The Programs: Giving Kids 'What They've Missed Out On'
If you’ve walked past the optimistically named “Passages to Success” residence—one of the city’s recently opened residential lockups for juvenile delinquents—you probably didn’t know it. The program is housed in a gingerbready, two-story bungalow that looks much like any other in this home-owning, picket-fence-and-a-lawn section of South Ozone Park, Queens.
The entrance is relatively high-security; the front door is equipped with sturdy locks and an alarm, and guarded by cameras and a staff person who’d like to see your ID. But once you’re inside, the surroundings look more like a particularly artsy-craftsy boarding school dorm than a juvenile justice facility.
Walls and tables are filled with artifacts documenting what the six young men who live here—all between the ages of 14 and 17, all sentenced to a lockup by a Family Court judge—have been doing with their time. There are photocopied covers of the books they read in Book Club (most recently "Black Boy" and "A Raisin in the Sun"); paper mâché animals; playbills from Broadway shows; jars filled with decorative layers of macaroni and beans, destined for residents of a senior citizens’ center; and pictures of a communal Thanksgiving dinner, as well as of two bemused-looking teenaged boys on the receiving end of a pedicure.
The stairwell is hung with inspirational maxims like “The future depends on what we do in the present.” There’s an oversized sectional couch and a foosball table in the rec room, and a punching bag and Nautilus machine in the basement.
The residence, which is run by the nonprofit agency SCO Family of Services, is one of 29 juvenile lockups operating under the auspices of New York City’s Close to Home program. In late 2012, the city stopped sending lower-level juvenile delinquents to remote, Upstate facilities that often look much like adult jails—keeping them instead in small, locked group homes within or just outside the city limits.
The residences, which are technically called ‘non-secure placement’ facilities, each house between six and 12 young people. Residents generally spend about seven months in them, though bad behavior can extend that time. Time in lockup is followed by three to six months of what’s known as “aftercare,” being monitored by a social service agency and receiving services like family therapy at home.
(This summer, the city plans to open a network of “limited-secure” facilities, which will house young people considered to be the next step up the risk ladder. One of the residences—to the vociferous protest of some community members—is slated to open in South Ozone Park.)
Among the city’s existing Close to Home programs, the guiding philosophy could be described as that of reform through self-discovery, rather than punishment. Using a mix of therapy, incentives and discipline, programs aim to teach young people to make better decisions and become better-functioning members of society.
The basic assumption is that kids get into the kind of trouble that lands them in the justice system—at least in large part—because of traumatic experiences in their lives, says Emily Faro, a social work supervisor at Good Shepherd Services, which operates three Close to Home facilities.
“I think of this as a landing place for kids who’ve been neglected or physically or sexually abused,” Faro says. “We find colorful, happy things for them to do. We want to give them some of that happiness they missed out on.”
When programs are able to address kids’ underlying trauma, the bad behavior goes away, says Miles Jackson, Faro’s supervisor at Good Shepherd. Often, kids are also able to get rid of unnecessary psychiatric diagnoses, Jackson says. “Mental health practitioners have tended to be quick to diagnose young people with things like conduct disorder, explosive disorders, mood disorders, when the underlying root is actually trauma. If you can help the young person resolve the trauma, then the diagnosis becomes irrelevant.”
“The paradigm shift,” Jackson says, “is to ask not what’s wrong with you but what happened to you?”
Each of the city’s Close to Home providers is required to use a treatment model that’s been tried—and proven successful—with kids in other juvenile justice systems. The majority use a model called the “Missouri Approach,” which mandates a strict system of rewards and punishments for good and bad behavior. Residents move through stages, gradually earning (or losing) privileges like field trips, phone calls and unsupervised visits home.
“A lot of these kids never ate dinner at 6. They never went to bed at 9:30,” says Edward Fabian, who’s in charge of residential programs at Sheltering Arms Children and Family Services, which operates three Close to Home facilities. “These kids have missed quite a few developmental stages. We teach them the basics: You gotta get up on time, you gotta brush your teeth and wash up before breakfast.”
Such consistency helps traumatized kids feel safe, Fabian says. “One of the problems we had at the girls’ house was that nobody could sleep with the lights off. They stayed up all night then fell asleep at school. We thought about the things they had been through. Being raped, being forced to do things they didn’t want to."
“Once they understood they were safe, that we’re not letting anybody in or out, the problem went away,” Fabian says.
During the day, the Missouri Approach relies on a kind of relentless group therapy. Young people move in groups, eat in groups, do group activities and make group decisions. Several times a day, the group gets in a circle to check how everyone is feeling, and to discuss positive or negative things that have happened. When one resident makes a mistake—breaks a rule or starts a fight—he has to talk to the group about why he made the choice, and how he could have acted differently.
The idea is that young people learn to feel empathy and to work out their problems with other people—skills that will help them succeed when they go home, says Edwidge Michel, the group leader of the Passages to Success residence in Ozone Park.
“You have to express how you feel, rather than punching somebody or getting a gun,” Michel says.
