With herds of deer punctuating the green expanses of The Children’s Village’s picturesque Dobbs Ferry campus, it’s easy to feel far removed from the harsh realities of the juvenile justice system.
And yet, in a far corner of the sprawling 180-acre property, a newly retrofitted cottage houses two teenagers who are restricted to a tiny fraction of the grounds. They are the first participants in The Children’s Village’s “limited secure placement” program, a new subset of the New York City Administration of Children’s Services’ Close to Home initiative that places teenage offenders closer to their home communities, instead of at detention centers far upstate. The initiative also takes a holistic approach to rehabilitation, combining residential services with therapeutic treatment and instruction from New York City Department of Education-certified teachers.
While The Children’s Village has spent two years as a Close to Home provider, LSP presents a notable shift. Unlike youth in the first phase of the program – called “non-secure placement,” or NSP – LSP youth cannot leave the confines of their cottage and the area directly surrounding it, which is surrounded by unscalable 12-foot fencing and closely monitored by security personnel. For several months, a cramped two-story building is their bedroom, their classroom and everything in between.
A new mindset
Still in its infancy, Close to Home harnesses the concept that treatment – not simply imprisonment – holds the key to turning around the lives of juvenile offenders. But while The Children’s Village has provided services to similar youth, both at other sites and in its NSP program, LSP has forced staff to confront head-on the challenges – and rewards – of a more restorative approach.
“I think sometimes people find solace in the corrections mentality,” said Elizabeth Saracco, an Integrated Treatment Model liaison who works to amalgamate The Children’s Village’s suite of services into a unified program for LSP youth. “But when you’re in that mindset, you don’t really have to have that relationship with the kids, because it’s hard when the kids leave or when they curse you out. If you think of yourself as a security person, then you’re not going to be vulnerable and you’re not going to build trust, which is so essential.”
Part of the internal conflict, according to Saracco, stems from training that necessarily emphasizes security precautions, given that the teenagers in the LSP program have violent histories.
“We train with things like shackles and handcuffs and we talk a lot about safety and security, so sometimes those two things can go into conflict,” Saracco said. “What should be at the forefront? Safety and security, or treatment? Trying to interweave those two things is our goal.”
Tina Schleicher, a clinical coordinator, agreed that Close to Home – and LSP in particular – has necessitated a new mindset for social workers.
“When you look at some of the kids just on paper, I think it’s overwhelming,” Schleicher said. “You get a stack of documents and you see the history and the amount of trauma, the things that a kid has been through. And the idea becomes: How can this kid ever be successful? But then if you take a moment and think and look at how they have survived despite all of this, you think: How can they not be successful?”
However, according to Schleicher, it’s not just social workers who must embrace a new paradigm for LSP to be successful.
“Even parents are still struggling with these ideas,” Schleicher said. “When we’ll talk to them about their kids, they’ll say things like, ‘Well, have they done their time?’ and ‘I hope he’s learned his lesson.’ The parents still have that concept that it’s about punishment. That’s why the contact that Children’s Village does before the kids even get here is so important. The idea that you and your family will be going through a therapeutic process to help your child be successful and that it’s all one long continuum of care for your family. That’s a very different idea from what folks are used to.”
Using a common language
As they attempt to set teenagers on a better path, The Children’s Village’s social workers deploy a treatment model called MST-FIT, or Multisystemic Therapy with Family Integrated Treatment, which focuses youths’ attention to mindfulness, goal setting and regulating destructive behavior.
“It’s totally different than the way that they’ve ever lived their lives or experienced their lives or interactions with people,” said Tina Schleicher, an MST clinical coordinator.
Once children begin to internalize skills and strategies, Schleicher noted, connections back to their lives at home abound. At an afternoon MST session, for example, one of the teenagers connected the theme of the day, “distress tolerance,” back to an experience that he had at home playing the video game Minecraft.
“This other kid kept coming and destroying my stuff,” he said. “He kept doing it, and finally I got so mad that I destroyed his whole world. And I knew that I shouldn’t have done it, but I was just so mad and I couldn’t control myself.”
While the connection to virtual reality may seem inconsequential, Saracco said that making those mental connections in familiar settings can save a teenager from falling back into violent behavior when it really counts. Social workers hope that their efforts to impart skills like “distress tolerance” in relatable ways, like real-life connections or memorizable rap lyrics (which are printed on posters all over campus), can make a world of difference once teenagers are back in the community.
