Heather Bowlds, Associate Director of Mental Health at the Division of Juvenile Justice, teaches an adolescent brain class to inmate mentors and staff at California State Prison-Solano.

Heather Bowlds, Associate Director of Mental Health at the Division of Juvenile Justice, teaches an adolescent brain class to inmate mentors and staff at California State Prison-Solano.

Bowlds named Division of Juvenile Justice Professional of the Year

Photos and story by Joe Orlando, CRCR Public Information Officer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

(Editor’s note: CDCR’s annual Medal of Valor and employee recognition ceremony will be held Thursday, Sept. 15. Inside CDCR will publish profiles of some of those being honored each day leading up to the ceremony. The event will be live streamed.) 

Psychologist Heather Bowlds’ leadership in overhauling the mental health program for youthful offenders is recognized and appreciated by CDCR, which has named her the 2016 Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Professional of the Year.

As Associate Director of Mental Health for DJJ, Bowlds oversaw the development and implementation of the nationally recognized Sexual Behavior Treatment Program. A court-appointed expert awarded the program a 100 percent compliance rating.

In 2014, she was presented the Christine M. West Award by the Forensic Mental Health Association of California. The award was in recognition of significant contributions she made to the field of forensic mental health.

Because of her expertise, she provides training on brain development to members of the Youthful Offender Program, the Board of Parole Hearings and numerous judges, public defenders and district attorneys.

She discussed the honor and her career with DJJ.

Tell us about your path to CDCR/DJJ.

Heather Bowlds

Heather Bowlds

My path to DJJ was an unexpected one. I became interested in psychology in high school, which led me to pursue a B.A. in psychology. Although, I loved it, I was also drawn to criminal justice. Therefore, I decided to attend law school after college. When I was a junior, my adviser showed me a pamphlet on a forensic psychology doctoral program. Reading over the description and the list of course work, I knew that it was what I wanted to do. When I entered graduate school, the area of behavioral science, was gaining popularity, so at the time, my goal was to apply to the FBI once I was done with my doctorate.

In my second year of graduate school, I took a job with the California Youth Authority (now DJJ) at N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility. My first week there, I remember looking at the bare concrete walls of my supervisor’s office and thinking that I didn’t want to work there for long. Then I started working with the youth. They were difficult and challenging, yet I could also see glimmers of hope for change. Their backgrounds were difficult to read and I remember telling people, in many respects, these were the kids the world threw away. Those little glimpses of who was underneath all the walls and negative behaviors hooked me.

That was in 1999 and I ended up never leaving. I was lucky enough to be able to continue to work there in one aspect or another while I finished school. After I was done, I was hired into a psychological associate position on the sex offender program at OH. Close Youth Correctional Facility. In 2002, I was asked to participate in a statewide task force working on developing a standardized curriculum for the Sexual Behavior Treatment Program (SBPT) units, which was the curriculum used until we implemented the new one in 2012. That was my first experience in program development. In 2003, I was asked to help write the SBTP remedial plan. I had not planned to get involved with the administration aspect of things, but looking back, I’m glad I took advantage of the opportunity. It was a tremendous learning experience working with all of the different outside stakeholders. In 2009, I was asked to fill behind the SBTP Coordinator position and was officially hired into that position in 2010 and remained there until I was hired into the associate director position in October 2015.

What significant changes have you seen at DJJ over your career?

There are so many, and each step we took, even the little ones, was vital to being where we are today. The implementation of the Integrated Behavior Treatment Model (IBTM) and the Behavioral Management System (BMS) were a couple of the most significant. The principles of the IBTM set the stage for changing the culture, and the implementation of the BMS helped shift DJJ into a Behavioral Health Model. It tends to be a challenging shift for an agency like ours, and yet, BMS ended up being one of the easier implementations, I think in part because we had already made so many changes that created a good foundation for the change.

Personally, implementing the SBTP curriculum was one of the most satisfying. We started making program changes on the SBTP during some of the most difficult times for DJJ. We were closing down institutions and right before the date of implementation for the new curriculum, the news came out that DJJ was slated to close. I can’t say enough about the SBTP teams that made the changes anyway in the face of that news. We were doing things at the time that no other program was doing, some pretty outside-of-the-box ideas, and yet the teams never backed down. Together we wanted to make the statement that if we were closing, then we were going close with the best program out there. To have the SBTP now recognized as a national model is a reflection of that dedication

How do you feel about being honored as DJJ Professional of the Year?

It means a lot to me and I feel very honored. What we have done in DJJ is a team effort from all of our staff, so I know there are many people who are just, if not more, deserving. I guess it also is a bit of personal victory. When I started there was more of a division between the mental health and treatment staff. Looking back, it made sense given where we were as a society regarding crime and punishment. Yet, at the time, I was frustrated when my colleagues would say that mental health would never be appreciated by “custody.” I didn’t accept that, especially after getting to know a lot of amazing and supportive treatment and security staff. DJJ has proven we are able to come together as a team, even when we have different views or perspectives, and I am very proud to be a part of that.

Do you consider DJJ  a national model in juvenile confinement?

I do feel that is a fair assessment in many areas. The SBTP, BMS, group observation process and use of force review committees are just a few areas where we are leading the way. Years ago when I would attend national conferences, I would come back with all of these ideas and things we needed to implement to get up to date with the current research. Now, when I attend, I sit there checking things off we have already incorporated. DJJ has also been asked to be a mentor state on the juvenile justice initiative to reduce isolation, and we are being approached by other states in the middle of changing their programs for feedback and advice. It is a nice way to receive validation for all the hard work over these past years. That being said, we also recognize DJJ is not perfect, and there are some areas we need to keep improving upon.

Our biggest challenge now is remaining current. The field of juvenile justice is very dynamic. The brain science research in particular is rapidly evolving, and as new information comes out, we need to evolve right along with it. DJJ has successfully built a strong foundation and processes that will allow us to embrace those inevitable changes to keep us ahead.

There have been a lot of changes at the leadership level of DJJ, notably the retirements of Director Michael Minor, along with Superintendents Mike Roots, Erin Brock and Mark Blaser. Do you see that affecting what you do or how you do it?

I believe we can maintain our progress and continue to grow because of all of the individuals mentioned. We truly have the benefit of standing on the shoulders of giants. Former Director Michael Minor in particular did a great job of laying the groundwork for our success by focusing his message around doing what is best for the youth. When that is our mission, which is incorporated into everything we do, it is no longer about a singular person, or simply ending a lawsuit. It is about the youth and ensuring this agency is serving them and the community to the best of our ability. This is what will keep us going as new leaders shift into place.

The appointment of Director Anthony Lucero strengthened that message because he was also there guiding and supporting DJJ as deputy director. His appointment is significant because it shows that our team has credibility and people believe in DJJ and what we have accomplished. It solidifies that our path is not going to change and we will continue to move forward.