Community Spotlight: Leelanau County Family Court

The Mental Wellness Counseling “Community Spotlight” series introduces key leaders in Grand Traverse County who work to enhance the community’s health and overall wellbeing. Whether it’s focusing on individual health or family dynamics, they are here to help!

Ryan Douglass: Court counseling


Ryan Douglass used to envision himself as a private practice family therapist—complete with an office and a couch. Now as a substance abuse caseworker and juvenile probation officer for the Leelanau County Family Division of the Circuit Court, Douglass practices “not-your-typical” counseling for minors charged with drug/alcohol abuse, truancy, and other offenses. He says his counseling skills like understanding and empathy have been essential to interacting with youth and their families. “To build rapport, sometimes my counselor hat goes on over my probation officer hat. If a young person is having a bad day in school, I’ve taken time to talk to them,” Douglass said. “However, it’s not always easy to counsel them into changing their behavior. With the firmer hand of a probation officer, I can motivate them more.”


Douglass’ probation work largely focuses on diversion: keeping minors from further involvement in the court. “Family Court is designed to understand that kids make mistakes,” he said. “It’s a balance between understanding that developmentally they’re at a rebellious stage, but they also need to have a level of accountability.” First-time offenders at the Leelanau Family Court are typically given an informal probation. If the child fulfills an individualized contract, the charge is dismissed.


In addition to diversion work, Douglass also has a hand in prevention counseling: preventing youth from ever stepping foot in to the court system. He collaborates with John Boonstra to run “G2” guys group—a voluntary, all-male, experiential education program. All year round, the group takes kayaking, biking, hiking, and fishing trips in Leelanau County. Boonstra says the outdoor activities “help provide protective factors and build up self efficacy, because the guys see they were able to accomplish a task or commit to something.”

John Boonstra: Prevention groundwork 

boonstra-photoAs Youth Services Counselor for the Probate and Family Court, Boonstra not only does diversion work like Douglass, but also organizes prevention programs for youth who are in danger of entering the court system. He is able to tailor counseling interactions to fit the youth and family’s specific risk/protective factors. “There’s something unique about each of the guys I work with,” Boonstra says. “I find those unique characteristics—what they enjoy and what’s going well.” Youth referred to Boonstra for prevention services often come from tough family situations and/or show behavioral issues, mental health problems, truancy, suspected or actual drug use. Boonstra says when working with this population of young adults, it’s critical to build a relationship while maintaining professional boundaries. “It’s very good for them to see me as an adult mentor, an even keel group leader,” he said. “I need to respond appropriately and be prepared for whatever situation comes up.”

During the school year, Boonstra and Douglass conduct regular check-ins with each youth at one of the Leelanau area schools. They also conduct home visits, family meetings, and individual truancy/substance abuse programming. Each meeting aims to prepare children for future success by promoting lifelong skills. “I like doing the ground work,” Boonstra says. “It’s rewarding to see them practice the things we’ve worked on like discipline, integrity, and making good decisions.”

Personal Growth and Freedom

No matter how long it takes a youth to develop such skills, Boonstra believes the ultimate goal is freedom from whatever physical, mental, or emotional struggles each individual began with. “I currently have a few young men who are on the path to high school graduation,” Boonstra said. “They are not engaging in the activity they were referred for—it has become secondary. We found out what helps them and move on.”

For both Boonstra and Douglass, the most rewarding part of their jobs is having a positive impact on youth and their families. “I recently ran into an old parent who I worked with six years ago,” Douglass said. “He said, ‘thank you so much for helping my son. Without you, we probably would have lost him.’”

Click here more information about the Leelanau County Family Court.