Preparing New Group Homes for Young Lawbreakers

The Bloomberg administration is swiftly moving on its plans to establish several new group homes that will house New Yorkers aged 15 and under who have been sentenced for crimes. The city has chosen 11 nonprofit providers to operate the nonsecure, residential centers, which will open as early as September. This leaves the organizations just a few summer months to get the facilities up and running.

The new residences will each house from 4 to 24 young people, making room for more than 300 juvenile delinquents to serve their time in the city instead of in juvenile facilities upstate. One of organizations' first challenges has been finding affordable, spacious sites in the city. Some are converting properties they already own or lease, while others will rent new sites. Former convents and homes that once housed priests are proving especially popular. These buildings are too big to use for private homes and the diocese can keep them off the tax rolls by leasing them to nonprofits.

The new residences will be overseen by the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), and are expected to provide not only supervision but also counseling and social services. Despite the nonsecure, label, these city residences will in fact be locked and fully staffed, though not ringed with barbed wire like the upstate lockups they will replace.

Officials say that keeping teen offenders close to their families, communities, and lawyers, and in city-run education programs, should help smooth their transitions home and reduce the likelihood that they will commit new crimes. "This is as significant a shift as I have seen in my thirty years in the business, and a most welcome one," says Bill Baccaglini, executive director of New York Foundling, which will be running one of the new facilities.

The nonsecure residences are part of the city's Close to Home, initiative, which transfers responsibility for all but the most severe of the city's young lawbreakers from the state to the city. Though most of the new sites will open in the five boroughs, a few specialized residential programs for young people with specific issues, like fire starters or girls who have been exploited as prostitutes, will be located on residential campuses in Westchester and Long Island. ACS expects some of these specialized programs to move into the city within two years.

All of the new sites must meet certain state and city requirements, like having high quality video surveillance in common areas and windows that activate alarms when opened too far. "We want the facility to be appropriate and friendly to the young people so it feels as homelike as possible, and yet it has also to be a facility we can watch and monitor appropriately for the safety of the young people in the facility, but also for the community," says Alan Mucatel, executive director of Leake & Watts.

Leake & Watts will open a 12-bed home in the Bronx in a building that used to be a group home for mothers in foster care and their children. When renovating the site, the agency is getting rid of nooks where young people can hide from view and "that can lead to something unsafe and inappropriate," says Mucatel. Instead, the house will have large, open common spaces and bedrooms all on one floor.

All of the providers have experience working with young people who have committed crimes, most commonly as an offshoot of residential foster care programs, or as an operator of detention centers for young people awaiting trial. Most say they aim to strike a balance between keeping young delinquents and their new neighbors safe while also creating comfortable, welcoming environments that resemble family life. They plan to have a high ratio of staff to young people and will encourage parents and other family members to visit regularly. Most also plan to give the young people increasing degrees of autonomy as they win staff members' trust, including chances to make excursions outside the facilities without a chaperone. "As soon as it is deemed safe and appropriate, the child will be going on home visits," says Elizabeth McCarthy, executive director of Episcopal Social Services of New York.

Young people will live in the new facilities an average of seven months, and attend one of two schools that are hurriedly being created by the Department of Education. Under the current plan, many will return to their former public schools as they get close to returning home, in order to help make the transition less abrupt.

Over the next few months, ACS will train staff for the facilities in crisis management. This includes de-escalating volatile situations by talking with and calming young people, while avoiding the restraints and excessive force that a 2009 Federal Justice Investigation found routine at juvenile justice facilities upstate.

The administration has also asked the facilities to choose therapeutic evidence based, models that have been shown to have positive results. Most of the providers plan to adopt elements of the Missouri Model, a reform effort that began in Missouri but has been attributed to reducing recidivism rates among juvenile delinquents in other states as well. The model emphasizes rehabilitation and uses small groups, minimal force, and strong relationships between staff and young people, where staff are seen as supportive rather than custodial.

