Building Trust Can Help Juvenile Offenders
How Milwaukee can learn from juvenile offender programs in NYC. Second in series.
Four teenage young men stand in a circle around a long wooden dining room table. Staff members, some of whom wear polo shirts and on-trend khaki pants with elastic around the ankles—matching the kids’ attire—stand in the circle as well. Colorful tissue paper decorations hang from the ceiling, and taco toppings are spread out on the table ready for lunch.
After waiting for their court date in a more traditional detention center, the young men around the table were placed in this Close to Home facility in Brooklyn operated by the nonprofit Rising Ground. It is one of the small facilities for six to 12 kids that replaced the state’s youth prisons, and it’s meant to resemble a homelike environment. The idea is a shift from the traditional idea of “corrections” to make the space and program less punitive and more constructive, said Lisa Crook, vice president of justice for youth and families programs at Rising Ground.
Before sitting down for lunch, each person completes the sentence out loud, one after the other, “I’m checking in and I’m feeling … ”
Someone intercedes, “Do you want to talk about it?”
The circle continues.
“I’m checking in, and I’m feeling optimistic.”
No one skips a beat, a sign the youths obviously are familiar with the practice.
This type of check-in and open discussion about feelings is an integral piece of the model of care this home embraces, Crook said. They follow what’s called the Missouri Model. The model focuses on building trust and accountability between youths and staff and relies heavily on group therapy. Anyone, staff or youths, can call for a “circle” at any point throughout the day if they want to talk a situation through or check in as a group.
In order to get a contract from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services to run a Close to Home facility, provider organizations such as Rising Ground are required to have a specific, evidence-based model of care that guides their work. The providers say this has contributed to their homes’ success, but leaders from some grassroots organizations counter that these types of stipulations have become a barrier to smaller, locally trusted organizations that seek Close to Home contracts.
Felipe Franco, the deputy commissioner of New York’s Administration for Children’s Services, said the point of this requirement is to have a unifying philosophy so all staff and youths work within the same structure.
‘We work on being nonjudgmental’
After their circle, the young people took their seats and goofed around at lunch, laughing with staff.
Earlier this year, Nathan, 13, spent about seven months at a different Rising Ground Close to Home facility in the Bronx that operates similarly to this one in Brooklyn.
He said his relationships with staff made all the difference for him while in Close to Home. Nathan was placed there after multiple incidents of robbery.
“I mean nobody wants to be locked up, but staff made days better and stuff,” he said. “Staff made it feel like home sometimes, even though I still knew that it was not the crib.”
Crook said a quality staff that youths can genuinely relate to is essential to the success of the Close to Home model.
“The kids will be the first to tell you if a staff member is just in it for a paycheck,” she said. “The kids can read through your BS in like five seconds.”
Crook said many staff members come from the neighborhoods where the homes are located and where the youths are from. Many have had experiences in the system themselves or have faced similar circumstances like the young people they supervise. Staff members know the major events and the always- changing nuances of the neighborhoods—including gang dynamics.
“The kids know our staff are coming from a lot of the same places and have experienced a lot of the same things, and they can see, ‘Oh, there’s a different path. I don’t have to hang out on the streets,’ Crook said. “That’s huge, and kids weren’t getting that when they were in Buffalo or Syracuse or wherever they were before.”
Edwidge Michel, a group leader for a Close to Home facility in Queens, which is run by a different provider, said the role of staff in these programs is “not correctional.”
“It’s not being a security guard,” Michel said. “You’re actually constantly being therapeutic with a young person and trying to have a breakthrough or even plant seeds of hope so they can move on and be successful.”
Crook and Michel said both homes focus heavily on training staff on how to best speak to youths and how to manage their own emotions while on the job.
“We are respectful of what the young people have to say and understand that emotions are not wrong or right,” Michel said. “We work on being nonjudgmental.”
This perspective is necessary for building positive relationships, but also for maintaining a safe community within the home, Crook explained.
It’s a concept Franco described as “safety by relationships.”
Sometimes subtle things can be perceived as a threat and could make a young person feel unsafe, on guard or combative, Crook said, but knowledgeable staff pick up on those things.
“If a young person doesn’t feel safe, they’re either going to fight or flight,” Michel said. “We want them to think, ‘I don’t have to worry about safety, so I can now focus on treatment.’”
