Another Chance for Mone’t

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From New York Times:

Program Keeps Troubled New York Youth Close to Home

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The end of the road is a yellow brick house in East New York, Brooklyn, that was once a rectory. Mone’t arrived there on Dec. 28 with a bad attitude and four years of baggage.

In and out of the Queens courts for fighting and using marijuana, Mone’t, 17, seemed headed to Rikers Island to be charged as an adult. Then a judge placed her in a new program called Close to Home, the centerpiece of an overhaul by the city and the state of the juvenile justice system

“I don’t want to be in and out of jail; it’s not me, I can’t do it,” Mone’t (pronounced mo-NAY) said recently in the yellow brick home, the Shirley Chisholm House, where she is one of 11 female teenage residents. (She is identified by only her middle name to protect her privacy.)

On this day, Mone’t wore her short hair dyed deep strawberry, a color as sweet as her smile and as fiery as the emotions she is trying to control. “I want to be home with my family,” she added.

That is the premise behind Close to Home, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law a year ago. Adolescents from New York City committing acts of delinquency — turnstile jumping, obstructing justice, fighting — no longer are sent upstate to institutions, places so isolated that families or lawyers found it difficult to visit. Instead, the young people have local options now, ranging from community probation programs to residential houses.

In the first eight months, with 400 youths in residential placement, there have been setbacks: 40 arrests, and 73 adolescents who left homes without permission for longer than a day. Over all, 15 young people were placed in secure detention centers to await trials, according to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, which oversees the program. There have been injuries to staff members and damage to property.

There have also been successes: 90 youths completed their sentences (an average of seven months), and nearly every resident is earning credits with the city’s Education Department, something that is impossible upstate. Only three teenagers were sent to higher-security institutions.

“We have to make it work,” said Tamara A. Steckler, who runs the Legal Aid Society’s juvenile rights practice. In 2009, the New York City branch of the society sued the state’s Office of Children and Family Services for the poor conditions and lack of mental health services at youth prisons.

“There are so many reasons why it’s better to have these kids down in New York City near their families, their communities and their attorneys,” Ms. Steckler added. “And all of those factors outweigh the growing pains we’re having now. Going back to what we had is not an option.”

An anguished cry pierced the anxious air inside the Chisholm House on a recent Friday afternoon. A 14-year-old resident bounded down the stairs, burst through the dining room and flipped over wooden chairs. She tore posters off the walls and tossed framed motivational pictures to the floor — one shattered, leaving broken pieces of the frame on the ground.

A female supervisor, Nadia Edwards, rushed to restrain the girl and hold her arms behind her back. Mone’t joined other residents in the dining room, imploring their friend to calm down.

The girl screamed, “Get off of me!” and ran into the kitchen. A male supervisor, Minas Abraha, held her in a corner.

Within 10 minutes, four police officers from the 75th Precinct arrived. The girl’s outburst had been provoked by a conversation with her mother, who had refused to sign off on a weekend pass. They did not arrest her, but took her by ambulance to a hospital for an overnight psychological observation. As she waited sullenly by the door, the girl put on lip gloss.

Three residents swept up the debris, rearranged the chairs and apologized to visitors who had witnessed the destructive scene.

What would the old Mone’t have done? “The exact same thing,” she said, shaking her head. “Probably even worse.”

Mone’t grew up in South Jamaica, Queens, with her younger sister, mother and a man she considers her stepfather. Her father was in prison. She was first arrested at age 13, accused of having a role in an assault, according to her mother, Antionette Grace, 35. Mone’t started missing school, “running the streets,” she said, and smoking pot; she witnessed a shooting at a party that left her best friend paralyzed.

In November 2011, Mone’t was arrested in a scuffle with a school safety officer at Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Queens, and her case was sent to Family Court. Her mother, who works at a Long Island City law office, said she left so often to deal with Mone’t’s crises that she struggled to cover the rent.

Last July, a grandmother, with whom Mone’t had been very close, died. The teenager’s mother, unable to control her, felt it best for Mone’t to be away. Mone’t entered a residential drug treatment program in Yorktown, in Westchester County.

Five months later, when Mone’t and her mother appeared in court for the school scuffle, the judge agreed to relocate Mone’t to Brooklyn.