The organizations have only until the fall to put everything in place. "There's a tight timeframe here," says Mucatel. "There's all the anxiety that comes along with doing any new program. You want to do it right. You want to hire engaged and ambitious staff. And we are bringing on a model that is new to us, the Missouri Model, and I'm sure there will be some adjustment to us culturally to make that who we are."

Most of the providers say they are not yet clear on how or whether they need to inform communities about the new facilities. Several did not want to reveal the addresses of the new homes for fear that it might spur local resistance. But Mucatel of Leake & Watts says it is critical to find ways to work with neighbors and link the young people and their families to local supports right away. "The success of these programs is going to count on community engagement and family engagement. That's the whole point. That's what will give these young people a sense of feeling rooted in their neighborhoods, and propel them to making choices that will keep them out of the criminal and juvenile justice system," he says.

Boys Town, an organization with long experience in juvenile justice, already runs two homes in the city for teens convicted of crimes. One is a small group home in a brownstone on a tree-lined street of Park Slope. A married couple, Kenneth and Sarai Ortiz, run the house, which they share with six young men.

One of them, Omar (not his real name), is skinny and soft-spoken with brown hair and braces. He has also spent time in an upstate lockup where the boys had two big dorm rooms with beds lined up prison-style, he says, and everyone had to shower together, something he particularly hated. He says he often felt isolated, and scared for his safety. Upstate, Omar says, it felt like both the staff and the young people were just doing time.

But in the Park Slope group home, he says, "We're like brothers. We work together and do chores. I consider them family." After looking carefully around the living room at his surrogate brothers sitting on a couch, he breaks into a grin, adding, "Most of the time."

A Clearer View of Bloomberg's 'Close to Home' Plan

It's been more than a year since Mayor Bloomberg announced that he wanted to pull New York City kids out of state-run juvenile justice facilities, sending them instead to a new system of programs and lockups controlled by the city. Until recently, details of the city's plan have been scarce: What would the city's system look like? Who would operate it? And how would it be better than the state-run system, with its decades of scandal and notoriously high rates of recidivism?

The details are now public, spelled out in a 100-page draft plan released earlier this month by the Administration for Children's Services (ACS). For larger context on the city's reform agenda, see our previous story here. What follows is a summary of critical details from the draft plan, which is open to public comment.

Under the existing system, the city has jurisdiction over children who've been arrested, while their court cases are pending. But after a child is sentenced to serve time, he or she is sent to the custody of the state government, which runs its own juvenile lockups and also oversees a network of residential campuses operated by nonprofit organizations, including some in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island that have historically cared for New York City foster children.

This year's state budget includes funding for the new approach, which will allow New York City to open its own facilities for kids who are sent by judges to so-called nonsecure, and limited secure, lockups. Those titles are misleading: The facilities are, in fact, secured by both staff and hardware, and kids are not allowed to leave on their own. Nonetheless, they generally house children who've committed less serious or fewer offenses than those placed in so-called secure, facilities, which are more restrictive and will continue to be operated by the state, at least for now.

The city wants to have new nonsecure residential centers up and running by September of this year. They will be run by nonprofit organizations, including those who have long experience with foster care residential treatment centers and others that have worked with juvenile delinquents sent to them by Family Court judges.

The city's first step is to submit a plan to the state's Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). The plan must incorporate public feedback; ACS will hold two public hearings in May, and is accepting comments on its plan by email at closetohome@acs.nyc.gov.

Following is a summary of key elements of the city's draft plan:

New lockups

In January, ACS invited nonprofit organizations to apply for contracts to operate new facilities, which will essentially look like locked group homes. The administration is now in the process of scoring proposals from several nonprofit groups, and officials say they will announce awards by or in May.

Some organizations seeking to participate already own residential campuses in suburban counties surrounding the city. Initially, the nonprofits ACS selects will be allowed to operate their programs as far as 25 miles outside of city lines. Within two years, however, they will have to relocate to sites within the five boroughs, so that kids can have closer contact with their families.

While the Close to Home plan says the city will work to avoid over-reliance on out-of-home placements,, there is no built-in assumption that the number of kids sent to nonsecure facilities will decline. ACS says it will contract for 300 beds, the same number as are now filled by New York City youth in the state's nonsecure lockups.

