A First in NY: Residence for Young Offenders with Mental Illness

Last week marked the opening of the first psychiatric residence for juvenile delinquents in the state's custody. Most of the handful of young people who have moved into the new home in Brooklyn are transferring from juvenile justice facilities upstate. Some have been waiting for weeks or even months to move in, says Michael Pawel, who runs the August Aichhorn Center, which operates the new residence. These young people are among the 50 percent of young adults in state-run juvenile correctional facilities who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, according to the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which runs the New York State juvenile justice system. Child Welfare Watch has previously reported on how difficult it is to find appropriate placements for court-involved youth with mental illness.  A 2009 federal Department of Justice investigation found that state-run juvenile justice facilities were woefully lacking in the treatment of mental illness. As we reported in 2009, state-licensed residential treatment facilities, which are designed to work with mentally ill young people, are notorious for screening out children known to be aggressive or violent.

When Pawel visited some of the juvenile justice facilities to let them know about the new residential program in Brooklyn, he says many staff told him they had long given up on trying to get young people moved to residential treatment facilities. Pawel hopes the new Brooklyn home, which will house 24 young people, will change that.

The new facility has a psychiatrist and therapists on staff. It is overseen by the Office of Mental Health and is not part of the new system the city is building for local juvenile delinquents.

Rather, it is part of a larger reform effort to house young people with mental illness in homelike, therapeutic facilities located in the five boroughs. The building was formerly a children’s psychiatric hospital with seclusion rooms and a 100-foot steel fence separating it from the community. Aichhorn has spent the better part of the last year renovating the building to be more welcoming and better integrated in the surrounding neighborhood of Weeksville.

The building now has direct access to the street with an unlocked gate, and no seclusion rooms. Aichhorn revamped what had been 72 identical bedrooms in the children’s hospital to allow for a new entry and lobby, and suites of eight bedrooms each, which will be co-ed, something that is unusual in the juvenile justice world but that Pawel says creates calmer dynamics among residents.  You can download a slideshow of the building before and after renovations through a link here.

The residence will continue to admit youth until it reaches capacity, with the hopes that it will serve an equal number of young women and men, says an OCFS spokesperson. Pawel hopes and expects the state will find a way for residents to be sent to the Brooklyn home directly after being sentenced in court.

His one gripe is that despite Aichhorn’s track record of working with young people with mental illness, the Office of Mental Health’s Bureau of Inspection told him to change the building’s carefully chosen bathroom fixtures as a suicide prevention measure. The new toilet paper dispensers cost $250 each, he says, and are ugly. “It’s totally crazy to be telling us what we need for security,” he says. “But if you don’t open the bathrooms, it looks really nice.”

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.


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.


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.

Cuomo Plan Would Close Juvenile Lockups

If Governor Cuomo gets his way, New York State's juvenile corrections facilities will lose one third of their capacity over the coming year. The governor's executive budget, which he presented to lawmakers earlier today, predicts the state can save $22 million per year by downsizing and closing juvenile jails, cutting 376 of the current total of 1,209 beds. He would also get rid of the current, mandatory 12-month waiting period for closing facilities - a controversial legal requirement that critics say forces the state to waste hundreds of millions of dollars each year on maintaining and staffing near-empty juvenile jails.

Under the governor's plan, $75 million would be redirected to community-based programs for young people who run into trouble with the law over the next two years. Another $38 million would go to improving medical, mental health and other services for youth remaining in state facilities.

Advocates for young people in New York City say they support reinvesting funding into community programs. "We're cautiously optimistic," says Avery Irons, Director of Youth Justice Programs at the Children's Defense Fund, New York. "We're hopeful that other cuts to children's services will not undermine efforts to keep kids on the right path."

Governor Cuomo has made juvenile justice reform a signature issue of his administration, capping off his January State of the State address by describing New York's overreliance on juvenile lockups as a violation of young people's civil rights, and promising to end the practice of keeping juvenile facilities open in the interest of preserving jobs. "An incarceration program is not an employment program," he said.


Over the past several years, consensus among New York City and State policymakers has shifted toward keeping kids out of state-run lockups, which investigators from the US Department of Justice on down have condemned as dangerous, violent and counterproductive. Since 2006, the city has invested in a large-scale effort to expand and support community-based programs for kids who get arrested or end up in court, providing them with supervision while keeping them near their families and providing services like counseling and job training. (See the Center for New York City Affairs 2009 report: A Need for Correction: Reforming New York's Juvenile Justice System.)

City officials say their alternative programs are far more effective and less costly than incarcerating kids far from home, but they worry that it will be hard to maintain or expand the programs in the face of the city's deficit. Last year, the city's largest alternative program had to turn away more than 150 kids who may have been eligible for its services, since it lacked capacity to take them in.

Under the Governor's budget, the state would make $29 million available to local governments to invest in alternative community programs in the coming fiscal year (which begins in April, 2011), and $46 million in the following fiscal year.

Much of the money for those programs would be made available by restructuring the way the state reimburses counties for the cost of detaining young people who are awaiting court hearings or transfer to state lockups. Under the current system, the state pays 50 percent of the cost of running local detention centers. The governor's plan would put a cap on that money, a move he predicts will save $23 million in the coming fiscal year and $51 million in the next, and give counties a financial disincentive to hold low-risk youth in detention centers.


Now that the Governor has presented his plan for the budget, the battle over juvenile justice funding and reform will move to the state legislature. Last year, the Senate passed bills that would have accomplished much of what the Governor has proposed in his budget, reinvesting money from juvenile lockups to community services, and guaranteeing state reimbursement for alternative-to-incarceration programs. But the bills faced tough opposition, primarily from Republican legislators whose districts depend on juvenile justice facilities for jobs, and from the New York State Public Employees Federation, which represents employees at the state's juvenile facilities. Both bills died in the Assembly.

As of January of this year, there were 604 young people confined in state facilities, of which 375 were from New York City. Currently half the beds in the system are empty.

The Governor's budget provides $10 million economic development grants to areas impacted by closed facilities.

A Need for Correction: Reforming New York's Juvenile Justice System

Half the children housed in New York State's juvenile correctional facilities suffer from mental illness, yet there is not one psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse on the staff of the state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which runs the facilities.

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