In limited-secure homes such as this one, school is provided in-house, but in most of the Close to Home facilities, which are “non-secure,” the youths attend a special school offsite. In both cases, the New York City Department of Education runs the schools, so all of the young people’s credits transfer to whichever school they attend when they return to the community. Most youths stay in a Close to Home facility for just under a year, followed by court-ordered aftercare programming.
“I didn’t have to be ‘on’ when I got here,” Nathan said. “It takes me a long time to trust people, but I didn’t have to come in with my guard up.”
Building a community
Each night, the youths meet in a room lined with black leather bean bag chairs and inspirational quotes affixed to the turquoise walls for “group.”
This regular therapy meeting is the heart of the model of care, where the young people process their emotions and decision-making through daily reflections, discussions and activities in community with each other.
“The positives I got from placement were learning how to control my frustrations and becoming more patient,” Nathan said. “I was not a patient kid. I wanted things when I wanted them. That slowed me down, being in there. Maybe not slowed, but it calmed me down.”
Bryson, 15, and Antoine, 14, were staying in the Close to Home facility in Queens run by Michel, and they said that group provides an opportunity for them to learn from each other.
“It’s a good environment, an open space. We can talk about anything, different topics,” Bryson said. “Like if anything is a concern, we can speak about it and know how to fix it and put it into play a different way. The most important thing is that everybody respects each other and respects the feelings.”
After group, the youths can make phone calls home or to loved ones. The length and frequency of the calls is a privilege that’s incentivised in the program. Youths can earn more or longer calls with excellent behavior.
Nathan said this helped him stay motivated.
“You earn stuff, so then I had something to lose,” he said. “When you’re locked in, you don’t have anything to lose. If they’re not talking about sending you home, if they just set your court dates back and stuff, you’re just going to give up. You’re not going to care.”
The same approach applies to home visits.
As youths progress through the program, they can earn time away from the facility and with their families, ranging from a few hours to a whole weekend.
“I was seeing my family more often,” Nathan said. “That’s what I’m saying. I had something to lose.”
Youths just starting the program and youths in the “limited-secure” homes don’t get to leave the facilities, but their families can visit them at least once a week.
Most of the homes are easily accessible by public transit, but if a family has transportation troubles, the provider organizations will pick bring them there.
The Close to Home facilities also hold regular family events and celebrations, such as a dinner party where the youths cook for their families or an art gallery night where they display their work.
Crook said the goal is for youths to feel they are still an important part of their family and community, even if they’re not living at home at the moment.
In the evenings and on the weekends, different homes have activities that are built into their programming, ranging from book clubs, yoga, cooking classes, basketball and movie nights to hatching chickens, hydroponic growing, music lessons at Carnegie Hall, kickboxing or indoor skydiving.
‘You’re still addicted to locking up kids’
Though advocates say Close to Home programs create positive experiences for young people, some are wary that they are still too similar to past models of youth incarceration.
Ruben Austria started an organization called Community Connections for Youth right around the same time that the Close to Home initiative was beginning. He was an advocate who pushed at a statewide level to close New York’s youth prisons and to ensure resources were invested in community programs in areas like the South Bronx.
Austria said he often thinks that New York could do more to invest in the neighborhoods, families, programs and communities that surround the kids who end up in the system.
“We’re not doing the most punitive and harsh thing, but we’re also not really investing in communities except in the way of brief treatment and temporary supervision,” he said.
Austria said Close to Home “was both an excellent development and also a huge missed opportunity in certain ways because of the absence of a community capacity-building strategy.”
He warned places like Milwaukee not to miss the opportunity.
“People get too caught up on ‘Well, where are we going to put the kids?’ and end up creating just a kinder, gentler reincarnation of youths incarceration,” he said.
Austria said investing in a young person’s neighborhood, family and community will produce the most positive outcomes.
“You might spend millions of dollars on architects and designing the new facilities, but how much are you spending designing and developing the alternatives? You’re still addicted to locking up kids,” Austria said. “It’s just a question of priorities.”
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on eighteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.