This number reflects a significant drop from six years ago, however, thanks to several city initiatives designed to divert young teens from lockups altogether: Since 2005, the total number of New York City young people sent to state-run and state-contracted facilities has gone down by close to two-thirds, from nearly 1,500 to 544 last year.

If the plan is approved, facilities will open on September 1, 2012. All city youth given new, nonsecure placements by Family Court judges will go directly to the city lockups. Between September and December, ACS caseworkers will work with the state to transfer youth already in state custody, either into the new city facilities or into city-run aftercare, programs, which provide support services to young people and their families after they return home.

What happens when they don't work

Under the current state system, a large number of young people fail, out of private, nonprofit-run facilities and are transferred into state-run lockups. Last year, nearly one-third of children placed in state-run, nonsecure lockups had arrived there from private programs. Since the city will not directly operate its own nonsecure facilities, the only option for kids who don't succeed in private programs in the new system will be a transfer to a more restrictive level of lockup.

In its draft Close to Home plan, the city says it hopes to minimize such failed placements, by creating specialized program slots for children with particular needs or behaviors, such as kids with severe emotional disturbances or fire-setting histories. The plan stipulates that ACS social workers will meet with young people and their families before they assign kids to a particular program. Program providers will be able to appeal decisions if the provider thinks an inappropriate match, was made by ACS.

Young people who are deemed to be in imminent danger of leaving without permission,, or who present as a threat to themselves or others, will be transferred immediately to one of the city's secure detention facilities (which currently hold children whose trials are in progress) until a longer-term decision is made.

Restraints and physical force

The city's nonsecure facility operators will be trained in a system called Safe Crisis Management,, which stipulates that program staff must attempt to de-escalate crisis situations without using force whenever possible, and always use the least intrusive or restrictive intervention necessary. Physical restraints are permitted only as a last resort.

This represents a departure from practices in the city's detention facilities, where staff used physical or mechanical restraints more than 1,000 times in the last three months of 2011, according to ACS's quarterly incident report, which it is required to publish under city law. Children in custody were injured as a result of these restraints 78 times during that period.

When providers at the new nonsecure lockups use restraints, they will be required to notify ACS within an hour of the incident, according to the Close to Home plan. ACS will factor the use of restraints into evaluations of provider agencies. ACS case managers will meet with children who've been restrained soon after the incident, and will report restraints to children's families.

Alternative programs

In the draft plan, the city describes a newly expanded continuum of services, for young people in the juvenile justice system, with new programs designed to keep kids out of placement facilities. Historically, New York City's rates of juvenile incarceration stayed high, in part, because Family Court judges didn't have alternative programs to send kids to when they got in trouble. Over the past several years, ACS and the city's Department of Probation have established several alternative to placement, programs, where kids get supervision and services while living at home.

Under Close to Home, the probation department will open three new alternative programs, adding 65 new slots. It will also run a tiered system of probation, so that judges can assign kids to varying levels of scrutiny, including daily check-ins, without removing them from their homes.

According to the Close to Home plan, ACS is currently soliciting more slots for a short-term foster care program designed to keep kids with violent offenses out of lockups. And it is gearing up to expand its system of aftercare programs, which aim to keep kids from committing new offenses.

Reducing bias

One of the Bloomberg administration's signature juvenile justice reforms was the development of a risk assessment instrument,, or RAI, which gauges a young person's likelihood of either re-offending or disappearing while his or her case is pending. After an arrest, based on certain characteristics, young people are scored low-, medium- or high-risk. For those on the low end, the Department of Probation recommends that judges let them stay home, rather than sending them to detention. In part as a result of this assessment tool, detention admissions went down by 18 percent between 2006 and 2011.

The probation department is now working with the Vera Institute of Justice to develop similar tools to take bias out of placement recommendations,which help judges decide whether a child will be sent to a diversion program or to a lockup, and what level of security that lockup should be. Standardizing the process assures that recommendations of placement are not based on the youth's treatment needs, attitudes or behavior while in court or with the probation officer, all of which are factors that can sometimes cause low-risk youth to receive more intensive services than are warranted,, according to the plan. Assessment tools also aim to minimize racial disparities in sentencing.

