Friends of Youth Justice Initiative


Friends of YJI is...

a non-profit 501(c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to enhancing the services of the Youth Justice Initiative (YJI) in West Des Moines, IA. Donations to Friends of YJI are tax deductible for income tax.

Our mission
is the raising of funds through targeted efforts to support and enhance the restorative processes implemented in the local community through the Youth Justice Initiative.

Your support
will help build a stronger and safer community as we support YJI’s efforts to reintegrate youthful offenders into the community and aid in healing.



The Youth Justice Initiative (YJI) is...

  • an organic, community process

  • based on proven “Best Practices” 

  • that encourages & supports positive change in youth, families and the community

Restorative principles guide YJI 

“Restorative Justice engages community members who have a stake in an offense to collectively identify and address harms, needs and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.” (Howard Zehr, Grandfather of Restorative Justice)

The offender is held accountable. Victims experience support, healing and satisfaction. The community is strengthened as citizens participate in the justice process.

An Organic Community Process.
The West Des Moines Youth Justice Initiative began as a convergence of like-minded people who saw that our customary approach to youth offending needed to be changed. During the decade of the 1990’s, youth crime in the community increased by 23%. National leaders predicted that within 10 years youth offending would double. Repeat offending was common. Community leaders were discouraged about the limited options to effectively address youth offending.

Claudia Henning, a visionary citizen of West Des Moines, was the spark that ignited the passions of Community Leaders who were searching for a solution to the burgeoning youth crime. Claudia was mediating with the Polk County Attorney’s Restorative Justice Center. She had studied with Howard Zehr, the Grandfather of Restorative Justice. She gained a broad appreciation of restorative practices during her travels to Minnesota, Mennonite University, and New Zealand.

Claudia met with West Des Moines Police Chief Jack O’Donnell and shared her vision of a restorative justice program to address youth crime. Following her passionate ploy for collaboration and funding, she took a breath, prepared to receive a short thank you and no thank you from the Chief. Instead she was overjoyed to hear the Chief’s response, “It’s just the right thing to do!” The Chief had been briefed by Captain Paul Barrows and WDM Community Education Director, Linda Sanda, that underlying issues influencing youth crime were not being addressed. At this time, the police department had only two alternatives available for the juvenile offenders; referral to Polk County Juvenile Court or informal unsupervised probation through the department. Often these options did not address some of the juvenile offenders’ real and continuing issues.

Claudia and friend, Scarlett Lunning Huey, wrote the first two grants that funded the funded the initial years of YJI.

YJI is constantly evolving to better create and grow a healthy, resilient community of youth and families.

Best Practices to Support Positive Changes for Youth & Families. Throughout the years YJI has always researched and identified best practices. YJI research was spear-headed by nationally recognized Drake University Professor Dean Wright. The following best practices represent the building blocks and evolution of this award-winning juvenile justice initiative:

  • Restorative Justice – The Polk County Youth Comprehensive Strategy included restorative justice as an effective intervention to assist youth in recognizing the expansive impact of their negative behaviors and their opportunities to make amends and be held accountable. One of the primary components of YJI is restorative justice meetings (circles).
  • The 8% Solution – research study by Michael Schumacher, revealed that comprehensive assessments of youth provides a map for long term, cost-effective ways to identify juveniles who are at risk of becoming chronic offenders and to target services to correct their underlying issues. The research was replicated in several Iowa judicial districts. It has become the framework for YJI’s assessments and service to our youth and families. YJI evaluation consistently shows overall risk of YJI youth who successfully complete YJI is significantly reduced. Improvements are noted academically, in family functioning, in the youth’s choices of friends and activities, and by the youth achieving and maintaining sobriety, mental/emotional well-being and by youth staying crime-free.
  • Hard-Wired to Connect – A study done by Dartmouth Medical School, the Institute for American Values, and YMCA of USA, revealed that youth need communities that are committed to them over time, which exhibit and are able to pass along what it means to be a “good” person. As a result of this, YJI intensified its efforts and resources to develop a cadre of consistent and caring community members who serve YJI youth and their families.
  • Strong Connection with the Schools – A caring school representative is involved with each moderate or high risk YJI participant. This helps them not just learn academics, but skills and values needed to be successful in adult endeavors.
  • Strengthening Academic Success – Research at John Hopkins and Duke Universities identified school failure as a main source of dropouts, which statistically correlates with criminal behaviors. YJI Academic Coaches and the YJI Study Table involve positive adult volunteers to help students with homework and teach them how to study more effectively.
  • YJI’s Family Class – The curriculum is based on three nationally acclaimed, research based programs:

1. Iowa State University’s “Strengthening Families” was chosen by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 1996 as the top community-based, family skills building program in the country for adolescents and their families.

2. The Three Principles (of psychological functioning) is a fact-based understanding that provides a beacon to youth in accessing their innate mental health and their resiliency. This is an amazing mind-changer that meets youth where they are and helps them shift to productive and effective thinking about who they are in the community.

3. Restitution Self-Discipline, based on the work of Dr. William Glasser and Diane Gossen. This research identifies the drive humans have to meet certain needs and helps them determine healthy and culturally acceptable ways to meet these needs.

I am very impressed with the thoughtful and deliberate way in which program development was carried out. The program has worked carefully to involve the community and to reach out to victim groups. It has developed a working relationship with the local criminal justice system as well. I have been involved with the development of dozens of restorative justice programs not only in the U.S. but in countries such as South Africa and the United Kingdom; I must say that this one stands out for its careful development, its principled approach, its responsiveness to community needs, and its deliberate effort to involve a wide range of community members.

 – Howard Zehr, Ph.d, Professor of Sociology 
and Restorative Justice

Funding: Over its fourteen years of existence, YJI has received funding from the following sources:

  • City of West Des Moines
  • West Des Moines Community Schools
  • West Des Moines Community Education
  • United Way of Central Iowa
  • Prairie Meadows
  • Federal Byrne Grant
  • Polk County Decategorization
  • Safe Schools
  • West Des Moines Christian Church Annual Great Cookie Walk
  • Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines
  • Drake University
  • Friends of YJI


The YJI Advisory Group that was created in 2000, has now grown to over 40 members including parents, business representatives, school leaders, Council members, and social service providers. This group meets four times a year and is guided by the YJI Steering Committee of approximately eight to ten community leaders. YJI has navigated through changes in leadership: three school superintendents; two city managers, two community education directors; numerous school board and city council members; and two police chiefs.


A Recognized Program

  • In 2005, YJI was awarded the Webber Seavey Award for Quality Law Enforcement, a national honor.
  • YJI was recognized as an exemplary program by CALEA, the Police Accreditation body.
  • YJI received the 2005 Iowa Community Involvement in Education award from the state Community Education Association.