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A JUVENILE JUSTICE REFORM TRIES TO REBOUND FROM EARLY TROUBLES

New York Nonprofit Media
By GABE PONCE DE LEÓN

Last month police arrested three teenagers accused of raping a woman they met at an Internet café in Chinatown. According to reports, the boys left the woman in the stairwell of an apartment building and set out to burglarize her apartment. Earlier that night, they had escaped from a Brooklyn group home operated by the nonprofit Boys Town. The teens had been placed there through the Close to Home program, which allows low-risk juvenile offenders from New York City to remain close to their families in “nonsecure” facilities—though entrances and exits are supposed to be closely monitored.

A few weeks later, Boys Town became the third nonprofit provider to lose its contract with Close to Home since the program was launched in 2013.

A collaborative effort between the city and state, Close to Home is part of a larger “realignment” of New York’s juvenile justice system—a recent movement that favors community-based alternatives to placements in rural correctional facilities, and models that emphasize rehabilitative services over punitive measures. The program allows youth to continue their education and access treatment without being cut off from their families. With rates of juvenile crime declining in New York and nationwide, reformers have argued that community-based alternatives will save taxpayer money while reducing recidivism.

But recently publicized setbacks—including the Boys Town arrests—have inspired further examination of Close to Home’s implementation and oversight.

The providers’ proximity to their residents’ homes—an initial inspiration for the program—may have actually precipitated many of the program’s early troubles. Intended to look and feel like normal home environments, nonsecure facilities are often just a bus or train ride from where the teens grew up. The number of residents leaving program sites without permission—going absent without leave, or “AWOL”—has proven to be a significant challenge. In 2013, a 17-year-old who escaped from a Staten Island facility stabbed a man to death outside a friend’s home in Queens. The operator of that facility subsequently lost its city contract, as did another that failed to show progress in addressing the problem of runaways.

The city’s Administration for Children’s Services, which manages the program, has worked to beef up security at group homes. “We worked with providers to install additional security measures, including window bars, additional alarms and coded keypads,” spokesman Chris McKniff said.

In addition, revised standards required providers to submit regular reports on their efforts to locate AWOL youth. The agency also modified the intake process to gather additional information that could be used to locate missing youth.

The changes appear to have had an effect. In 2013, 503 teens were placed in nonsecure facilities; there were 740 incidents that year in which residents were reported AWOL, and 169 arrests. Through May of this year, a total of 443 teens have been served, with 122 AWOLs and 51 arrests.

Providers attribute the apparent decline in AWOLs, however, to more than just enhanced security mechanisms.

“What was hard in the beginning is that our houses are small and you had six new kids who had to buy into the culture,” said Douglas O’Dell, executive director of SCO Family of Services, one the program’s eight city-contracted residential providers. “Now that they’re admitted into the program one at a time, the new kids are coming into an established culture.”

Before the program even launched, critics pointed out that neither the ACS nor the providers it contracted had a lot of experience in juvenile justice; their expertise lay in child welfare.

“In the beginning, we were very much under the belief that this was juvenile justice with a child welfare approach,” said Michael D. Garcia, vice president for residential services at Children’s Village, which has ACS contracts for residential and after care services through the Close to Home program. “But over time with the population being served we started recognizing the need for more of a juvenile justice approach.”

Children’s Village had to place a greater emphasis on structure and adopt a harder line with staff members who failed to perform their duties. “You may think you have a good relationship with the kid, and then you take him out into the community and he goes AWOL,” Garcia said. “The oversight is more than what we had initially expected and we’ve made changes to adapt to that.”

For some kids, the group homes provide more stability than the living situations from which they came. Forming strong relationships in the house matters. So does around-the-clock supervision.

“It’s not just locks that will hold them,” O’Dell said. “You have to stay focused throughout your entire shift and work closely with your partner to make sure that they are covering for you, especially when a kid is new to the program.”

About a week after the three teens were detained, a Boys Town staffer was arrested and accused of doctoring the logbook the night the trio absconded. (According to his attorney, it was that staffer’s first day on the job.)

An accelerated implementation timeline may have also contributed to the program’s rocky rollout. Since ACS pays providers for youth care but not organizational planning and restructuring, some providers say they felt forced to take on clients before they were ready, and rushed to hire the staff capable of meeting the needs of a challenging population—including youth with specialized needs ranging from emotional disturbances and past trauma to problematic sexual behavior and developmental and intellectual disabilities. Many providers, as a result, experienced high staff turnover in the early going.

The second phase of the initiative, designed to place medium-risk offenders in limited-secure facilities, has experienced substantial delays, due in large part to community resistance over siting plans.

In assessing the early results of Close to Home, its proponents argue that any negative outcomes should be weighed against the violence and abuse youth can be subjected to in correctional facilities, as well as the lack of educational and other developmental opportunities that can have a devastating toll when they return home, often leaving their life prospects severely diminished.

“There’s never a good reason to send kids away,” said Dr. Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It could be about convenience, fear, politics or a way of adding jobs to outlying areas where there aren’t enough jobs. But it’s never about public safety.”

Though the initiative may have stumbled out of the gate—another controversy involved the disbandment of an independent oversight board last year—the program’s supporters remain convinced that Close to Home is succeeding far more often than it’s failing.

Supporters cite dramatic client turnarounds as evidence of the program’s efficacy.Children’s Village’s Garcia recalled one early client, a particularly agitated girl who had to be restrained four times.

“She had stripped down to her underwear. She was refusing to move. She was just out of control,” Garcia recalled. “I ended up in a restraint with her three more times. … At the time, we were like, oh my God, what’s going to happen to this girl?”

EMS and the police were called to the scene, and the girl was hospitalized. It was Garcia’s worst experience in terms of how many restraints had to be used, one after another. That same girl, however, has since left the program. She graduated from high school and is now enrolled in college.

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