Oversight

In the process of arguing for this local system, officials have repeatedly said that keeping children close to their families and lawyers, and to the elected officials who represent them, will allow for greater oversight of juvenile lockups.

According to the Close to Home plan, ACS will monitor the nonprofits running facilities, both through its annual scoring process and through its team of case workers working directly with program providers to track kids' progress through the system.

ACS is in turn regulated by the state, which holds the power to grant licenses to the service-providing agencies that will run the lockups. ACS will be obliged to report serious incidents to the state, such as severe injuries to children or suspected child abuse, and the state has the ultimate authority to shut the city's placement system down.

The city publishes certain data tracking the outcomes of its current juvenile justice programs, such as re-arrest rates and average lengths of stay, in the annual Mayor's Management Report and ACS's monthly Flash indicators. Under a law passed by the City Council, ACS is also required to post a quarterly incident report documenting restraints and injuries to youth in detention centers, an annual demographic report and an annual report of child abuse allegations.

The Close to Home plan does not explain what data will be publicly available about its new lockups, though it does say that [t]he city expects that throughout implementation and execution of Close to Home, we will be called upon to update the City Council, as well as key members of the State Assembly and Senate, including the Committees on Children and Family Services.,

The plan also anticipates regular and formal input from stakeholders and consumers of non-secure placement services (judges, lawyers, families, etc.), but does not explain how that input will be institutionalized.

Money

The annual cost of the city's nonsecure lockups is expected to be $56.8 million, with half to come from the city, and half to be paid for by the state. Of the state money, more than $12 million will come from the Foster Care Block Grant, which currently funds services for children and families in the foster care system.

Providers will receive an initial base rate of $400 per child day, based on the assumption that 90 percent of their slots will remain occupied, plus add-on rates for extra services like paying staff to accompany children to school.

Mayor's Axe to After-School?

The Bloomberg administration is poised to make sharp cuts to the primary source of government funding for hundreds of free after-school programs that currently serve about 53,000 children across the city. Just two years ago, the city's "Out-of-School Time" or OST program received more than $117 million in city funds and served more than 87,000 kids. This fiscal year, the program was reduced to $90 million in city dollars. And now, a recent contract proposal from the administration indicates that, in 2013, the program will be cut to just under $70 million. Advocates say the reduction will nearly halve the number of program slots available to city kids.

"The proposed decrease is just going to be devastating to the system at a time when there is such a high demand," said Kathleen Fitzgibbon, senior policy analyst at the Federation for Protestant Welfare Agencies, which represents 20 of the more than 400 community agencies that currently run the after-school programs. The cuts would be hard not only on the children shut out, she said, but for their families, who rely on the programs for childcare.

"What are working parents going to do?" she asked. "Will they lose their jobs?"

Fitzgibbon said she is also concerned about the jobs lost to providers. "Since 2009 we've seen the loss of five thousand jobs as a result of cuts."

Cathleen Collins, deputy chief of staff at the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which distributes funding for the program, said in an email that one reason for the anticipated cut in slots is that the cost per child is expected to increase.

"In the new RFP, all programs will be required to provide services both during the school year and over the summer. The average price per participant for services is therefore expected to be higher than in the past. In addition, the new RFP sets out a rigorous program model with a strong focus on academics, including the requirement of an education specialist in every program. In recognition of the cost of high-quality services that will yield the positive outcomes we want for our young people, DYCD has increased the maximum price per participant that providers can propose, which necessarily reduces the number of participants that may be served."

Collins said it is too soon to know how many kids would lose services as a result of the funding cuts, as the number of program slots will depend on the proposals that the city receives. She also cautioned that there "are still some budgetary issues at play."

Norah Yahya, a policy analyst for United Neighborhood Houses of New York, maintained that the current situation is different from the usual back-and-forth that organizations engage in with the mayor at budget time. "It's dire," she said. "Cuts of this magnitude to services are not usual."

