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 juvenile clients, childhood has been a time scarred by neglect, abuse, and lack of positive role models; a juvenile counselor can help a troubled young client jump into a positive trajectory by providing empathy, advice, and focused care. The profoundly rewarding and challenging nature of this profession attracts many people who wish to change young lives and respond to the societal ills that have left children in poverty or suffering from abuse or addiction.
Juvenile counselors hold positions within and outside of the criminal justice system. They can work in educational settings, private practices, juvenile detention facilities, social work offices, juvenile hospitals, and clinics.
Within the court system, a juvenile court counselor (JCC) works with juveniles who have been 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. The goal of a JCC is not only to provide services to a troubled young client, but also to bring that client to a point of reconciliation with society.
Juvenile counselors outside of the justice system also enjoy an impressive variety of career options. With advanced degrees and training, juvenile counselors (JCs) can work as psychological therapists, providing services to troubled youth both inside and outside of the criminal justice system. JCs find employment in schools, in private practice and in group home settings. They treat young people with addictions, mental illnesses, behavioral disorders, or past sexual, emotional, or physical trauma.
JCCs often hold positions in local and state offices, holding facilities, juvenile halls and halfway houses. These settings are fraught with stress and chaos, and an effective JCC must be able to manage loud altercations, confused and defiant clients, and the potential for violence. Work in institutional settings can also cause emotional turmoil or depression, as JCCs often work closely with many incredibly troubled clients, some of whom will re-offend or develop worse mental health issues over the course of their lives. An effective and well-adjusted JCC, therefore, is able to manage stress and maintain an optimistic outlook even in the face of extreme setbacks and clients who do not immediately improve.
JCs also work in a variety of settings, such as in private practices, schools, or group homes and juvenile treatment facilities. Juvenile counselors in private practices provide counseling to young people with a variety of emotional and mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, addiction, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress from sexual abuse and trauma. Treatment in such settings is incredibly intimate and emotionally draining, but can provide clients with the best opportunity for a breakthrough. In school settings, JCs work as youth guidance counselors, helping students with career choices or providing personal counseling for emotional or social problems.
In group homes or juvenile treatment facilities, JCs usually treat individuals with emotional and mental health issues, and substance abuse and behavioral problems. Again, these settings can be loud, violent, and stressful, with a large number of troubled young adults being forced to share close quarters and interact with therapists they do not necessarily want to be seeing. Young adult clients are often hostile to facilities’ behavioral rules or treatment requirements, and can lash out at their therapists when challenged. However, these facilities provide vital services to young people who might otherwise “slip through the cracks” and never recover. The work JCs do in these settings is invaluable and life-changing, and therefore immensely rewarding.
To qualify for an entry-level position, a juvenile court counselor or JC should have at minimum a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college in the human services field. Acceptable majors include psychology, social work, criminal justice, or counseling. Criminal justice is a popular degree choice for many people interested in working with at-risk youth, and may provide the most appropriate training and work opportunities for a prospective JCC. In addition, an entry-level JCC should also have one-year of experience in the field (this can be obtained through an undergraduate internship or volunteer position).
To be considered for employment as a juvenile counselor/therapist, most states require that the applicant complete a master’s degree (in a specialty such as family counseling, human services, criminal justice, counseling psychology, or social services). The applicant must also have completed extensive hours of supervised clinical training 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 and JCs. This training helps counselors keep updated on recent legislation or court decisions affecting juvenile law, as well as “best practice” treatment modalities. Training also includes unarmed self-defense methods, 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 involves an internship or residency of one to two years in duration. These programs give student professionals the chance to view actual clinical situations; work alongside trained mentors; and practice, with supervision, the many roles that counselors are expected to fulfill. Supervised and mentored training is a key component of the counseling certification process; most states require at least 1000 hours.
Licensing and/or Certification
State requirements for education and training vary greatly; many states require a master’s degree or higher in order 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, for which there is usually a fee. A demonstration of personal integrity and adherence to professional conduct codes is also a common requirement.
Licensing and certification requirements also depend upon the level of responsibility of the individual work position. Some entry-level positions do not require licensing, while nearly all management or senior level positions do. If a JC or JCC will be working individually with clients, particularly clients who possess a mental health diagnosis or legal record, certification will almost certainly be necessary. JCs who work for non-governmental facilities or under direct supervision may not need to be certified.
The American Counseling Association website offers a state-specific directory for researching licensing.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Juvenile counselors and therapists rely on strong, quick judgment and above-average analytic abilities in order to handle complex cases. They must be organized and capable of managing a large number of juvenile cases, keeping all the legal, social service, and treatment records straight for each client. They must also have a thorough understanding of juvenile law, counseling, effective treatment methods, abnormal psychology, and crisis intervention techniques. Qualified JCs should be able to respond to all contingencies and emergencies pertaining to their clients, and should always know where to turn for additional services or information particular to their clients’ needs.
Additionally, counselors should 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 should 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. A JC must also be an active, empathic listener who can make clients feel comfortable, facilitating honest and thorough conversations.
JCCs who hold positions in the criminal justice system must work effectively with all stakeholders in the justice system in their locale. That means they must know how to befriend and collaborate with lawyers, police officers, clients’ families, and judges, as well as clients themselves.
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 positions. With further coursework, additional positions become available such as probation counselor, adult correctional counselor, recreational therapist, and school guidance or youth counselor.
If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a juvenile counselor, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.
The mean annual salary for a juvenile counselor is $46,330, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is $51,690 for individual and family counselors, $56,160 for school counselors and $41,090 for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors. Juvenile therapists with doctorates in behavioral psychology command much higher salaries, particularly if they are employed 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 of Labor Statistics, jobs for counselors are expected to grow by 19% between 2012 and 2022, which is considered faster than average.