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‘Family and community are important’

A Q & A with Wendi Dinsdale, Juvenile Court Officer for Hamilton and Hardin counties

-Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Anne Blankenship
Wendi Dinsdale is the Juvenile Court Officer for Hamilton and Hardin counties. In her position, she strives to strike a balance between helping kids make better choices and keeping the community safe.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Our Hometown Magazine

Tell us about your background

I’m a homegrown Hamilton County resident. I was raised on a farm east of Webster City and attended both Northeast Hamilton and Webster City schools. I’m the middle child of Roger and Linda Tapper. I married my high school sweetheart, Brad, and literally bought the farm – his family’s century farm – located north and east of Webster City. We have lived there for 30 years and raised three extraordinary children – Josi, Gavin and McKenna.

Family and Community are very important to me. I’ve worked in the Child Welfare system for 30 years and hope to continue to serve families in my community.

Here is how it began.

I graduated from Webster City High School and went to the University of Iowa where I majored in Social Work. I had several part-time jobs while putting myself through college. These jobs were in a variety of settings – working in a grocery store, a bakery, a bookstore, a day care center, as well as leading geriatric water aerobics. Whatever the job, I always knew I wanted to help people be successful.

I graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work and was immediately hired to provide social work to Hamilton County youth and their families. I worked for Hamilton County Social Services providing case management for at-risk children and their families. I trained and licensed foster homes, provided random spot checks on daycare homes and worked with the court system to protect children. Later I provided case management for mentally handicapped children, performed general financial relief for Hamilton County residents and followed up on court cases when persons were committed for substance or mental health assessment and treatment. I recognized my true passion was for the children in our community.

I left the county and began working for the State of Iowa with the Department of Human Services. I worked in Wright and Hamilton Counties, providing assessment and services to enhance family functioning and communication. I worked with children who required out of home placement to address their behavioral or mental health needs and worked to reunify the family as soon as possible. I continued with recruitment, licensing and retention foster homes for our communities and worked to provide adult services to assist them in remaining in their home or community when they faced struggles.

In 1996 I became the Program Director for the Webster City School based youth services program called Creative Outreach. The goal of that program was to break down the barriers between the students who were struggling and the resources needed to help them. While in that role I supervised three talented individuals who served as Behavioral Interventionists for the schools.

Two years later, I transitioned into a shared position between the Webster City Schools and Juvenile Court Services. I was the Juvenile Court School Liaison and as the name suggests, my role was to create a bridge between the schools and the court system. I worked to provide interventions with students to keep them out of the formal court processes. I was the truancy officer for the school district, as well as the homeless liaison. I assisted students with mental and behavioral health needs as well as academic concerns. I helped reduce the barriers to attending school and provided safety and security for students who were struggling. During this time I also worked as a tracker with Juvenile Court Services to help ensure compliance with their terms of probation on the evenings and weekends. In addition, I worked for Central Iowa Juvenile Detention Center to provide transportation services for system-involved youth.

What is your current job title and how long have you worked in that position?

Serving as the Juvenile Court School Liaison opened up new doors to help youth in our community. I began my current career as a Juvenile Court Officer (JCO) in 2005. Over the years I have served youth in Hamilton, Hardin, Wright, and Webster Counties. I enjoy what I do and hope to continue to serve for many years to come.

Tell us about the duties involved with your job and some of the relationships to other entities/agencies

I currently serve youth who have been charged with a crime in Hamilton or Hardin Counties. I am a designated peace officer in this role. I’m not certified to carry a firearm on the job, but do carry handcuffs and can take juveniles into custody, if needed. JCO duties are much like adult probation and parole officers, except JCOs serve persons under the age of 18. We strike a balance between helping kids make better choices and keeping the community safe. We conduct intakes to determine the facts of the allegations and make sure it meets the legal criteria for the alleged crime. We provide supports to help kids learn from their mistakes and avoid future law violations. For those needing additional interventions, we connect them with counseling or therapy to address their thinking or behaviors. When necessary, we get the court system involved for formal supervision matters. It is my job to assess the needs and make recommendations to the court regarding the best treatment needed to accomplish the goals. Supervision is also part of our responsibility. Whether we supervise the youth in the community setting or we travel to ensure their needs are being met in a placement facility, they are our responsibility. Helping kids be held accountable for their behavior is also part of the job. We don’t use jail time or fines to promote accountability like the adult system. We assign community service or have the youth pay the victim for damages they may have caused. It is not about ‘time served’ in the Juvenile Court Services system. We work towards positive change needed to enhance the child’s ability to be a productive citizen in our community.

In my role as a JCO, people look to me as an ‘expert’ on juvenile matters. I work very closely with law enforcement at the city, county and state levels. Collaboration with service providers help me refer the youth to the best program available to help change their thinking. I work closely with the court and counsel that represent the interests of the community and the child. Partnership with local non-profit and government agencies helps to coordinate community service opportunities for the youth.

Where are you based and what areas do you cover?

My main office is located here in Webster City in the Hamilton County Courthouse, just around the corner from the Sheriff’s department. I also have an office in Eldora at the Hardin County Courthouse, with the Clerk of Court. The Iowa Falls Police Department also graciously allows me to meet with my clients at their station in Iowa Falls. This helps to ensure I’m centrally located to meet with youth in the community. Many of the youth I serve do not have their own transportation. Driving to meet them in their home, school or community breaks down that barrier for supervision.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Juvenile Court Services has jurisdiction over youth under age 18. Youth can be a product of their environment. As we work to effect change in the youth, many times we need to start with the family. Sometimes this can be difficult when the parent or other family members are not invested in making change. The youth themselves can be challenging. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. We can provide all the tools necessary for positive change, but cannot make the youth incorporate those into their daily thinking and behaviors. They have to want to change.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Many times over the years I have been a part of a youth’s life when they have turned a corner and recognized there is a better way to get their needs met. Seeing the positive change in a young person is greatly rewarding. I often have past clients stop by my office to report on their lives, introduce me to their children and thank me for not giving up on them when they were young. This is the TRUE reward of the work we do.

What is the most important thing you can tell youths you might work with in your position?

My job is to help kids make better choices and to protect the community where we live and serve. I will be your biggest supporter, but I will also hold you accountable for your choices. You can always expect that I will be honest with you and I expect honesty back. I don’t expect perfection but I do expect real effort. I will work with you to make change, but will not do it for you. These are the cornerstones that we build a relationship for change upon.

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