Programs supported by OST after-school funding are free, and offer academic support, cultural activities and healthy snacks for children after school hours and during school holidays and summer. When the contracts were restructured in 2005, Mayor Bloomberg described the program as a "long overdue" means of providing supervision and enrichment to kids who have nowhere else to go after 3pm. "Our new Out-of-School Time system will better serve children and working parents by engaging youth at precisely the times of the day when they are likely to be home alone or are most vulnerable," he said.

Vickie Lopez is a medical secretary at New York Hospital whose two daughters, ages five and seven, had been attending a city-funded after-school program since they began kindergarten. Last year, program reductions meant they were no longer able to get spots, she said. "I cried," Lopez remembered. She was placed on a waiting list, but said she never heard anything more.

Finally a friend of a friend offered to watch the girls for $150 a week, three hours a day. "It was a very, very rough year for me," said Lopez. She said at times she was forced to bring one of her kids to work with her out of desperation.

A 2011 report by Policy Studies Associates analyzing 10 after-school providers funded by the program found that 84 percent of youth enrolled were black or Latino, nearly one-quarter were English Language Learners, and 18 percent were special education students.

Contracts for the revamped program are due to start in September of 2012 and will last three years. They are funded almost exclusively with city tax revenue, with a small amount coming from the state.

The after-school cuts come at the same time as proposed steep reductions in the availability of government-funded childcare slots for preschool-aged kids, following the loss of federal funds for those programs. They also come just four months after Mayor Bloomberg announced the launch of the Young Men's Initiative, billed as an effort to reduce "the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men." Over three years, the mayor has committed a public-private partnership to creating more than $127 million in programs to "connect young men to educational, employment, and mentoring opportunities."

Yahya said the after-school programs are particularly important for low-income black and Latino youth. "This isn't just a babysitting club." In addition, she said, many of the programs make a point of hiring people from the communities they serve, which allows kids to have a mentor who understands where they are from. "The children can see themselves in their mentors, in working adults that care about them and are successful."

"I'm fearful for what the future holds for youth services, as the pot for them gets smaller and smaller," she added. (The city cut DYCD's total budget by close to $40 million this year.) Programs, said Yahya, are now so stripped down that new cuts likely cannot be absorbed through reductions in supplemental services. "A lot of specialties have already been eliminated. They're down to the marrow."

Deficit Reduction Hits NYC Child and Family Services

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's latest strategy to reduce city expenses includes yet another round of budget cuts for programs that serve low-income children, youth and families. As part of his midyear financial plan, released in late November, the mayor directed city agencies to cumulatively carve nearly $1.6 billion out of their budgets for Fiscal Years 2011 and 2012, in an attempt to help shrink a city deficit that amounts, by the mayor's reckoning, to more than $3 billion. Many of the cuts will likely go into effect on January 1st, causing programs to scale back or close immediately.

Among the agencies likely to take significant hits are the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), which must cut more than $60 million over the next two fiscal years, and the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which plans to pull close to $26 million from the community-based organizations it funds. This is the ninth time the agencies have been called on to trim their programs since 2008.

The mayor contends the city has no choice but to cut costs, and starting well in advance of the next fiscal year will minimize the damage to city programs. "The idea is if you start now you make it a more gradual process," says Marc LaVorgna at the mayor's press office. "The further ahead you're planning, the better the chance you have of lessening the impact on people and families served."

Advocates and providers counter that the mayor's plan hurts vulnerable New Yorkers at a time when the safety net has already been weakened. "The agencies that protect and nurture children have already eliminated any duplicative or nonessential services," Stephanie Gendell, an associate director at Citizen's Committee for Children, testified to the City Council last week. Further cuts, she said, "will have a profound negative impact on children."

The mayor's planned cuts have not yet been approved by the City Council, but fiscal analysts on both sides say the legislative nod is likely for the reductions in current fiscal year spending. The larger proposed cuts for the fiscal year that begins in July 2011 will be part of the spring budget negotiations between the mayor and the council.

CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES

Over the last few years, ACS has lost 1,000 staff through layoffs and attrition, coupled with a reorganization within the agency. With the November cuts, ACS will eliminate 257 more positions, including 80 managers in the division that investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect. Since the 2006 death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown, a child known to ACS who was killed by her stepfather, the number of abuse and neglect reports ACS investigates has remained far higher than it was even at the height of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s. Managers in child protection will now supervise more frontline workers.

ACS will also lay off 118 clerical workers by early spring, while further reducing staff at the agency's training academy. The agency also plans to cut 27 specialists who facilitate case conferences, scaling back a key initiative.

HOMEMAKING SERVICES

ACS plans to restructure homemaking services, a foster care prevention program that provides several months of in-home support to families who might otherwise lose children to foster care. Going forward, the program will focus on short-term help for families with children in danger of imminent removal from their home. While providers support using homemaking services as a way to stabilize families in immediate crises, they say it's critical the program continue serving families who have longer term needs, as well.

About one-third of the families that Brooklyn Community Services now serves are headed by a parent with a medical or mental disability, says Norma Martin, the organization's assistant executive director. One mother in her mid-sixties has cancer and is very sick, says Martin. A homemaker helps her take care of her 13-year-old daughter, who was adopted as an infant and has special needs. "What's going to happen to the little girl?" asks Martin. "Where is she going to go? Foster care?"

HOMELESS AND RUNAWAY YOUTH

DYCD plans to eliminate street outreach for homeless and runaway youth, and to cut funding to drop-in centers for young people on the street.

Youth shelters have been filled to capacity for more than two years, and often turn away youth who have nowhere to sleep. "Balancing the budget on the back of children sleeping on the streets is absolutely unacceptable," Councilmember Lewis Fidler said at a council hearing last week.

At the hearing, DYCD Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav testified that very few young people went to shelters as a direct result of street outreach, making the program vulnerable to being shut down.

But staff at Safe Horizon's street outreach program point out that their mission goes far beyond steering young people to shelters. Outreach workers bring young people on the streets supplies like food, condoms and coats. It can take weeks or months of outreach before a young person visits a drop-in center or accepts other services.

Johanna Westmacott of Safe Horizon's street outreach program testified that the new cuts will force her organization to turn away even more young people with no place to go. "I cannot describe what it feels like to look a child in the eye who is desperately seeking help and the best advice you can offer them is to find a buddy to take turns sleeping in public and try not to get arrested for trespassing," she said.

AFTER-SCHOOL AND HOLIDAY PROGRAMS

The cuts also hit families who depend on city-run programs that provide child care, academic enrichment and social support to kids outside of school hours.

Each of the 66 city-funded Beacon programs, which serve as school-based community centers, will lose 10 percent of their DYCD fundingâ€, or about $38,000. Though the programs have been much lauded by the city, they already operate on less funding than when they were launched 19 years ago.

"Working families need a safe place for their children to go so they can keep working," says Anthony Ng, deputy director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses. "Beacons are already operating on bare bones and the funding continues to erode."

DYCD has attempted to help programs absorb cuts by reducing the number of people each center is contractually required to serve, but providers say they're not willing to turn young people away half-way through the program year. "No one's going to tell the 101st kid who comes to the door, "Sorry, you can't come in,'" says Gigi Li, a policy director at the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition.

DYCD also funds nearly 500 after-school programs across the city through its Out-of-School Time (OST) initiative. Beginning January 1st, those programs will lose 9 percent of their OST budgets.

The city adjusted after-school agencies' contracts, allowing programs to operate on fewer holidays than are currently mandated, but providers say the money they'll save through holiday closings doesn't make up for the funding that's being cut.

"We just can't see where the money's going to come from," says Amy Mereson, director of youth education and arts programs at University Settlement. "Our options are to close down for significantly more time, or we cut all the stuff that makes programs rich, chess, dance, theater, sports, the things that make a quality program, it's all taken away."

"The city's approach to trying to find what's ultimately pocket change on the backs of these populations that we serve, I can't wrap my brain around it," Mereson adds. "The assumption is always that community-based organizations will find a way. We're getting to the point where we can't find a way."