More about the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake
- Op Ed: Will Lincoln Hills Ever Be Closed? - State Sen. Jeff Smith - Dec 10th, 2019
- Special Report: New York’s After Care Program Helps Youth - Allison Dikanovic - Sep 17th, 2019
- MKE County: Youth Corrections Proposal Sent To State - Graham Kilmer - Sep 11th, 2019
- Special Report: Building Trust Can Help Juvenile Offenders - Allison Dikanovic - Sep 11th, 2019
- Special Report: How New York Handles Juvenile Justice - Allison Dikanovic - Sep 10th, 2019
- County Proposal Replaces Youth Prison - Corri Hess - Jul 18th, 2019
- What’s Happening With State’s Youth Prisons? - Allison Dikanovic - Jul 4th, 2019
- Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and The Department of Health and Human Services Announce New Approach for Youth Justice Reform - County Executive Chris Abele - Jul 1st, 2019
- Gov. Evers Signs Act 185 Trailer Bill - Gov. Tony Evers - Jul 1st, 2019
- Senator Taylor Pushes Juvenile Corrections Reform - State Sen. Lena Taylor - Jun 12th, 2019
- Youth Justice Milwaukee: Wisconsin Must Include Community Input for Any Youth Transfers - Youth Justice Milwaukee - May 10th, 2019
- County Opposes Plan to Replace Lincoln Hills - Allison Dikanovic - May 7th, 2019
- Youth Justice Milwaukee: Lincoln Hills Continued Use of Pepper Spray, Suicide Risk Shows Youth Prison Model is Broken - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Apr 19th, 2019
- County Submits Youth Prison Proposal - Corri Hess - Mar 30th, 2019
- 6 Things to Know About Lincoln Hills - Allison Dikanovic - Mar 22nd, 2019
- Evers Announces Youth Prison for City - Laurel White - Mar 13th, 2019
- Gov. Evers Moves Forward on Plans to Close Lincoln Hills - Gov. Tony Evers - Mar 12th, 2019
- Evers Proposes Delay Of Youth Prison Closure - Laurel White - Feb 28th, 2019
- Youth Justice Milwaukee: We Must Move With a Sense of Urgency - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Feb 27th, 2019
- MKE County: County Officials Offer Antidote to Youth Prisons - Dave Fidlin - Feb 14th, 2019
- Delay in Closing Youth Prisons Criticized - Allison Dikanovic - Feb 4th, 2019
- Youth Justice Milwaukee: “We need action, not excuses.” - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Jan 30th, 2019
- County Picks Location for Youth Offender Facility - Allison Dikanovic - Jan 29th, 2019
- MKE County: County Prepares for Lincoln Hills Closing - Corri Hess - Jan 26th, 2019
- Problems Continue At State Youth Prisons - Laurel White - Jan 15th, 2019
- Youth Justice Milwaukee: Unacceptable Conditions Show We Can’t Wait for 2021 to Close Lincoln Hills - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Jan 14th, 2019
- State Rep. David Bowen Applauds New Governor Evers Visit to Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake - State Rep. David Bowen - Jan 14th, 2019
- Evers Will Visit Lincoln Hills - Shawn Johnson - Jan 3rd, 2019
- New Residential Treatment Facility Opens - Allison Dikanovic - Dec 19th, 2018
- Youth Justice Milwaukee Hosts Successful Roundtable with Elected Leaders on Youth Justice Reform - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Dec 12th, 2018
- Youth Justice Milwaukee Calls for More Community Input at Department of Corrections Community Meeting on Plans for Lincoln Hills Closure - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Sep 18th, 2018
- Youth Justice Milwaukee Statement on Judge’s OK to Lincoln Hills Settlement - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Sep 14th, 2018
- Youth Justice Milwaukee Statement on Lincoln Hills Incident with Young Person with Appendicitis - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Aug 31st, 2018
- Op Ed: Lincoln Hills Closed. Now What’s Needed? - Sharlen Moore - Aug 27th, 2018
- Wall Blasts Walker, Schimel on Youth Prison - Laurel White - Aug 13th, 2018
- Youth Justice Milwaukee: Department of Corrections Should Meet with Stakeholders in Milwaukee on Lincoln Hills - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Aug 8th, 2018
- Juvenile Corrections Reform Signed Into Law - State Rep. Evan Goyke - Apr 2nd, 2018
