Adi Talwar

A 'Close to Home' residential facility in Bensonhurst.

Seventeen-year-old “Jim” landed in a Leake & Watts group home for juvenile delinquents last August, after he stole money from his father to purchase a new phone.

Jim, who had previously been arrested for trespassing in a neighbor’s apartment, is now among the oldest of the eight teenage boys who reside in a non-secure placement facility in Bensonhurst, where their days are tightly programmed around school, chores, group activities and the occasional field trip to Yonkers – where Leake & Watts has a campus with a swimming pool – the Barclays Center and other venues. The boys sleep barracks-style, in one room; while in the home, they are constantly supervised.

But Jim voices no complaints about the facility, referred to as “NSP,” for non-secure placement.

“If you’re going to be technical, NSP’s not so bad,” he says, speaking with City Limits in the same room where residents and their families gather once a month for painting, yoga and other group activities. Two staff people chatted quietly on the other side of the room while Jim spoke.

Jim, who returns to his family’s Brooklyn home every weekend, plans to ask a family court judge to allow him to remain in the group home through June––three months after his placement there is set to expire. He says he wants to finish school in his current setting, and eventually plans to go to college to study computer programming. He’s also preparing to take the Regents exams in U.S. history and the science subject “living environment.”

Jim, whose real name is being withheld at the request of Leake & Watts, says that after he first arrived, he didn’t want anything to do with his father. But by this February he was going home every weekend for visits.

“They would tell me, ‘Call your father,'” Jim says, referring to advice from staff. He also acknowledges that, although initially angry with his father, he is at least partly responsible for their troubled history. “I’m the one who took money from him,” he says.

A successful program, but budget cuts loom

Just a few years ago, it’s likely that a family court judge would have sent Jim to a facility outside New York City. If so, he could have been as far away as Ithaca, Lansing or other upstate locales hundreds of miles from his family in Brooklyn.

That longstanding approach was problematic at best, according to Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College. “We’re setting ourselves up for failure when we take a young person who is 14- or 15-years-old, send them hours away from their family, and break all their ties to their communities,” he says.

In 2012, the state embarked on a program to reform juvenile justice through the “Close to Home” program. As its name suggests, the initiative enables adolescents who have been determined by a Family Court judge to be “delinquent” to remain near their families, enabling visits and family counseling. Most attend Passages Academy––a Board of Education school for young people in custody as the result of arrests or convictions.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a better system than this anywhere in the country,” says Vincent Schiraldi, senior research scientist at the Justice Lab at Columbia University School of Social Work.

Schiraldi, who previously served as Commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation and senior advisor to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, adds that the law authorizing Close to Home is “one of the best pieces of juvenile-justice legislation in the country to be passed in the last decade.”

The initiative debuted soon after the U.S. Department of Justice threatened to bring a civil rights suit against New York over a host of well-documented troubles with its then-existing facilities for juvenile delinquents. Among other problems, residents suffered physical abuse by staff, weren’t provided adequate counseling and attended educational programs that were not approved by the city Board of Education––meaning that students didn’t automatically receive credits for classes they took while upstate.

The situation is very different now. The largest Close to Home facility has 18 beds, compared to more than 100 in some of the former upstate facilities, and all of the facilities serving New York City youth are either within the five boroughs or in Dobbs Ferry (where Children’s Village operates several facilities).

What’s more, all credits earned by students attending the Passages Academy are transferable to neighborhood schools. “They really broke their ass to fix it,” Schiraldi says, referring to the previous lack of educational coordination.

New York City isn’t the only locale to use a close-to-home model, but the city’s implementation has drawn worldwide interest. Representatives from locales including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Guam, Australia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea have visited ACS to learn more about the program.

In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed reauthorizing the initiative, which was originally launched for a five-year “pilot period.” But, in a move that surprised many, Cuomo’s proposed budget eliminates all state support for the program. Last year, the state had budgeted up to $41 million for Close to Home, and actually contributed $30.5 million, while the federal government contributed $7 million and New York City contributed $38 million.

News of the budget proposal has alarmed some advocates and child welfare officials, who hail the program as a success.

“It’s disappointing to hear that support for it is being eliminated, or shifted,” says John Jay’s Butts.

“The current arrangement was very successful,” he says. “When something’s going well, and then there’s a big change, you worry.”

The proposed budget cuts come at a particularly bad time: The program is expected to absorb more than twice as many teens in the next few years, as the city phases in a plan for Family Court judges to adjudicate 16- and 17-year-olds arrested for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. That move is a result of the “Raise the Age” movement that finally got New York State to stop treating many 16- and 17-year-old defendants as adults. The first phase of that plan will begin this October, with defendants who were 16 at the time of their arrest, and the second phase will start in October 2019, when 17-year-olds will be sent to family court.

Advocates are how lobbying Albany lawmakers to restore the state funding, according to Stephanie Grendel, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York. She says that a group of around 30 people went to Albany on February 12 to meet with the governor’s office as well as lawmakers. More visits were planned for later February and March. The state budget deadline is April 1.

“We want to keep the pressure on, and continue to talk about these issues in as many meetings as possible,” she says.

A spokesperson for Cuomo says the governor’s proposed budget increases overall support for New York City by almost $500 million. City officials “can use a small slice of that increase” to support Close to Home or “they can tap into their billions of dollars of surpluses and reserves, or they can finally look for efficiencies within their budget,” the spokesman said in an emailed statement.

Cuomo’s office contends that from the outset, state support for Close to Home was promised only for the initial five-year period. But ACS counters that the shift in approach was always intended to be permanent, with the expectation that state support would be over a longer term than the initial five years.*

Close to home, but not home

In 2016, 252 youngsters were newly admitted to Close to Home, according to most recent report on the program, issued this February. ACS runs the program, but contracts with eight nonprofit agencies––including Children’s Village, Leake & Watts and Good Shepherd Services––to operate the individual group homes.

