type of psychological distress,” she said.

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Attorneys represent the child in the law, but it’s not within their skill set to assess a child like a social worker can, she said.

Collins-Green tied more defense team social workers on juvenile cases to saving more kids from spiraling into the adult legal system. Why not invest in more forensic social workers for children in trouble rather than hand out more punitive measures, Collins-Green asked — “We’re throwing everything else at the wall to see what sticks.”

Along with members of the Maryland Public Defenders Union, O’Neill lobbied state lawmakers for more social workers this year. State lawmakers answered by adding four social worker positions. That makes eight new spots in the last two budget cycles and moves the public defender’s office closer to meeting the national standard of a 1:8 social worker-to-attorney ratio, according to Collins-Green.

The public defender’s office is adjusting those national standards to fit their specific needs. But in budget year 2023, the department said they would have needed around 54 total social workers statewide, about twice what they had at the time, to meet the standard.

O’Neill’s union is part of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, the largest state employees union. President Patrick Moran said staffing shortages are not unique to the public defender’s office and pervade many state agencies. Gov. Wes Moore’s administration has prioritized restaffing and retaining employees in departments depleted during previous administrations.

“When you have people doing the work of what should be two, three, four jobs, it’s not sustainable,” Moran said. “Something’s gotta give, and it’s our state employees and our communities that pay the price.”

Del. Jazz Lewis is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and chairs the subcommittee that oversees the budget of the public defender’s office.

He said a key part of lawmakers “getting the juvenile justice reforms right” means adequately staffing state government, including the public defender’s office.

“These kids, whether they’re offenders or not, deserve the services to lead a productive life and staffing is key because all services are provided by people,” the Prince George’s County Democrat said.

Lewis said he is anticipating seeing updated staffing needs from the public defender’s office and working with the administration and his legislative colleagues.

A chance to build rapport

O’Neill said most of the children she sees, whether in adult court or juvenile court, have been deeply affected by poverty, generational trauma and economic and justice systems repeatedly stacked against the kids. Many she said come from areas of Baltimore that have endured decades of disinvestment. What she sees time and again are children who have been exposed to “chronic psychosocial stress” because of trauma and witnessing violence in their communities.

“It’s repetitive. It’s all the time. It’s in the air that they breathe, right?” she said. “Some of the kids talk about living in a war zone because so many of them know people who have been killed, people their own age, people in their families. Some of them have witnessed it.”

But she refuses to see the kids or the places where they’re from as irreparable, and said she sees potential inside each child. For her, social work is about seeing the “the dignity and worth” in all people and uncovering their strengths, but that’s not always how communities view kids who land in court.

“They’re talked about like a monolith,” she said of her clients. “But they’re unique in all of the wacky, strange, funny, odd, and amazing and creative, different ways that kids and young people can be.”

Being able to focus on the issues outside of a child’s case gives her a chance to develop a rapport with clients, she said, and that eases the court process for everyone involved.

“Having somebody in their corner when they’re going through so much stress can be the difference.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that Casi O’Neill is the only forensic social worker for all of Baltimore’s juvenile division.