- Governor Walker Signs Bipartisan Juvenile Justice Reform Bill into Law - Gov. Scott Walker - Mar 30th, 2018
- Speaker Vos Statement: Signing of the ‘Wisconsin Model’ for Juvenile Corrections Reform - Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos - Mar 30th, 2018
- Shilling statement on Lincoln Hills - State Sen. Jennifer Shilling - Mar 30th, 2018
- Rep. Bowen statement on passage of Wisconsin Model of youth justice - State Rep. David Bowen - Feb 21st, 2018
- Kleefisch-Bowen bill lays foundation for youth corrections overhaul - State Rep. David Bowen - Feb 13th, 2018
- Taylor and Bipartisan Legislators Introduce Juvenile Corrections Bill - State Sen. Lena Taylor - Feb 13th, 2018
- Walker Renews Call to Gut Services - State Sen. Lena Taylor - Jan 18th, 2018
- Supervisor Sequanna Taylor Offers to Help Governor Walker with Plan to Close Lincoln Hill and Copper Lake - Sup. Sequanna Taylor - Jan 18th, 2018
- Statement on Delayed Action at Lincoln Hills - State Sen. Jennifer Shilling - Jan 16th, 2018
- Governor Walker Calls on Legislature to Pass Bipartisan Reform for Wisconsin’s Juvenile Corrections System in 2018 - Gov. Scott Walker - Jan 16th, 2018
- Response to Walker’s revisions last night on Lincoln Hills - Democratic Party of Wisconsin - Jan 16th, 2018
- Another Walker Non-Answer on Lincoln Hills Raises a Significant Question - Democratic Party of Wisconsin - Jan 12th, 2018
- When Will Lincoln Hills Close? - Democratic Party of Wisconsin - Jan 9th, 2018
- Shuttering of Lincoln Hills a first step in bringing true rehabilitation for youth offenders - Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton - Jan 5th, 2018
- Career Politician Gov. Scott Walker Governs For Re-Election With Campaign Gimmick - Andy Gronik - Jan 4th, 2018
- Changes Needed at Lincoln Hills Now, Not After the Next Election - State Sen. Chris Larson - Jan 4th, 2018
- Walker agrees to do his job after years of willful neglect and political cover up at Lincoln Hills — now when it threatens his own re-election - Democratic Party of Wisconsin - Jan 4th, 2018
- Walker a Day Late and Dollar Short on Juvenile Corrections - State Sen. Lena Taylor - Jan 4th, 2018
- Governor Walker Announces Plan to Provide a Long-Term Solution for Wisconsin’s Juvenile Corrections and Treatment Systems - Gov. Scott Walker - Jan 4th, 2018
- Dana Wachs calls on Walker administration to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake - State Rep. Dana Wachs - Nov 16th, 2017
- Op Ed: Lincoln Hills Even Worse Than Reported - Jake Edwards - Nov 16th, 2017
- Close Lincoln Hills: Advocates and Officials Reiterate Call for Closing Abusive Youth Prisons - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Nov 16th, 2017
- 2018 Budget Includes $90,000 for Youth Training Program - Sup. Sequanna Taylor - Nov 6th, 2017
- Rep. Bowen statement on DOC Internal Affairs Unit - State Rep. David Bowen - Oct 10th, 2017
- Sen. LaTonya Johnson’s Juvenile Justice Reform Signed Into Law - State Sen. LaTonya Johnson - Aug 2nd, 2017
- Court Watch: Judge Rules on Lincoln Hills - Gretchen Schuldt - Jul 13th, 2017
- Federal Court finds current conditions of confinement for youth at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools unconstitutional - American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin - Jun 23rd, 2017
- Court Watch: Pictures of Youths in Prison - Gretchen Schuldt - Jun 20th, 2017
- Abele Blasts State on Juvenile Prisons - Gretchen Schuldt - Apr 27th, 2017
- Court Watch: ACLU Seeks Lincoln Hills Injunction - Gretchen Schuldt - Apr 20th, 2017
- More Horrors at Juvenile Prisons? - Gretchen Schuldt - Apr 19th, 2017
- Court Watch: Chemical Spraying Used At Lincoln Hills - Gretchen Schuldt - Jan 27th, 2017
- Court Watch: Shocking Charges in Lincoln Hills Suit - Gretchen Schuldt - Jan 25th, 2017
- Corrections Officials Face Community on Lincoln Hills - Jabril Faraj - Jun 22nd, 2016
- Precious Lives: A Debate Over Lincoln Hills Problems - Dee J. Hall - May 24th, 2016
- Op-Ed: End Solitary Confinement, Especially of Youth - Laurence J. Dupuis - Feb 18th, 2016
- Murphy’s Law: Why Walker Allowed Lincoln Hills Abuses - Bruce Murphy - Feb 16th, 2016