How to Become a Juvenile Counselor
Juvenile counselors perform one of the most vital and rewarding of social duties: helping troubled youth become healthy, happy and productive members of society. For many of these young people, their childhood is scarred by neglect, abuse and lack of any positive role model; a juvenile counselor is quite often the first adult to demonstrate compassion and caring toward them. The profoundly rewarding and challenging nature of this profession attracts many people who wish to change young lives and strengthen the fabric of our society at the same time. Juvenile counselors hold positions within and outside of the criminal justice system.
Within the court system, a juvenile court counselor (JCC) works with juveniles who were convicted of crimes and may either be incarcerated or out on parole or probation. Generally, responsibilities for JCCs include managing individual cases, providing counseling and supervising delinquents to make sure they follow court orders. A JCC may also organize and supervise a program of work, study and recreation for a group of delinquent or emotionally disturbed wards in county juvenile halls.
Juvenile counselors outside of the justice system also enjoy an impressive variety of career options. With advanced degrees and training, juvenile counselors (JCs) also work as psychological therapists, working with troubled youth both inside and outside of the criminal justice system. JCs find employment in schools, in private practice and in group home settings.
JCCs often hold positions in local and state offices, holding facilities, juvenile halls and halfway houses.
JCs also work in a variety of settings, such as in a private practice, a school, or a group home or juvenile treatment facility. Juvenile counselors in private practice provide counseling to young people with a variety of emotional and mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, sexual abuse and trauma. In a school setting, JCs work as youth guidance counselors helping students with career choices or personal counseling. In a group home or juvenile treatment facility, JCs likely treat individuals with emotional and mental health issues, and substance abuse and behavioral problems.
To qualify for an entry-level position, a juvenile court counselor should have at minimum a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college in the human services field and one-year of experience in the field. Specific degrees include social work, psychology or counseling. Criminal justice is a popular degree choice for many people interested in working with at-risk youth.
To be considered for employment in most states as a juvenile counselor/therapist, the applicant must complete a master’s degree (e.g., family counseling, human services, criminal justice or social services) plus extensive hours of supervised clinical experience beyond the master's degree level. In addition, most states require that the counselor/therapist be licensed or certified (see below).
Many state agencies conduct on-the-job-training for juvenile court counselors. The training helps counselors keep updated on recent legislation or court decisions affecting juvenile law. Training also includes unarmed self-defense and physical fitness, basic first aid (CPR), and safe juvenile transportation/driver training procedures.
Training (practicing the skills of a profession) is also an essential aspect of all juvenile counselor/therapist degree programs and usually consists of internships or residency for periods of one to two years. These programs give student professionals the chance to view actual clinical situations and to grasp the full role of the counselor. Supervised and mentored training is a key component of the counseling certification process.
Licensing and/or Certification
State requirements for education and training vary greatly; many states require a master’s degree to be licensed. In addition, counselors may be required to accumulate a certain amount of supervised clinical experience and also take a state-recognized exam.
The licensing requirements to work as a juvenile counselor are different for each state; licensing and certification depend upon the level of responsibility of the position. Some entry-level positions do not require licensing while nearly all management or senior level positions do. The American Counseling Association Website offers a state-specific directory for researching licensing. Most licenses require a master’s degree, passing a rigorous examination, completion of a specific number of supervised counseling hours, and recommendations on personal integrity and adherence to professional conduct codes.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Juvenile counselors and therapists rely on considerable judgment and analytic abilities in order to handle complex cases. They must also have a thorough understanding of juvenile law, counseling and treatment, and crisis intervention techniques.
Additionally, counselors possess compassion, confidence and stellar stress management skills in order to succeed in working with at-risk and troubled youth. Besides the desire to strengthen family and community ties, they have the ability to inspire trust and confidence. Strong oral and written communication skills are required to be effective counselors and advocates for their charges.
JCCs and all who hold positions in the criminal justice system must work effectively with all stakeholders in the justice system in their locale.
Opportunities for Advancement
Individuals pursuing this rewarding career path may begin as youth counselor technicians with an associate's degree, while taking online or evening classes. Having earned a bachelor’s degree and gained further experience, counselors working within the justice system may enjoy promotion to intake counselor and case manager. With further coursework, additional positions become available such as probation counselors, adult correctional counselors, recreational therapists, and school guidance or youth counselors.
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The mean annual salary for a juvenile counselor is $44,380. It is $35,780 for individual and family counselors, $58,700 for school counselors and $40,810 for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors. Juvenile therapists with doctorates in behavioral psychology command much higher salaries in private and group practice settings.
The job market for juvenile counselors is quite healthy depending on level of education and experience. According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, jobs for counselors are expected to grow by 21%, which is considered faster than average.