Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

Project SUPPORT: A Transition Program for Incarcerated Youth with Disabilities in Oregon


Deanne Unruh is a research associate in the Secondary Special Education and Transition research unit, University of Oregon, Eugene.

Adjudicated youth face numerous difficulties and unique challenges in their growth from adolescence into adulthood when compared with their peers not involved in the juvenile justice system. Their transition outcomes demonstrate dismal success for this high-risk population. These outcomes are highlighted by TRACS (Transition Research on Adolescents returning to Community Settings), a recently completed five-year longitudinal study that examined transition outcomes for incarcerated youth after leaving Oregon’s juvenile correctional facilities and returning to communities (Bullis, Yovanoff, Mueller, & Havel, 2002). In this sample, almost 60% of the youth returned to the juvenile justice system or were committed to the adult correctional system. Only a quarter enrolled in school, and fewer earned any high school completion document after exiting custody. And employment rates were disturbingly low, averaging less than 30%. Those with a special education disability (58%) were three times more likely than those without a disability to return to the correctional system, and two times less likely to become involved in work or school. On a positive note, formerly-incarcerated youth with disabilities who were working or going to school during the first six months of release were 3.2 times less likely to return to custody and 2.5 times more likely to remain working or in school 12 months after exiting the correctional facility. Youth engaged in work and/or school fared better in their transition than those not so engaged – a finding with clear implications for development of a transition model for this population.

Project Description

Motivated by the TRACS findings, three state agencies – the Oregon Youth Authority, which is Oregon’s juvenile justice agency, the Oregon Department of Education, and Oregon Vocational Rehabilitation Services – along with staff from the University of Oregon worked to develop a statewide transition program for juvenile offenders with disabilities leaving the juvenile correctional system and returning to the community. The program, Project SUPPORT, began in 1999.*

The purpose of Project SUPPORT is to provide incarcerated youth who have either a designated special education disability and/or mental health disorder with pre-release training and coordinated planning to support their transition into the community. Program goals are to increase engagement in employment and/or school enrollment (high school/postsecondary) and decrease recidivism. Key characteristics of program participants are: a) average age at entry is 17.4 years; b) 80% are male; c) 31% are members of an ethnic/minority group; d) 92% have a DSM-IV diagnosis and 45% have a combination of a DSM-IV and special education diagnosis; e) 78% have a history of school absenteeism and suspension; f) 76% have a history of substance abuse; and g) over 60% have a history of living in foster care or a group home, running away from home or placements, and an anger management deficit.

A transition specialist (TS) is the key staff person in Project SUPPORT. Each TS works directly with the youth and parole officer (PO) to develop a project transition plan that is coupled with the youth’s parole plan. Vocational rehabilitation counselors, facility treatment and education staff, and community-based agencies are key partners to assist in the successful community reintegration process. The transition plan is developed from each youth’s strengths, barriers, interests, and life goals. Services are not a prescriptive set of activities provided each youth, but rely on the TS’s ability to make decisions and connections with each youth based on information and guidance provided by the youth, PO, family or guardians, and other community agency staff.

Services typically occur in three phases: In-facility services, immediate pre/post-release activities, and ongoing community support. The in-facility phase activities completed by the TS are:

  • Build positive relationship between TS and youth
  • Define youth’s interests, needs, and life goals
  • Develop transition plan
  • Initiate pre-employment skill building
  • Ensure appropriate assessments and ID are available for immediate access to services in community
  • Liaison with PO and facility treatment and education staff

In the immediate pre/post release phase, the most intensive service phase, TS activities are:

  • Prepare and transfer IEP to community education placement
  • Develop and implement employment options for youth in community
  • Set up needed social services in community (e.g., mental health, AODA)
  • Support youth to access services once released (e.g., transportation training)
  • Develop youth’s independent living skills (e.g., budgeting, finding housing)
  • Support and follow parole plan
  • Liaison with PO and other community support staff

Ongoing support phase activities are:

  • Support youth to maintain engagement activities (e.g., employment, education, hobbies)
  • Further develop youth’s independent living skills (e.g., taxes, driving)
  • Assess youth for return of former negative behaviors (e.g., drugs, gangs)
  • Continue to liaison with PO and other community support staff

(For a further project services description see Unruh, et al., 2004, 2005.)

