From Compassion to Action

By Jill Fishbaugh


“I always knew I wanted to work with youth,” says Dawn Schott ’92, ’16 MA, director of Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services. “Initially, I thought I would go into probation, but once I got started at detention, I was hooked. The staff is great, the program is amazing, and the youth are really good kids—most of whom just made some bad choices.”

Dawn Schott ’92, ’16 MA, has worked at the juvenile center for 25 years, starting the day after she graduated from MMU with her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. She worked her way up from youth counselor to shift supervisor to director in 2013, where she manages detention and six community-based diversion programs. The facility, licensed for 35 beds, is currently staffed for 21 youth.

The diversion programs, which attempt to divert youth from detention placements, serve roughly 155 youth a day within the community. As director, Schott oversees a variety of staff, including a manager, four shift supervisors, 13 youth counselors, eight youth workers, eight intervention counselors, six trackers, two cooks, a nurse, a medical director, a case manager, and a receptionist.

The Linn County facility, one of nine in Iowa, is considered one of Iowa’s best because it is the only one that requires staff to have a four-year degree and one year’s experience working with high-risk youth prior to employment. In addition, Schott and her staff are always looking for ways to enhance programming, staying as fresh and engaging as possible.

Stacey Lietz ’01, a youth counselor at Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services, leads a yoga class for the residents.

Bernie Broghammer Bordignon ’80, a juvenile court officer and detention center board member, has watched Schott’s success as she goes above and beyond by implementing innovative programming. “Dawn has the foresight to take that extra step and provide hands-on activities that help reduce anxiety, anger, and stress, while also presenting long-term coping and living skills,” she says.

Progressive Programming Garners Results

Schott says her proudest accomplishments are helping develop the efficient and effective detention programming concepts that lean toward skill building rather than treatment. Initiatives include a mobile crisis unit for suicidal youth, a trauma-informed yoga program to help youth deal with emotions and the physical side effects of those emotions, and a new garden project.

Dawn Schott ’92, ’16 MA, says her proudest accomplishments are helping develop the efficient and effective detention programming concepts that lean toward skill building rather than treatment.

“It is incredible how many kids have never been part of planting, nurturing, and harvesting garden crops,” says Schott, who grew up and currently lives on an Iowa farm. She loves to plant and take care of flower gardens—her favorite being the labor-intensive, six-foot-tall red cannas whose bulbs have to be planted each spring and removed every fall. 

Schott makes a point of coming to see how the youth’s garden is progressing and complimenting the kids on their hard work.

“One resident came up with the idea to cut some flowers and create centerpieces for the dining room tables,” she says. “Although they were in plastic cups, they added some hominess to a very sterile environment, and, boy, was she proud of her idea. I tell you what, allowing kids to have a success goes a long way!”

Dawn Schott ’92, ’16 MA instantly gave her support to the therapy dogs program. The dogs and their handlers are certified volunteers at Corridor TherapyDogs®. They provide services to enrich the lives of others through compassion and comfort.

Emily Blomme, the executive director at Foundation 2, an organization providing crisis mental health services, and detention center board member, says watching Schott’s diligence to transform the center and positively impact youth is remarkable.

“When youth have an opportunity to tend to something, they learn how to turn that positivity into how they treat themselves and others,” Blomme says. “Dawn’s calm, reasonable, and collaborative approach to solving complex issues is incredible.”

When the teachers initiated the idea of therapy dogs, Schott, who trained and showed dogs in obedience and showmanship in 4-H, instantly gave it her support and stamp of approval.

Dawn Schott ’92, ’16 MA

The success of the program was best seen when a young man, who was uninterested in interacting with the dogs, sat off to the side of the class. One of the dogs with a kind sense walked over and sat in front of the boy and put her head on his knee.

“The next thing I knew, the boy was hugging the dog and sobbing,” she says. “Talk about having an impact!”

“I know how nonjudgmental a dog can be,” says Dawn Schott ’92, ’16 MA, who owns a Rottweiler named Riggs. “That is what kids need—someone who loves them unconditionally.”

In another situation, a young woman went to court and had an explosive experience. She had to be restrained by numerous officers on the way back to detention. She kicked out the car window and nearly jumped from the moving vehicle traveling at 75 mph on the interstate. When the judge in her case learned of her interest in the dogs, he requested a therapy dog attend her next court hearing.

“Fortunately, a trainer was willing to do this and that girl’s court experience was totally different the next time,” Schott says. “She was able to focus while she constantly touched that dog sitting next to her.”

CPR Program in the Works

After hearing on the news about an infant who stopped breathing but was saved by a neighbor who knew CPR, Schott says the newest program she plans to implement is the chance to teach kids CPR.

“CPR is taught in schools, but many of the kids we work with miss the lesson,” she says. “I don’t want any person to feel the way that young mom did about her baby, so we are having two staff certified to teach CPR and then give all youth the opportunity to be CPR certified.”

Advancing your degree advances your work

Schott admits going back for her master’s degree in criminal justice at MMU really opened her eyes as to how easy it is to become stagnant in your profession.

“It was exciting to read research on trends and get affirmation that our programs are promoting the most effective methods and theories of juvenile justice,” she says.

Because of her positive experience, she’s encouraged three of her staff, Dan Williams ’94, ’18 MA, Janelle Scott ’18 MA, and Rod Rasmussen ’20 MA, to advance their education in criminal justice at Mount Mercy, too.

“All too often we get stuck in our ways,” she says. “Going back to school helps you identify other concepts and awaken the sleepy in your everyday work.”

Schott is currently an adjunct instructor at MMU. She says she wanted to teach at the college level because she felt that juvenile justice doesn’t get the dedicated class time it needs.

“Dealing with kids is very different from working with adults,” she says, “and the recruiting opportunities are also a bonus.”

Bernie Broghammer Bordignon ’80

“I believe in the power of people to change. When you provide young people with the opportunity to do so, you can help them navigate toward something better every day.

Mount Mercy provided me with a strong foundation for my career, imparting ideals of respect for human beings that I continue to apply to my work.”

Bernie Broghammer Bordignon ’80, a local juvenile court officer and detention center board member.

Success Stories

In 2016, there were 2,936 detention admissions in Iowa, and roughly 65 percent of those were returning youth. Linn County accounted for 354 of the admissions.

“Detention is not treatment, and I worry whether we are meeting the needs of the youth we are housing, especially when mental health needs are seemingly at an all-time high,” Schott says.

Because detention is not treatment, and the average length of stay is just two weeks, success stories are not your typical stories. Occasionally, staff will hear from a youth that has turned their life around but, more often than not, they just don’t know what happens to the kids, which can be hard and disheartening.

“I did see an ex-resident several years ago as a guest speaker in church,” Schott says. “He had joined the army and was speaking about how his tour in Afghanistan had changed him. His dad reported that his stay in detention was the beginning of his behavior change, and he was grateful to the staff for their kindness and support during that challenging time in their lives.”

Schott ran into another resident in a hospital elevator who was there with her mom who was dying from cancer.

“She is now happily married with three kids and has successfully moved on with life in a positive way,” Schott says. “She is a CNA and loves her job. She spoke with such gratitude for the staff at detention and for me as a role model.”

Schott says she believes in opportunities and being open minded to new ways of functioning. “I want these kids to have an abundance of tools in their tool belt of life,” she says. ■