“We’ve been through too much already,” Ms. Grace said, picking Mone’t up for a weekend, “this has to be the last stop.”

Twenty-five staff members work in three shifts at the Chisholm House, named for the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress. It is run by Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit youth services agency, under contract with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, and is one of 31 group homes to open so far.

“They help you through your bad, good, worst,” Mone’t said. “Nobody in here’s against you.”

Still, although the house is a “nonsecure placement,” counselors use metal-detector wands at the back door and pat down the girls coming back from school, looking for contraband. The front door is always locked, with surveillance cameras.

“Just ’cause you’re Close to Home, you’re not home,” a new girl said to Mone’t in their second-floor room, decorated with pastel sheets and family photos.

Later on the day of the outburst, Mr. Abraha, 30, took stock. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a day like this,” he said. “In the beginning it used to happen every other day or so.”

When the house opened in October, it was one of only two for girls in Close to Home; there was nowhere for teenagers with more severe emotional problems. The rocky start-up seems fairly typical. Gail B. Nayowith, the executive director of SCO Family of Services, which runs eight Close to Home houses, said her staff called the police frequently at first.

“I’d be on the phone with my chief program officer saying, ‘Oh my God, this is a mess, is this model working?’ ” she said. “They told me, ‘We believe this is going to work. We need the time.’ And they were right.”

The nonprofits running the group homes had only three months to find locations, renovate buildings, and hire and train staff, leading to disorganization when the houses opened. Seven of the 11 providers had to learn what is known as the Missouri Model, an approach to juvenile rehabilitation based on group participation and positive feedback rather than punitive, correctional methods. (The other four use other models.) Good Shepherd, which runs the Chisholm House, also uses the Sanctuary Model, which employs behavioral therapy to understand how trauma witnessed in childhood can ignite emotions.

For the girls, trauma was fresh. That afternoon at school, a Passages Academy in East New York for youth in detention and residential placement, there had been a riot started by two boys at an assembly. School was abruptly dismissed.

Just days later, the group stopped going to that school and instead began attending classes taught by a Passages teacher in a former parish school behind the Chisholm House, along with boys from another Good Shepherd home in Brooklyn. The move had been planned for months, said Denise Hinds, Good Shepherd’s director of residential programs, to keep the group together during the day and to monitor their learning more closely.

Fighting is still frequent at the house. In March, a resident threw an X-Box controller while fighting another girl; it instead struck a counselor in the jaw. The police were called; the counselor lost two teeth, had her jaw wired and has not returned; the girl was arrested and transferred. “It’s only seven months and we’re still learning,” Ms. Hinds said. “Every day, a new issue comes up, and we think about policies for it. In two years, we’ll be past it.”

The motivation for the reforms was not just to move the teenagers physically closer to their homes, but also to reshape the juvenile justice system across a broad spectrum.

“We could have just negotiated with the state to move the bodies from one place to another,” said Vincent N. Schiraldi, who became the city’s probation commissioner in 2010. “But we didn’t. We said we should talk about the whole continuum because we don’t want a bed-for-bed placement.”

Mr. Schiraldi’s office created a risk assessment chart for Family Court judges to use for sentencing, based on the crime teens are charged with, their emotional needs and the risk to the community. This was written into the Close to Home law. “Before,” said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services, “the system treated kids as widgets. Nobody was looking holistically at the entire child.”

Part of the plan is to divert teenagers to community programs run by the Probation Department that allow them to live at home, though that is off to a more modest start, with 45 teenagers in two new programs. (There are 106 in another program run by the Administration of Children’s Services that existed before the state legislation.) Ralphie, 17, is in one of them.

It is hard to see Ralphie and not be charmed by his smile. (To protect his privacy, he is being identified by his first name only.) He was arrested two years ago with a friend, accused of stealing a bicycle, according to his mother, Dalkys Vicente. He was truant from school and then skipped his probation meetings.

He landed in a juvenile detention center before a judge sentenced him in October to Echoes (Every Child Has an Opportunity to Excel and Succeed), one of the two new Probation Department programs. The yearlong program involves nightly check-ins with his probation officer, group activities and paid work as a youth counselor with the Children’s Aid Society. Ralphie’s probation officer, Joe Lattibeaudiere, 27, has become like a brother to him.

