Closing in on ‘Close to Home’: NYC to Open New Juvenile Justice Homes

By Abigail Kramer

After more than two years of delays and postponements, New York City officials say they will move forward this month with a long-promised reform of the biggest municipal juvenile justice system in the nation.

By the end of November, the City will open six new “limited-secure” residences for kids who get into trouble with the law, according to a spokesperson for the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), which will oversee the new facilities. The move represents the second phase of “Close to Home,” a program that pulls city youth from traditional, often remote, State-run lockups and moves them into small, therapeutic settings nearer to their families and communities.

The Close to Home reform launched in 2012, under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for youth who commit offenses at age 15 or younger. At the time, it was backed by strong political will and public support, fueled in large part by a high-profile Department of Justice investigation into abuse and violence at State-run juvenile lockups, as well as rising costs and growing evidence of a failed system: By some estimates, as many as 80 percent of youth who spent time in State facilities ended up being rearrested within three years. 

In the first phase of Close to Home, the City opened close to 30 relatively low-security group homes, known as “non-secure placement” facilities, for up to about 240 young people deemed to pose a lower risk of committing new offenses. [Read our report on the phase-one NSP homes.]

The second round of limited-secure facilities, for young people considered to pose a somewhat higher risk to public safety, was originally scheduled to open in early 2013. (Under the State legislation creating Close to Home, City youth considered “high risk” will continue to be sent to State lockups.)

But estimated opening dates for the phase two facilities have come and gone, often with little public explanation. In early 2014, leaders of the newly inaugurated de Blasio administration said they needed more time to plan programming and get State approval of the higher-security buildings. More recently, an ACS spokesperson cited renovation and construction delays. 

In the meantime, public support has wavered, in part because of bad press around the high rates at which kids went AWOL from the lower-security, phase one homes. At least two incidents had disastrous consequences: In 2013, a teen who’d run away from a Staten Island residence was arrested for stabbing another teen to death in a fight. This summer, three young men who’d gone AWOL from a Brooklyn residence were accused of raping and robbing a woman in Manhattan. Both of the facilities were subsequently closed.

Runaway rates have dropped dramatically since the early days of Close to Home, from a high of nearly one in four program youth in March 2013 to fewer than one in twenty in September 2015, according to ACS. (The total number of youth in phase one facilities has also dropped, from an average monthly census of 196 in October 2014 to 164 in September 2015.)

The program is too young to have amassed formal evaluation data, but its supporters ardently defend its success: Young residents are receiving intensive therapeutic and arts-based serviceshelp to repair often-strained relationships with families, and credits toward high school graduation. Close to Home youth commonly report that they also receive intensive emotional and practical support from program staff, building relationships that frequently last after they’ve been released.

Nevertheless, at least two of the planned limited-secure homes have faced vociferous public protest. On Staten Island, angry neighborhood residentssuccessfully squashed plans to build a limited-secure residence for boys. And earlier this year, community members marched in the streets to protest a phase two facility in Ozone Park, Queens. (The facility is scheduled to go ahead as planned.) 

Advocates of Close to Home say that such “not-in-my-backyard” efforts are short-sighted. “All these kids will come home to their communities eventually,” says Jeremy Kohomban, president of The Children’s Village, one of three nonprofit agencies that hold contracts with ACS to operate the limited-secure facilities. “Either [a young offender] comes back healthy, with relationships that support him, or he comes back broken, angry, mistrustful and connected to all the wrong people. Either we treat him effectively now or we deal with the problem later.”

The community resistance, however, is a lesson in how hard it can be to site correctional facilities in neighborhoods—even when they house children and even when there is widespread agreement that remote, traditional lockups have failed.

Some juvenile justice advocates hope that the progress in moving forward with Close to Home bodes well for proposed efforts to get 16- and 17-year-olds out of the City’s adult jail complex on Rikers Island. “The only difference between a child who is getting the benefits of Close to Home and a 16-year-old on Rikers Island is a birthday,” says Justine Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of criminal practice at the Legal Aid Society. “The model is working. Let’s put all kids where they belong, which is with the people who are experts on children.” 

The new Close to Home lockups will rely on much higher levels of physical security than the City’s existing phase one residences. Young people will rarely leave the limited-secure buildings, receiving education, medical and other services onsite. They will be accompanied while moving from room to room, and internal doors will be controlled by locks and key-cards, as well as being monitored on video from internal control rooms. 

Despite the higher security, providers say they will do everything they can to make the facilities feel like homes. “We have kid-friendly colors and nice bedspreads. The bedrooms have chalkboard walls so kids can make them their own,” says Lisa Crook, the director of juvenile justice service at Leake & Watts Services, Inc., which will run three phase two facilities. “Small touches matter, so we try hard to make sure the physical things are nice.” Even the mandatory perimeter fence around the building is painted a non-institutional boysenberry color, Crook says.

Like the phase one homes, limited-secure facilities will offer intensive therapy. Residences will have arts programming and psychologists on site, as well as case workers designated to work with families. “It’s about having a robust team and services,” Crook says, “and also the level of security and supervision that kids need to feel safe and absorb the work we do.”

ACS holds contracts with three nonprofits to provide limited-secure placement beds, according to an administration spokesperson. The Children’s Village will operate two homes for boys in suburban Dobbs Ferry; Leake & Watts will run a residence for girls in the Bronx and two for boys, one each in Brooklyn and Yonkers; and Sheltering Arms Children and Family Services will open homes for boys in the Bronx and Queens.

The facilities are unlikely to be filled to capacity any time soon. There are currently an average of 55 to 60 New York City youth in State-run limited-secure facilities at any given time. A small number will be sent to City residences when they open, according to ACS. The majority will go home, with aftercare services provided by local nonprofits. Judges will begin sending new youth to the phase two facilities as cases come in. 

Abigail Kramer is an editor at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, where she writes about policy issues impacting New York City children, youth and families.