Importance of Interagency Collaboration in Serving Justice-Involved Youth with Disabilities

by Noah Sergio and Matt Saleh

At first glance, the importance of interagency collaboration when providing services for justice-involved youth with disabilities might seem self-explanatory. However, the concept of “collaboration” can mean many different things, particularly in the context of youth transition and reentry, and particularly for youth who are involved in multiple systems simultaneously, as justice-involved youth with disabilities often are.

For example, justice-involved youth with disabilities might simultaneously be involved with juvenile justice, education, child welfare, mental health agencies, developmental disabilities agencies, and/or social security. These youth might also be on the cusp of transitioning to adulthood and needing coordinated referrals to adult systems like vocational rehabilitation, workforce development, and higher education or career-technical education.

Recent research, conducted by Cornell University, suggests that levels of collaboration are low between juvenile justice agencies and vocational rehabilitation and workforce systems nationally (Shaw, Saleh, Osmani, & Jackson, n.d.). These findings suggest that these are systems in need of more formal integration to support justice-impacted youth as they move to economic self-sufficiency. This is particularly important because many justice-involved youth with disabilities experience educational and career preparation disruption, which can lead to lower rates of economic self-sufficiency into adulthood (Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2015; Saleh & Cook, 2020).

This is a key reason why interagency collaboration is vital. Different agencies bring the resources and expertise to help youth overcome these disruptions—but doing so requires clear coordination of services. For youth with disabilities, interagency collaboration is often cited as an important practice for serving youth who are involved in multiple systems, or who are moving from youth to adult systems (Kohler et al., 2016).

Some definitions of collaboration focus on interagency “synergies,” like shared trust and mutual or reciprocal understanding of goals and relationships (Park, Hill, & White, 2022). Other definitions focus more on “instrumental” practices between agencies, such as frequent communication, resource sharing, formality, shared decision-making, and role clarity (Frey et al., 2006; Povenmire-Kirk et al., 2015). These are referred to as “instrumental” practices because they emphasize measurable practices used between collaborators rather than feelings, such as trust. In general, the research literature favors instrumental collaborative practices as a predictor of transition outcomes over perceptions of interagency synergy (Fabian et al., 2016; Saleh, Shaw, Malzer, & Podolec, 2019).

Other definitions center the youth within a collaborative process, focusing on the need to emphasize and empower a youth’s particular set of goals. By one definition, interagency collaboration is a process whereby agency representatives—ideally including both frontline staff and supervisors—work collectively for mutual benefit toward a common goal, such as supporting youth as they develop career pathways (Test et al., 2020). At a minimum, one important task that underlies collaboration is simply defining what collaboration means to your agency, and whether it differs based on the partners involved and based on youth context. Necessary levels of collaboration may also differ based on the partner, so it can also be important for staff to ask themselves what level of collaboration they need to achieve to meet interagency service coordination goals.

Additional research from Cornell University and the Council for State Governments suggests that barriers to collaboration between juvenile justice systems and other systems (e.g., vocational rehabilitation, workforce, developmental disability), and both state and local levels, involve policy-related issues around case management data and information sharing, and the related lack of formal interagency agreements to help coordinate care and ensure that appropriate referrals are made between systems (Shaw, Saleh, Osmani, & Jackson, n.d.). This research also suggests that frontline staff at different agencies perceive that informal collaborations are crucially important, but that state-level collaborations and task forces do not always “trickle down” to frontline practice (Shaw, Saleh, Osmani, & Jackson, n.d.).

As such, one objective of policy at the state and local levels may center on providing formal frameworks of interagency communication and collaboration that facilitate: (a) the building of informal relationships between agency staff and the maintenance of points of contact at other agencies; (b) cross-training that helps build awareness of local offerings provided by potential agency partners serving the same youth populations; and (c) local interagency agreements like Memoranda of Understanding or Memoranda of Agreement that specifically focus on providing conduits for information/data sharing and case management coordination between agencies that serve the same youth. Such agreements can help build bridges between agencies that are otherwise hindered by privacy- and policy-related siloes that make case coordination difficult.

These strategies and solutions will of course be highly contextual based on policy and procedure barriers. In the youth justice context, one pervasive challenge involves the fact that different agencies literally have different public policy goals and objectives. However, identifying the commonalities in these goals can be the key to creating collaboration. In general, all agencies share a common goal of keeping youth engaged in positive community experiences like education, employment, positive social integration and inclusion, and other factors known to reduce recidivism and improve long term quality of life. Acknowledging these shared objectives can help reframe interagency relationships to accentuate the overlap in our collective work, enabling the coordination of care that youth need to thrive.


  • Council of State Governments Justice Center and Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. (2015). Locked out: Improving educational and vocational outcomes for incarcerated youth. Washington D.C.: Council of State Governments.
  • Fabian, E., Dong, S., Simonsen, M., Luecking, D. M., & Deschamps, A. (2016). Service system collaboration in transition: An empirical exploration of its effects on rehabilitation outcomes for students with disabilities. Journal of Rehabilitation, 82(3), 3–10.
  • Frey, B. B., Lohmeier, J. H., Lee, S. W., & Tollefson, N. (2006). Measuring collaboration among grant partners. American Journal of Evaluation, 27(3), pp. 383–392.
  • Kohler, P. D., Gothberg, J. E., Fowler, C., & Coyle, J. (2016). Taxonomy for transition programming 2.0: A model for planning, organizing, and evaluating transition education, services, and programs. Western Michigan University.
  • Park, J., Hill, J. C., & White, K. L. (2022). A directed content analysis of interagency collaboration literature within the framework of the working alliance. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 46(1).
  • Povenmire-Kirk, T., Diegelmann, K., Crump, K., Schnorr, C., Test, D.W., Flowers, C., & Aspel, N. (2015). Implementing CIRCLES: A new model for interagency collaboration in transition planning. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 42(1), pp. 51–65.
  • Saleh, M. & Cook, L. (2020). Serving Justice-Involved Youth with Disabilities. Vocational Rehabilitation Youth Technical Assistance Center.
  • Saleh, M., Shaw, L., Malzer, V., & Podolec, P. (2019). Interagency collaboration and communication in transition to adulthood: A mixed methods approach to identifying promising practices and processes in the NYS PROMISE project. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 51(2).
  • Shaw, L. A., Saleh, M., Osmani, K. J., & Jackson, K. (n.d.). A national study of state-level interagency collaboration among youth serving systems [Manuscript submitted for publication]. K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, ILR School, Cornell University.
  • Test, D. W., Mazzotti, V. L., Kwiatek, S., Chang, W-H. (2020). “Effective strategies for interagency collaboration,” in Shogren, K. A. & Wehmeyer, M. L. (Eds.), Handbook of Adolescent Transition Education for Youth with Disabilities, Routledge.
[M]any justice-involved youth with disabilities experience educational and career preparation disruption, which can lead to lower rates of economic self-sufficiency into adulthood.