Growing up in the Bronxdale projects, Shane Allen started selling drugs at 15. With the cash, he could buy designer clothes, smoke weed and pretend he was not living a project life on his mother’s slim paycheck. For years, Shane went in and out of juvenile detention. After he got shot in the back outside a nightclub, he promised himself he’d finish school and get a job–a promise he soon broke. “In jail, I felt I should change my life, but it was rough looking for a job. It didn’t come as fast as I thought,” says Shane, who finally quit dealing a year ago.
Shane, now 20, hasn’t gotten much support for his new goals. His girlfriend doesn’t believe he’s quit dealing–he’s lied to her too many times before. His old friends coolly shrug “no comment” when he looks for their approval, and if they go shopping, he is the odd one out who can’t afford $400 jackets. “I chill with my friends and they’re talking about setting up shop, robbing someone. I talk to them about doing good, and they talk to me about money,” Shane says. But with a baby due in March, money remains an issue. Shane looks for a job every day, but hasn’t had any luck. For now, all he has to bank on is his GED program at Friends of Island Academy, a privately run program for young ex-offenders.
The shift from lockdown back to street life is never easy. For kids running with gangs or making big money selling drugs, going straight can mean turning their back on friendships, and losing the money, clothes and status they once craved. They also have to find a job and start working hard in school–usually with little support from family or friends. At juvenile facilities upstate, they typically learn more tricks of the trade, not how to cope with their lives in New York City.
Ninety percent of kids arrested each year are classified as delinquents, charged with nonviolent crimes like shoplifting, stealing, and dealing drugs. Yet, the vast majority find themselves back behind bars: about 80 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls get locked up within 36 months.
Last October, the state began a major new effort to improve the odds for kids returning home from juvenile facilities. The Community Re-Entry Program, a collaboration between the Children’s Aid Society, the New York State Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, and the state Office of Children and Family Services, hopes to ease kids’ transition to life on the outside by providing every service they need under one roof. By providing a convenient link to recreational and vocational activities, support programs, and positive peers, the program hopes to reduce the likelihood that its clients will go back to jail.
OCFS has long been aware that kids are released to scattershot supports. These young people need counseling, GED and high school classes, job preparation, rehab, recreational activities and other services, but only a couple of existing programs offer all that. With more than 400 city teens returning each year to the treacherous currents of their home communities, OCFS caseworkers scramble to patch together services from several providers, then try to keep tabs on as many as 26 charges at once. OCFS, responsible for running the state’s secure juvenile facilities, spends more than 75 percent of its juvenile justice budget on incarceration; just 20 percent of its budget is devoted to prevention and aftercare.
A report released last year by the Citizens Committee for Children found that aftercare workers carry unworkably high caseloads and are often unable to provide a smooth transition for their charges. Many caseworkers told the researchers they do not receive case files in advance and aren’t able to make a case plan until a month after the teen has been discharged, even though linking a teen to a school or GED program and community-based services is supposed to be seamless. Workers also said they were rarely able to speak to kids or their families before they were released from juvenile facilities.
Once caseworkers are able to meet with their charges and identify their needs, locating the social services vital to ensuring teen offenders stay out of trouble produces its own set of obstacles. Drug treatment has proved particularly hard to find: Programs are generally geared to heroin- or cocaine-addicted adults, while most young people who need treatment are using marijuana to the point that it keeps them distracted from school or work or brings them back into the crowd they got in trouble with in the first place.
“For young people who have to be sent upstate, it’s really important to improve aftercare. It’s been in shambles for a long time,” says Mishi Faruqee, director of the juvenile justice project at the Correctional Association of New York. The state, she says, has “finally come to terms with the fact that the recidivism rate is staggering. Aftercare obviously hasn’t worked as they’ve had it.”
For kids who choose to participate in the Community Re-Entry Program, the return home begins with a visit to the Children’s Aid Dunlevy Milbank Center on West 118th Street. A caseworker shepherds them through medical and dental exams, mental health screening, applications for Medicaid or Child Health Plus, and enrollment in a new Board of Education-run transitional school specifically for ex-offenders. The school ensures that kids won’t miss learning time while they search for GED programs or wait to get placed back in their old schools. “School is the hardest thing,” says Michael Nades, coordinator of the program for Children’s Aid. “Principals are reluctant to take them back.”
The center also provides drug treatment designed specifically for youth, through a partnership with rehab provider Berkshire Farms, as well as individual or family counseling. Many of the issues kids face are an extension of pressures on their parents, so Childen’s Aid’s caseworkers contact the family in advance, encouraging parents to join a monthly support group.
