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Are Young People Our Priority?

Everyday we read in the paper or watch on the television a news story that deals with young people at risk. Recently, the press has exploited horrific stories of young people involved in violent altercations. ...

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Everyday we read in the paper or watch on the television a news story that deals with young people at risk. Recently, the press has exploited horrific stories of young people involved in violent altercations. We have read terrible stories about teenage reckless driving that has resulted in senseless death. There have been stabbings on school property and drug busts outside and within our high schools. There have been a growing number of drinking and driving incidences involving underage teenagers. There have been questions raised about the safety and security of our high school and middle school campuses because of the escalation in teenage violence.

With that as our landscape, we still espouse that children are our greatest national treasure and resource. However, they seem to be absent from every political agenda this year. No one running for President of the United States is speaking about the plight of our young people and the lack of available resources and support systems for them. If anything, those who lead us locally are looking to cut back or minimize services for young people and families in crisis.

Recently, Commissioner Gladys Carrion of the Office of Children and Family Services addressed juvenile justice advocates at the Capitol in Albany, reminding them of her commitment to transform the juvenile justice system in the state of New York.

In her address, she expressed how she was energized by her recent trip to the state of Missouri. While there she toured a juvenile justice model that emphasizes community based programs and has reduced recidivism to as low as 30%. She stated that her experience has "crystallized why we need to transform the juvenile justice system in New York State. We are trying to do the right thing for New York. Closing facilities is the very beginning of what we need to do to transform their lives."

In that speech, the commissioner stressed the role our local communities will play working side by side with youth and staff, once New York State allocates hundreds of thousands of dollars to communities to engage juveniles in the transformation process.

"Can you imagine what we can do to better the outcomes of our young people and communities?" The commissioner said, referring to saving between $120,000 and $200,000 per child once the Legislature approves the proposed closing of six OCFS residential facilities.

Anyone who works with young people at risk knows that the Office of Children and Family Services needs to reevaluate how they work with young people in trouble. Clearly, for decades we have been failing our troubled young people and their families. Many of the OCFS residential facilities are prisons without bars. If one looks closely at their program designs, on paper they seem reasonably appropriate. It's the implementation of the design that is oftentimes faulty and ineffective.

Too often, it seems we set young people with problems up for failure. The system they are committed to makes it impossible for many of them to succeed and reclaim their lives. The high recidivism rate underscores my point.

We talk about how important education is as we fail to provide them with the tools they need to succeed in our traditional schools. When these students at risk are in placement, their educational opportunities, at best, are poor. We talk about counseling as a better alternative to punishment, but we do not provide the kind of counseling and the number of counselors that are necessary to meet their mental health needs.

The minimum requirement for most childcare workers in state agencies and most not-for-profits is a high school diploma. Their salary is minimum wage, which in Suffolk County most can't live on. The expectation of these childcare workers is to be a counselor, a confidant and a social worker, all-in-one. The monies are not allocated for appropriate training. In most institutions, it is hard to sustain childcare workers for more than a few months because the work is extremely stressful and the compensation for one's hard work is pathetic.

How we work with troubled young people and their families must be transformed and changed. However, a cosmetic change with no substance and just new rhetoric will do nothing to protect the young people of our state. What we need is a vision that is comprehensive and one that addresses the total person at risk, not just a band-aid approach that basically sets our vulnerable young people up for failure.

If our only motivation for change is to save money and be more cost effective, then we are defeated before we even begin. So much of the money we waste on behalf of children in trouble is wasted due to the ineffective programming we presently use that does not meet their needs. In the final analysis, we will spend double because the recidivism rate is so high and so many of the young people we lose will end up in our prisons!

Most of us reading this column need to be educated on the profile of a young person at risk and in trouble in our county and throughout our state. The majority of young people in Family Court today are not there because they're cutting school, staying out till all hours of the night or cursing at their parents. Unfortunately, many of the young people in Family Court today are not there because of violent altercations, the sale of drugs, serious burglary or theft. For the most part, these young people are out of control and their parents are not able to parent them.

It is important to note that the young people who are in Family Court in Suffolk County are from every socioeconomic background. They come from intact families and single parent families. There is not one social prototype when it comes to troubled teenagers.

What is clear is that we are failing them on every front. A growing number of our high schools are allowing troubled teenagers to fall into the cracks, so they do not have to be serviced educationally. If by chance, they are fortunate enough to be in a program where they are getting service, some school districts resist paying for the educational piece, which they are mandated by law to take care of.

The religious community is also failing our troubled young people. More and more religious groups are scaling back teenage activities because of fear and a lack of attendance. Most religious traditions talk about young people being a priority, but unfortunately, they don't practice what they preach.

In our own community, if you are a parent in need of support services for an out of control teenager, resources that are readily available are minimal. The services that are available are already heavily taxed and the waiting lists are months long.

Probably the most important issue at hand is what is our priority? Is it the young person in trouble or is it the bureaucracy?

PJ is seventeen years old. He grew up on the South Shore. He started getting into trouble when he was twelve. He grew up in a single parent household. By the time he reached middle school, his mother had little or no control over him. He was more attentive to what the gang community said, then what his mother said. By the age of sixteen, he was already in trouble with the Family Court. The Family Court judge in charge of his case wanted to send him upstate. His law guardian advocated for a new program that was community based and heavily therapeutic. To everyone's surprise, the judge said yes.

Initially, PJ did very well. However, on his first home visit, he relapsed and got high. The program advocated that he be allowed to continue with an extension to his sentence as a consequence for his relapse. He continued in care and has been doing extremely well. Recently, the agency caring for him was notified that his continuance encountered a bureaucratic snag. In English, it meant he was no longer in the custody of the state and therefore was no longer permitted to stay in his current placement.

There was no plan for this young man. His mother could not take him home, nor would that be a good placement for him. The state said cut him loose anyway. They clearly were not interested in what was to happen to this young man.

If this is the vision of transformation that our commissioner has for the future, God help young people and families in trouble within the state of New York.