Participant Outcomes

Project SUPPORT participants have demonstrated positive results. At two, four, and six months after release from a youth correctional facility, approximately 68% of all participants are positively engaged in school and/or employment and have not returned to youth or adult corrections. This rate demonstrates a much higher rate of engagement than the TRACS sample, which showed an engagement rate of 35% by juvenile offenders not receiving these specialized services (Bullis, et al., 2002).

In addition to overall outcomes, the story of Anthony, a composite case study of a “typical” project participant’s experiences, serves to illustrate outcomes on an individual level. Anthony entered Project SUPPORT a month prior to leaving the youth correctional facility. He began working with a TS to help him design a plan for his release from custody. Anthony was incarcerated for multiple crimes including theft, stealing a car, and assault. Most of the crimes were committed while he was under the influence. He identifies his main transition needs as learning how to do everyday things, staying away from friends that use drugs, and controlling his anger.

Upon release Anthony’s transition was not smooth. The TS helped him maintain his health insurance and also apply for food stamps. He began working with Vocational Rehabilitation, which helped him find a landscaping job and purchased his tools for the job. But, he was soon fired because of an argument with his boss. He revealed that he has stopped attending his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, had been hanging out with some of his old friends, and had been under the influence of drugs prior to this incident. The PO and TS required that he start attending alcohol and drug treatment sessions.

It has been nine months since his release and Anthony is working in a plant nursery. The TS assisted him with a financial aid application and he was able to get assistance to attend a community college landscape design program. Anthony is struggling with staying clean, but has met new friends through work that help him stay away from his drug-involved friends. Anthony described the TS support in this way: “When you get out you’re like now what do I do? [The TS] will give you infinite possibilities. I certainly couldn’t have started college without her. I wouldn’t know the slightest thing to do. She helped me, [but] it’s also you help yourself” (Project SUPPORT participant).

Lessons Learned

Lessons were learned both at a systems-level and targeted population-level during project implementation:

  • Facilitate ongoing self-directed planning and decision-making. The interests, aptitudes, and needs of youth define specific employment, further education, and independent living supports. Services need to begin in the facility, for example by exploring various employment and career interests with the youth, and continue in the community to assist the youth in making positive choices aligned with the youth’s strengths and needs.
  • Employability skill training goes beyond the youth being employed. The TS needs to work collaboratively with employment support services (e.g., vocational rehabilitation or Workforce Investment Act) to develop employment and training opportunities. Once the youth is employed, continued monitoring and skill development is a requisite to ensure the youth maintains employment across jobs over time.
  • Additional support services are needed for successful community reintegration. Basic needs (e.g., food, shelter, positive social network) are requisite to maintain a youth’s stable employment or school engagement. Services to support these basic needs are necessary to sustain a youth’s successful community transition.
  • Develop systems-change collaborations to access the available community resources. Project participants need diverse supports. Community agencies, juvenile justice, vocational rehabilitation, and local schools need to work together to develop systems to share information and ensure immediate access to services upon release from correctional facilities.


Project SUPPORT is a promising model for working with juvenile offenders with disabilities. The role of the TS is critical to this model, but just as essential is the development and maintenance of collaborative services across agencies. The implementation of this service model is a difficult task, but when long-term collaborative relationships are maintained lifelong positive outcomes for this high-risk population can be achieved.

Note: In June 2004, the Oregon Department of Education terminated the statewide project. Currently the project operates in two Oregon counties and is funded through an Office of Special Education Programs Model Demonstration Project awarded to the University of Oregon in collaboration with the Oregon Youth Authority.


  • Bullis, M., Yovanoff, P., Mueller, G., & Havel, E. (2002). Life on the “outs.” Examination of the facility-to-community transition of incarcerated youth. Exceptional Children, 69, 7–22.

  • Unruh, D., Bullis, M., Booth, C., & Pendergrass, J. (2005). Project SUPPORT: A description and evaluation for a transition project of formerly incarcerated adolescents with special education and mental health disorders. In M. Epstein, K. Kutash, & A. Duchnowski (Eds.), Outcomes for children and youth with emotional and behavioral disorders and their families: Programs and evaluation best practices. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed, Inc.

  • Unruh, D., Bullis, M., Pendergrass, J., Booth, C., Waintrup, M., & Montesano, D. (2004). A transition project of formerly incarcerated adolescents with special education and mental health disorders. In D. Cheney (Ed.), Transition of students with emotional or behavioral disabilities from school to community: Current approaches for positive outcomes. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children, Division of Career Development and Transition.