“I can imagine a scenario where a kid’s mom keeps bugging him about something, and after several times he flips out and starts destroying the apartment,” Saracco said. “But if he had just confronted it at the outset in a mindful way, he could have avoided that violence.”
Schleicher added that often parents and siblings struggle with similar problems as youth in the program, which makes family buy-in a pillar of success.
“With MST they’re all able to get on the same page and figure out what is contributing to problems from a multisystemic perspective – not just what the kid is doing, but what the family has some control over,” Schleicher said.
That process involves visits with family members, both during the youth’s stay at The Children’s Village and once they have rejoined the community, where social workers help family members understand the skills that will help their child thrive.
“We work with the family at home to learn skills and to be able to label them so that when the youth comes home, the parent has some context to what the youth is learning and we can all use that common language,” said Daphne Torres, supervisor of the MST program.
A crowded, yet therapeutic, environment
With an asphalt basketball court and adjacent weight room, at first glance the LSP facility looks like it could be one corner of a larger recreational camp. But once the front secure gate locks shut, an undeniable sense of confinement sets in.
The LSP cottage, which is separated from the basketball court by a small lawn, can incite a strong sense of claustrophobia. The cottage’s two floors and basement house a security checkpoint, classroom, kitchen and living room, nurse outpost, several bedrooms (the site’s capacity is six residents), and an isolation room (used in the event that one of the youth displays uncontrollably violent behavior). With three DOE teachers, multiple social workers, administrators and other staff constantly present, staff members say that one of the biggest challenges in the facility is giving everyone enough space.
“One thing that makes it difficult is the size and people feeling on top of each other, and making sure that we stay away from this cabin fever idea,” Saracco said.
While the setting has its challenges, Schleicher said that, in some senses, it mimics the types of environments teenagers will have to navigate once they’re back in the community.
“It’s a lot of the same struggles that we have in the community when those kids go home, where you’ll have families who are in overcrowded apartments, kids sleeping in the living room,” Schleicher said. “We recently had a case where there was five people living in a one bedroom apartment, and just trying to figure out how to use your skills and not kill each other in that environment.”
One way that The Children’s Village has attempted to mitigate that sense of cabin fever is by opting for more soothing interior design choices. The teenagers’ bedrooms, for example, have accented walls, specially secured curtains and colorful bedding that make them much closer in spirit to a college dorm room than a juvenile detention cell.
“When we were designing these spaces, we made a concerted effort to get away from making it feel institutional,” said Cristian Correa, assistant vice president of residential programs. “The choices that we made with the curtains and bedding were very intentional and, I think, are in keeping with the overall goals of the program.”
According to Schleicher, those nurturing choices, along with the therapeutic and educational services, provide the best hope for breaking the cycle of incarceration that has plagued so many young lives.
“As someone who worked with OCFS youth long before this project existed, it was easy to start thinking of it as a revolving door, and the more times you’re in an out means something in communities,” Schleicher said. “It’s really important that people are starting to moving away from that.”
“With LSP, it’s the difference between an environment that feels like it’s there to put you down and put you in your place and one that’s going to build you up,” she added.
Looking to the future
Even with that environment in place, the staff at The Children’s Village have just a handful of months before LSP youth head back home and into the community, where many of the same factors that led to their destructive behavior remain intact. In an effort to ease that transition, the program has worked in an extensive aftercare portion to keep tabs on LSP youth.
“From an aftercare perspective, MST will look at whether or not the youth is staying at home, not being rearrested, and making sure they are in school or in a vocational program,” said Torres. “Those are three major goals that we work on. The way we work to achieve those goals is by working with the family to make sure that they are connected with the school and have a better relationship with the school, and getting the youth into a pro-social program so that the youth is navigating the community more successfully.”
However, according to Schleicher, staff work hard during their time with the LSP teenagers to help them envision a productive life after the program, as well as the steps they’ll have to take to get there.
“For some kids, if they really want to do vocational or hands-on work, maybe they’re going to go to a technical college or an engineering school or electrical college,” Schleicher said. “And we start thinking about how they get there. You’ve been using drugs. They’re not going to take you if you aren’t clean. Let’s give you a goal around managing that in the community.”
Schleicher added that the program’s emphasis on mindfulness and incremental progress gives teenagers their best shot at surviving – and thriving – back home in dangerous and chaotic communities.
“We break it down into steps and look at what the behaviors are that are going to interfere with the steps they have to take to get their lives on track,” Schleicher said. “And if they’ve made a lot of progress in a setting where there’s a lot of control around the stimulus and the triggers for those things, we help them maintain that in a world where those things are free flowing.”