Demetrius**, a 16-year-old from the Bronx who came to Passages to Success in October 2014, says the most valuable thing he’s learned in the program is to trust the other residents and the staff in the house. “You don’t have to watch your back here. It’s like a brotherhood, we push each other to do the right thing,” he says.
Demetrius was arrested for the first time at 13, for burglary, then again at 14, for gang assault. He was put on probation, then sent to a Close to Home residence when he violated the terms.
“I had no self-control. If you wanted to fight, we’d fight,” he says. “The first day I got here, I told Ed [Michel] to send me Upstate. I felt this wasn’t for me, it was too soft here.”
He ran away from non-secure placement three times, once getting re-arrested on an arson charge. But when he came back, he says, the staff at the residence refused to give up on him. “I can’t tell them to get out of my face because they’ll keep coming back and checking up on you. After a while, I have to express myself.”
Demetrius remembers the day his outlook changed: Another resident had run away, and Michel took Demetrius on a drive to look for him. “We got out and walked around. I was like wow, this guy really trusts me. He told me, I have to pick the good me or the bad me. The bad me is like an opponent, standing in my way. I had to learn to get around him.”
Now, when he gets angry, Demetrius says, he practices breathing exercises or writes in a journal. He wants to be a nurse one day. “My time here has been great,” he says. “I want to give back.”
Two-and-a-half years after the launch of Close to Home, there’s little in the way of concrete data to show whether programs are having a lasting, positive impact on residents’ lives. City administrators are beginning to work on a system for assessing success. The hope is that metrics will include positive outcomes, like the number of Close to Home residents who go on to attend college, as well as negative outcomes, like the number who get re-arrested, says Felipe Franco, a deputy commissioner at the Administration for Children’s Services who oversees the Close to Home program.
By all accounts, the program experienced its fair share of chaos when it opened. According to a first-year report by the state Office of Children and Family Services, which oversees ACS in running Close to Home, nearly every residence had problems with frequent fights and contraband. The schools developed for Close to Home kids were in even greater disarray, with students fighting teachers and each other, as well as destroying property.
In 2013 (the first full year of Close to Home), 583 young people were sent into the non-secure placement system. During that time, there were 169 arrests of Close to Home youth, either while they were in programs or during aftercare. Twenty-two Close to Home youth were sent to higher-security facilities run by the state, according to data from ACS.
In 2014 (when the system served a total of 707 young people) the rate of arrests per youth dropped slightly, with 177 arrests from programs and aftercare. Twenty-five Close to Home youth were sent to state-run facilities.
In its first year, the program got particularly bad press for the number of kids who ran away. In March 2013, about one in four Close to Home residents were simultaneously AWOL, according to a report in the New York Daily News. That summer, a teenager who had run away from a Staten Island residence stabbed another boy to death during a fight. The agency that operated his residence gave up its Close to Home contract.
Between the first and second year, AWOLs dropped sharply—from a total of 740 in 2013 to 363 in 2014, a decrease of 51 percent.
Close to Home providers say that that drop is due only in small part to security measures like bars on windows and more locked doors. “Unless you’re prepared to totally lock it down,” says Doug O’Dell, the executive director of SCO, physical security “will only take you so far.”
If you want to stop kids from running away, O’Dell says, you have to turn residences into places they want to stay.
The most important—and often the most difficult—step is hiring the right people, providers say. Most of the day-to-day work of Close to Home programs is done by frontline staff who have little in the way of formal education. They work long hours, with sometimes difficult kids, for not much money.
Early on, says Fabian of Sheltering Arms, “we went on this grandiose ideology that everyone on staff would have a B.A.” Out of the program’s original 50 hires, Fabian says, “We have five left. They said, ‘I didn’t go to school for this.’”
ACS doesn’t track staff turnover throughout the system, but providers say the programs have stabilized as they’ve built teams that are committed to the work. “It was crazy at the beginning,” says Lenin Nuñez, the site manager of a Sheltering Arms residence for girls in the Bronx. “We had young people jumping out of windows, attacking staff, jumping other girls, getting arrested.”
“Listen to it now,” he said on a recent evening at the residence, pausing to take in the calm. Behind a closed door, a young woman worked with a music therapist, singing a song she wrote about her father. Downstairs, a group of girls sat in a poetry workshop, reading lines to each other about finishing high school, and about what it means to be a strong woman.
In the basement, another resident read lyrics from a pink notebook, decorated with glitter and a picture of her little sister. The hook was a feminized take on Meek Mill’s “Heaven or Hell”:
Some women go to college, some women go to jail.
Some make it into Heaven, some make it into Hell.
Two staff members applauded her performance, telling her how proud they were of her work. “We had to build this culture, starting with the staff,” Nuñez said. “You gotta have passion and energy to wake up every morning thinking how you can make a difference in someone’s life. We had to bring in people who believe in these young ladies.”
* Update: On June 12, the New York City comptroller returned a proposed contract for the limited-secure home in Ozone Park to the Administration for Children's Services, due to "inconsistencies in the contract," according to a spokesperson for the comptroller's office. ACS has the opportunity to revise and resubmit the contract for further review.
**In order to protect their privacy, all current and former Close to Home residents chose fake names for this report.
by Abigail Kramer