“I wish it didn’t have to take this,” said Ms. Vicente, 33, in the family’s Harlem apartment. Ms. Vicente had looked into boot camps for her son but did not have the $30,000 they cost. She works in a medical office in Chinatown.

“There was no way to get those services without being remanded,” she said. “I would have loved any mentoring at the point I was going through with Ralphie.”

Now Ralphie is going to school and to his job at a recreation center in Harlem every weekday — almost. On a recent afternoon, he was a no-show — rare for him, according to his supervisor, Lance Johnson. Later, Ralphie said he had gone to the doctor to get the cast on his arm changed — he had broken it playing basketball in March.

As part of Echoes, Ralphie and his peers engaged in a 10-week songwriting workshop with musicians from Carnegie Hall. None of the teenagers wanted to be there at first. Ralphie was so frustrated he nearly quit. Two boys were rearrested.

By the seventh week, though, the eight boys and one girl who remained encouraged one another to share their experiences, while the musicians shaped their songs. At a recording studio on the Lower East Side, the teenagers felt like professionals, singing with musicians in booths and working the sound board. By concert night at the Harlem probation office’s theater, they were transformed into rappers and balladeers. They sang about temptation, relationships and how they would never stop trying.

Ralphie walked onstage with the microphone, working the crowd and pointing to his girlfriend. “Told you you were mine and I’m here to stay,” he intoned in his best Barry White.

“This,” Ralphie said after the show, “is the person I became.”

Children’s advocates and juvenile justice reformers are looking intently at New York City’s experiment, though not without reservations.

Barry Krisberg, a senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, who specializes in juvenile justice, said he was concerned about the city’s uneven investment in group homes over community programs. “The national trend is moving kids home to their families with enhanced, wraparound services,” he said.

Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco, the Juvenile Justice Project director of the Correctional Association of New York, an advocacy group, said: “Research supports keeping kids in their homes and putting community-based services around them. Doing so leads to better youth outcomes and increased public safety at much less taxpayer cost.”

A probation program like Echoes costs only $19,000 a year per child, compared with the $266,000 the city was paying per child at upstate institutions, officials said. Placement in a residential program in the five boroughs may not cost less immediately, though the city does expect the cost to come down over time.

Gladys Carrión, the state children’s services commissioner, helped hammer out the Close to Home legislation, which her office estimated will save the state and city a total of $12 million by 2015. “If we’re going to be candid, this was a huge undertaking,” Ms. Carrión said. “It’s a work in progress. A.C.S. is excelling in some areas better than others.”

Last week, Judge John M. Hunt of Queens County Family Court sent a teenage boy to a higher-security institution after the boy had gone AWOL from St. John’s Residence for Boys in Rockaway Park after just one week there and was accused of committing five robberies. The judge issued a decision criticizing Close to Home for its lack of control over young people and its potential threat to public safety.

 Ronald E. Richter, the children’s services commissioner, acknowledged the program’s initial problems. Two providers, he said, have been put on “intense monitoring” because of arrests, and 422 warrants were issued for approximately 200 youths who had left the houses without permission, even if they left for only 30 minutes.

 “When you bring young people back to their communities and closer to their families, there is obviously a greater temptation to see their families,” Mr. Richter said. “It takes more than seven months to strike the proper balance between strong supervision and a therapeutic environment.”

In October, A.C.S. will open residences with higher levels of security.

For Mone’t, the program has, so far, been the only one to help her change. She was accepted into a job-training internship with Exalt, a nonprofit organization in Brooklyn Heights. In the same building, she goes to court-ordered drug treatment.

In mid-April she gave a presentation at the house, trying to move to the next level in the program — they have names like “Achiever” and “Leader” — and earn increased privileges: longer phone calls home, a $7 weekly allowance, use of an iPod and extended outing passes. Another resident asked what Mone’t wanted to be when she grew up.

Mone’t talked about becoming a cosmetologist or, she smiled, even a youth development counselor. “I’ve come a long way,” she said, as sirens blared at a safe distance outside the window.