At the heart of the program is that time-tested approach to keeping teens out of trouble: occupying them with activities they enjoy. Each kid will be assigned to a Boys and Girls Club in their neighborhood, where they can choose from the clubs’ usual array of activities, from basketball to a seminar series on finding a job. During a pilot program over the summer, teens and staff worked together to plant a small community garden. “Those were some of the most productive counseling sessions I’ve ever seen,” says Felipe Franco, the project coordinator. “We were working shoulder-to-shoulder on the ground, planting, and having a barbecue. The kids really opened up, started talking about their lives while they drank some Kool-Aid. Doing something positive gives a lot of value to their lives.”
But the circumstances that landed them in trouble in the first place seldom disappear during their time upstate. “They come home to the same conditions, same neighborhood, same homes, same issues, and for a 15, 16, 17-year-old kid, that’s a lot to have to face,” notes Charlie Rosen, director of the state Boys and Girls Clubs alliance. “We’re giving them an alternative to negative and antisocial behavior.”
In this case, the alternative is aggressive normalcy. Ex-offenders are ensconced anonymously in the clubs, giving them the freedom to start fresh without having to explain–or glorify–their crimes, time locked up or street affiliations. (A few, however, hide tracking devices looped to their ankles.) To ensure that they’re not treated any differently by staff, only caseworkers and the program’s directors will know that they’ve been ordered by the law to join the club. Once their six-month aftercare sentence has ended, Children’s Aid hopes, the teens will stick with their clubs and the friends they’ve made there.
But perhaps the most radical thing about the Community Re-Entry Program is that it’s making these intensive efforts without expectations of blockbuster success. Many of the young people have been raised by aunts or grandparents, lost parents and other family members to AIDS, drugs or violence, and have grown up so poor that their drug dealing is what put food on the family table–experiences that even the best conceived program would be hard-pressed to undo. “Maybe we’ll fail with a whole lot of them,” says Rosen. “We’ll be eminently successful if we save even 5 percent.”
These days, state and local officials are bent on increasing punishment for kids. Earlier this year, Governor Pataki proposed trying teens as young as 13 as adults. Meanwhile, Mayor Giuliani pushed through $60 million to expand the number of beds in the city’s juvenile detention facilities, where accused young people await trial–reflecting the fact that an unprecedented proportion are now held in detention instead of living at home.
In the middle of it all, OCFS and the state legislature made an institutional commitment to improve services kids receive in their communities. In part, the change came in response to a report by the Citizens Committee for Children, which documented aftercare’s deficiencies with the help of OCFS officials, who provided information and access to its caseworkers. (The state agency did not, however, return repeated calls from City Limits.) Citizens Committee used the finding to lobby the state assembly to add $1 million for aftercare, which it did. Finally, OCFS asked the Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs to submit a proposal to provide aftercare for up to 400 kids.
“OCFS is staffed by many people who worked in the provider community for a long time,” remarks Gabrielle Kreisler, who worked on the Citizens Committee campaign. “While there’s been a nationwide shift to stiffer penalties, and politicians may be calling for that, people in the agency realize the cost benefits to alternatives to incarceration and to aftercare.”
The state’s appreciation for intensive aftercare started with an experiment in tough incarceration: The Youth Leadership Academy boot camp upstate. Since 1984, OCFS has funded City Challenge, a Children’s Aid Society program in Bedford-Stuyvesant that provides round-the-clock support for about 120 teens a year coming back from the boot camp. Coming out of an intensely rigid environment, the kids have a structured program to ease their return home.
For six years, Children’s Aid has provided services to kids at City Challenge, who get school, job training, activities and counseling full-time at the center. (City Challenge says the state does not track its recidivism rates.) At the heart of City Challenge is a complex psychological language, centered on self-worth and self-esteem, to help young people understand and cope with the emotions that led them to seek approval from gangs or to earn respect on the streets.
Michael Navas ran the parent support group at City Challenge and, six months ago, started a grief and mourning group for teens. Navas expected that kids would front, pretending to be above their feelings, but was surprised by the session’s intensity. “The kids walk in and it’s unbelievable. They have a lot to talk about, and they talk,” he says. “That continues my amazement.”
Private programs like Friends of Island Academy have a different strategy. For young men like Shane, struggling to reinvent their identity, it’s the other young people and the staff of ex-offenders at places like Friends of Island that show a positive model of manhood. Shane’s father became addicted to crack and stopped coming around. In the Bronxdale projects, the guys he looked up to dealt drugs, and that’s the best he thought he could do. “When I was 12 or 13, my brother’s friends used to come by, and they were stickup kids and drug dealers. They used to hold down the block, and I looked up to them,” he says.
Now, Shane is trying to prove himself to a different set of mentors–his family and teachers. His teachers tell him he’s a leader, and his mother urges him to keep trying.
That’s a big change. When he was dealing drugs, she would not speak to him. At times he bought food for the household, but she dumped it in the garbage, saying, “I don’t need that kind of money.” When he got locked up, his mom spent the money she’d been saving for his college education.
Now they are able to talk with each other and laugh. But often, Shane tells her, “It’s getting hard.” And all she can say is, “Stay focused.”