Most of those youth (222) were at “non secure” group homes while the remaining 30 entered “limited secure” group homes. (An additional 51 youngsters from New York City were sent to secure placement centers upstate; those centers are only for youth convicted of especially serious or violent felonies, like intentional murder or robbery with a deadly weapon,

All of the Close to Home facilities have security features designed to keep youngsters from walking out at will, but the limited secure centers are considered more restrictive. Youngsters in non-secure centers travel outside the facilities to attend classes, while limited secure centers import teachers directly to the homes. Also, the ratio of staff to youngsters is higher at limited secure centers.

Youngsters who commit crimes end up in Close to Home facilities if they are sent there by Family Court judges. Family Court judges can send youngsters who have committed any crimes to Close to Home, but can also order non-custodial dispositions – like probation, conditional discharges, and adjournments in contemplation of dismissal and other. If the crimes are especially serious–like murder or robbery with a deadly weapon – Family Court judges can order youngsters sent to a secure facility upstate, instead of a Close to Home facility, but aren’t required to do so. One out of three young people sent to the program in 2016 were convicted of misdemeanors, like petit larceny (theft of property worth less than $1,000), while slightly fewer (27 percent) committed felonies, like grand larceny, according to ACS’s most recent report. A full 40 percent of the youngsters sent to Close to Home were sent there by judges for violating the terms of their probation––often by failing to attend school or missing curfews.

Many of the children suffer from significant learning disabilities or emotional issues; nearly all have struggled in school.

“They have endured a disproportionate amount of trauma,” says Dawn Yuster, director of the School Justice Project at Advocates for Children of New York.

“It’s not uncommon for our court-involved youth to have seen violent crime,” Yuster adds. “For them to have witnessed that has a significant impact.”

Tim Lasante, Superintendent of District 79––which runs alternative schools, including Passages––says most of the students in Close to Home were not attending school regularly when arrested. Many were significantly behind in school.

He says that students can re-enter a community school when they return home, but that most transfer to a different school than where they were enrolled before their arrests.

“If the student wasn’t going, or has on credits, that school may not be the most appropriate one,” he says.

Close to Home participants in Passages earned an average of 9.3 credits in the last school year. Fifty students took at least one New York State Regents test during that time, and 46 passed.

Family Court judges can authorize initial placements of up to 12 months on misdemeanors and 18 months on felonies, but the average length of stay is shorter. Average stays in non-secure facilities were 7.6 months, while youth in limited secure facilities remained an average of 6.3 months, according to ACS.

Despite praise from some advocates, the program has experienced some high-profile problems, including instances of youngsters leaving the facilities without permission. In the 2016 fiscal year, 86 youngsters in non-secure homes were AWOL––though many of those episodes were short-lived. Often, the children simply failed to return from a home visit, says Leake & Watts’ director of juvenile justice programs Lisa Crook.

But there have been also been more serious incidents involving teens in the program. One high profile example occurred in 2015, when 16-year-olds Sanat Asliev, Emanuel Burrowes and Eric Pek made their way from a non-secure facility in Brooklyn to Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, where they allegedly acted in concert to rape, rob and beat a woman they met at an Internet cafe. All three pleaded guilty. Asliev and Burrowes were sentenced to 15 years in prison, while Bek was sentenced to 14 years.

ACS says it has improved its responses to AWOLs. “Every time it happens, it’s something that we have to take seriously,” ACS Commissioner David Hansell says. He adds that the agency is now working more closely with the New York Police Department to retrieve youngsters who bolt, or fail to return after a home visit.

The facilities themselves also take steps to prevent children from running away. At Leake & Watts’ Bensonhurst home, for instance, kids don’t learn about off-campus trips until the last minute, to prevent them from coordinating an escape plan.

A 2016 report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer also raised questions about management of the program. He reported that data collected between July 2013 and June 2015 showed that ACS failed to make unannounced visits to the homes, among other shortcomings.

ACS says in its most recent report that it conducted 348 on-site inspections in 2016, up from 81 in 2015.

Unknowns remain

For all the time, energy and money devoted to the program, no one can say whether it helps prevent recidivism. ACS says the program is too new for a full three-year post-discharge analysis.

It’s also not clear when, if ever, sending youngsters convicted of minor crimes to facilities is preferable to working with them while they stay in their own homes.

While John Jay’s Butts praises Close to Home as a success, he also questions whether authorities are sometimes too quick to send youngsters to facilities for probation violations––especially when their underlying crimes were nonviolent.

“It’s in the nature of a teenager to violate probation––violate rules,” he says.

He adds that placing youngsters in facilities for those violations “could do more harm than it’s worth,” if their original crime was not especially dangerous, like shoplifting.

“Every day a kid spends with the loss of liberty is harming their sense of will, their attachment to civil society,” he says. “We want them to believe that they’re part of the community. We should only alienate them if their freedom is actually a danger to people.”

The absolute number of children sent to facilities as a result of delinquency proceedings has declined in recent years. In fiscal year 2014, 348 youth were admitted to Close to Home; by fiscal year 2017, that number had dropped to 222, according to ACS. One reason for the drop may be that crime rates have continued to fall in that time. Only 1,824 new juvenile delinquency petitions were filed in New York City’s Family Court in 2016, down from 2,547 in 2014, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Regardless of the reason, the trend is seen as positive.

“We hope that the current trajectory will continue,” ACS’s Hansell says. “The most important outcome is that we see the number of juvenile arrests, and arraignments of young adults, go down.”

* This paragraph was added to clarify the parties’ positions on the “pilot” nature of the first five years of Close to Home.