The Families: Does 'Close to Home' Bring Families Closer Together?

At 14 years old, Casper* has been sent to live in more institutions than she can tick off on both hands. “Psychiatric hospitals, detention centers, um… I can never remember them all,” she said on a recent Wednesday evening, sitting in the dining room of her current home, a City-run residence for kids who’ve been designated as juvenile delinquents.

“I’d always run away,” she said. “Or I’d wait to get out and do something stupid. Just running with the wrong people, I guess, trying to fit in.”

With a little-girl voice, heart-shaped face and bright pink earrings, Casper doesn’t look much like a threat to society, yet she was first arrested when she was 12, for assault and robbery. Since then, she’s racked up two more arrests—one for a second robbery, another for assault and larceny.

In the past, the most recent arrest would probably have landed her in a juvenile lockup run by New York State—most likely several hours and hundreds of miles from her neighborhood and family.

When New York City launched its Close to Home program at the end of 2012, however, it opened a network of 29 locked group homes—technically called “non-secure placement” residences—that house kids like Casper within or just outside the city limits.

Proximity, in fact, was the great promise of Close to Home: If they stayed nearby, the thinking went, young people would keep close ties with the families to whom they’d eventually return. Program staff would work with parents on underlying family problems that might have sent kids onto the wrong track. Kids would develop relationships with community organizations that could continue to help them, after their time in the system was done.

In the old, Upstate lockups, keeping in touch meant “do we have enough video equipment to let a family teleconference from the Bronx to the Finger Lakes?” says Felipe Franco, who runs the Close to Home system as deputy commissioner for the Division of Youth and Family Justice (DYFJ) at the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

Now, Franco says, ACS case planners try to involve families in making decisions about young people’s futures, right from the point where a judge sends them into Close to Home. Kids are allowed regular phone calls; family members are encouraged to come for frequent visits. As they move through the program, young people spend increasing amounts of time at home—first for a couple of supervised hours, working their way up to unsupervised weekends.

“It’s very open-door,” says Casper’s great aunt, who took over raising Casper when she was two years old. “They welcome you with open arms.”

But people who run Close to Home programs say that distance isn’t the only obstacle to maintaining strong ties between residents and their families. Parents and guardians are often juggling exhausting work schedules and younger kids. For a mom in the Bronx, a weeknight trip to visit a Close to Home residence in East New York, Brooklyn may be simpler than a visit Upstate—but it’s still not easy.

Even trickier, providers say, is that by the time young people land in Close to Home programs, their relationships with their parents or guardians may be damaged by years of conflict and strain. “We’re able to engage about half the families upfront,” says Diane Krasnoff, an assistant executive director at SCO Family of Services, which operates six of the city’s Close to Home residences.

“Some families are resistant until they get consistent phone calls about how well their kids are doing,” Krasnoff says. “For some families, its ‘Fix the child, there’s nothing wrong with me.’”

Many programs have hired family and visitation specialists, dedicated to making sure kids and families connect. “If you don't have car fare, we come get you and take you back home,” says Edward Fabian, the assistant vice president of adolescent residential care at Sheltering Arms Children and Family Services, which operates three non-secure facilities.

A major component of nearly all Close to Home programs—both during young people’s residences and throughout post-release ‘aftercare’—is formal family therapy. Using strategies with names like ‘Multi-Systemic Therapy’ and ‘Family Functional Therapy,’ social workers and therapists arrange sessions either in the residences or at families’ homes, sometimes as often as twice a week.

Casper says that therapy helped her communicate better with the great aunt who raised her. “We have a new connection,” she says. “I learned that I have to listen, not just talk.”

In one family therapy session, Casper came out as gay—something that had terrified her before. “I thought she wouldn’t support me. But she did.”

There are observers of the Close to Home program who question its emphasis on therapy for all. “The implication is that kids are involved in the system because something is wrong with the families,” says Dr. Jeffrey Butts, who directs the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and who released an independent assessment of Close to Home earlier this year.

Butts asks whether Close to Home focuses on fixing broken families at the expense of considering more institutional factors that land kids in the justice system, like failing schools and aggressively policed neighborhoods. “It’s a lot easier to hire therapists” than to fix those things, Butts says.

People who run Close to Home programs, on the other hand, say that family therapy can be the key to a young person’s success when he or she returns home. Strained family relationships “can result in a kid spending much more time on the street,” says Miles Jackson, the division director for juvenile justice at Good Shepherd Services, which operates three Close to Home residences—including the one where Casper lives.

“We can do wonderful work with a young person in six or seven months,” Jackson says. “If the family situation remains exactly the same—along with the same school, the same neighborhood—nothing’s going to change. With family therapy, we can begin to have people think a little differently.”

At several Close to Home facilities, providers have found that, on balance, young women’s families are often more reluctant to engage with programs than families of young men. “Families have kind of thrown in the towel with girls in a way they don’t with boys,” says Denise Hinds, who oversees Good Shepherd’s residential programs. One important difference, she thinks, is that girls and boys tend to end up in the system for different kinds of behavior.

“When you think about a boy being involved in a gang, to some folks that’s not that unusual. He’s trying to be a man,” Hinds says. “With girls, they may be acting out sexually, or standing up to their moms aggressively. It takes a lot more work to get the parent willing to engage again.”

In March, Good Shepherd’s Shirley Chisholm house—where Casper is living—held a family event to celebrate Women’s History Month. Around a table piled with trays of fried chicken and macaroni salad, residents performed songs and poems in honor of their female role models.

Two young women had written a duet, titled ‘For the Ladies who Raised Me.’ The chorus was a list of names: Michelle Obama, Oprah, Shirley Chisholm, Maya Angelou. Conspicuously absent—from both the song and the room—were any ladies who had actually raised them. Of eight girls living in the residence, only Casper’s family had come.

In the past, these family nights had often turned out badly, says Emily Faro, a social work supervisor at Good Shepherd. “There’s a lot of disappointment when families don’t come. There used to be a lot of crying on Family Night. We’ve had fire alarms pulled, a lot of running around.”

Staff at the residence—a team of youth development counselors and social workers—had learned they needed to be more hands-on, Faro says. Several staff members, in fact, had stayed for the event on unpaid time—long after their shifts had ended. “You’ll see staff checking in with the young women a lot, saying ‘I see you’re upset. What do you need?’” Faro says.

As the night moved on, the conversation veered from absent mothers and grandmothers to the staff of the residence itself. Girls thanked their counselors for giving them guidance and support, for teaching them self-respect.

Just before bedtime, a young resident began to cry. She was being discharged in a week. “I’m going to miss you guys so much,” she said. “You’re my family.” 

*In order to protect their privacy, all current and former Close to Home residents chose fake names for this report.

by Abigail Kramer