A new phase in juvenile justice reform

After months of delays, the second and final phase of the New York City Administration of Children’s Services’ Close to Home program has commenced, with four of the six planned sites online, according to a spokesman for the agency.

The onboarding of the four new residential sites, with more integrated and comprehensive educational and mental health services, marks an important milestone for the Close to Home program, which seeks to help juvenile offenders more seamlessly transition back into the community. The program, which allows the city Department of Probation to take youths under the age of 15 out of traditional juvenile justice settings and offer them an array of social services at sites in their home communities, as opposed to upstate detention centers, has already served hundreds of youths in its first phase, which launched in 2012.

The second phase, consisting of “limited secure placement,” or LSP, sites, which are more stringent facilities than the existing “non-secure placement,” or NSP, sites, will eventually serve 94 clients, according to an ACS spokesperson. Designed for youths who are deemed to pose a somewhat higher risk to the community, the LSP sites will be run by three nonprofit organizations: Leake & Watts, The Children’s Village and Sheltering Arms, with sites in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Westchester.

Although this second phase of Close to Home was originally scheduled to launch in 2013, ACS postponed the launch several times, citing construction delays and the need “to address some outstanding concerns with regard to the first phase of Close to Home.”

Some observers have criticized ACS for moving too slowly in its efforts to launch the program’s second phase. One high-ranking Bloomberg administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, expressed incredulity that it had taken the current administration this long to launch LSP sites.

“It’s only 100 beds, for crying out loud,” the former official said. “We would have gotten this up so much more quickly simply because it’s the right thing to do.”

However, Meredith Barber, director of institutional advancement at Leake & Watts, expressed confidence that the deliberative pace of ACS would result in safe and successful sites for the long haul.

“Close to Home is a very important initiative, and we understand that a new administration really wants to make sure that they understand all of the moving parts,” Barber said. “Both ACS and the providers want to make sure that the kids are being supported, so we used that time ourselves to make sure that we are overly prepared.”

While many advocates have hailed the program as sensible and humane reform for a failing juvenile justice system, the first years of its operation saw troubling safety issues, including frequent AWOL incidents. The program’s biggest blow came in June 2015, when three teens residing at a Brooklyn NSP facility operated by Boys Town were arrested on charges of rape. Boys Town swiftly lost its Close to Home contract, becoming the third nonprofit to do so.

Despite the dramatic consequences of safety shortcomings – and the community backlash that ensued – ACS insists it has largely addressed safety concerns surrounding NSP sites, setting a firm foundation for LSP sites to succeed.

“With an initiative of this size and scope, challenges were to be expected,” said Christopher McKniff, a spokesman for the agency. “When we launched Close to Home in 2012, New York City had not run a juvenile placement system.”

McKniff described ACS’ redoubled efforts to increase safety and decrease AWOLs at NSP sites, including the installation of additional security measures like window bars, additional alarms and coded key pads, and working with providers to better identify situations when youth were likely to try to leave.

“These changes have been enormously successful,” McKniff said. “For example, the percentage rate of young people leaving placement for more than 24 hours without permission was 27 percent in May 2013; by October 2013 it had dropped to 14 percent, representing a nearly 50 percent decrease in just five months. As of September 2015, the percentage had dropped to 4.8 percent.”

Given the more intensive services provided at LSP sites, as well as the lessons learned from the first years of NSP site operation, McKniff said that this second phase will feature heightened safety protocols.

“LSP sites are designed to be self-contained, with all services, including education, recreation and mental health care, provided on site,” McKniff said. “Young people placed in LSP will have a limited need to move off site. Also, the sites will include a 24/7 staffed control room to monitor the entire facility, and there will be a 3-to-1 staffing ratio.”

Nonprofit providers say that the initial focus on safety will provide a strong foundation for their current task: implementing programs that they hope will have a lasting impact on their clients’ lives.

Lisa Crook, director of juvenile justice programs at Leake & Watts, described her organization’s adaptation of existing methods, such as the Missouri Youth Services Institute model, in order to most efficaciously impact clients during their six to seven months of participation. Crook stressed the importance of using positive behavior reinforcement, setting clear expectations, and providing replacement behavior – not just saying, “Don’t do that.”

“One of the big pushes that is part of our method is helping kids to decide what their own goals are,” Crook explained. “Nobody responds well to a goal that someone else sets for you. It’s critical that we work with the kids and families to set goals for themselves. We’re not here because we know what is best – they know their lives, their strengths. We’re here to help them figure out what their long-term goals are.”

Crook explained that one method that Leake & Watts has implemented to aid goal-setting is family-teen conferences, which the organization has previously used in foster care settings. “It’s borrowed from the developmental disability world and includes a very intensive interview about what is really important to that individual, and how can we make goals and how can we support them to get there,” Crook said.

Jeremy Kohamban, president and CEO of The Children’s Village, said asking probing questions about service delivery is key to making those services more impactful.

“Is the treatment that we are providing specific to the symptoms and issues of placement?” Kohamban asked. “If the child was placed with a certain type of mental illness, is our treatment responsive to that issue? Is what we are doing connecting the children back to families and the community? Are we creating the kind of family connections and community connects that will give them success out of the system? If those connections don’t exist, do we have a plan and a set of activities that will create a family and community connection?”

Kohamban cited The Children’s Village’s extensive infrastructure, including its use of parent advocates and community offices in all five boroughs, as integral to its ability to reintegrate clients into the community.

Crook stressed the importance of residents receiving group therapy at LSP sites. She highlighted Leake & Watts’ use of a technique borrowed from the Missouri Youth Services Institute called “circle and check-in.” Crook said the practice, in which any member of the site can call a group meeting, has proved helpful in fostering a nurturing environment.

“If a young person had a bad call with her parents, they can circle up a group and get support,” Crook said. “A staff member or a peer member can also call a circle. Instead of staff talking behind the kids, we check in with each other.”

Given the promise of these techniques, Barber hopes that the discussion surrounding Close to Home can shift from safety concerns to the restorative and redemptive possibilities of the program.

“It really is important to be having a conversation amongst agencies, advocates and in the media about the need for these programs and the fact that these are kids who deserve a chance to succeed and the opportunity to turn their life around,” Barber said. “These kids are 12 or 13 years old. In our work, we are constantly reminded that so many of the kids in juvenile justice and foster programs have been dealt a raw deal. We have the opportunity to really give them nurturing support and help them discover the roots of their behavior. We have to remember in the conversation about these programs that these are kids, many really great kids who just made poor decisions. We need to make that a part of the conversation.”

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