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New York Times

A Home Remedy for Juvenile Offenders

Jacob Rivera, 15, near his apartment in the Bronx, who was convicted of assault, receives intensive therapy as part of his new sentence. By LESLIE KAUFMAN

February 20, 2008

When Jacob Rivera, 15, was resentenced in May on an assault conviction, he felt he had received a “blessing.”

Only months earlier he had been sentenced to a year in state custody, and he had already spent weeks bouncing between a juvenile detention center in the Bronx and a residential treatment campus upstate. Two of his older siblings had spent time in those facilities and, he said, had “come out a mess.” He could see his future.

But the court gave him a second chance because his case had not been properly reviewed for inclusion in a new alternative sentencing program, which the city started in February 2007. The program, called the Juvenile Justice Initiative, sends medium-risk offenders back to their families and provides intensive therapy.

The city says that in just a year, it has seen significant success for the juveniles enrolled, as well as cost savings from the reduced use of residential treatment centers.

Under the program, Jacob went back home on probation, and he and his family were assigned a counselor, Eddy Lee, who visited the two-bedroom Bronx apartment that the teenager shares with his mother, Michelle Rivera, her husband, a younger brother and other relatives.

Within weeks, the situation improved as Mr. Lee provided intensive counseling to the family, with the aim of defusing what had become an increasingly angry relationship between Jacob and his mother. Instead of screaming at Jacob when he refused to comply with her curfew, Ms. Rivera called Mr. Lee. Over time, Mr. Lee persuaded her to agree to be less strict if her son would agree to be more forthcoming about his whereabouts, and more responsible.

Jacob and his family are seen regularly by Eddy Lee a counselor for the Juvenile Justice Initiative. Soon Jacob started meeting curfew and began passing his court-ordered drug tests and staying in school. If he continues on this course, he will end his probation in July, Mr. Lee said.

By the standards of juvenile justice, Jacob is a resounding success. And he is not alone. The city said that in the year since the program began, fewer than 35 percent of the 275 youths who have been through it have been rearrested or violated probation.

State studies found that more than 80 percent of male juvenile offenders who had served time in correctional facilities were rearrested within three years of their release, usually on more serious charges.

While in-home services mean that hundreds of teenagers with criminal records are returned to their communities, city officials say it is a trade they are willing to make. “It’s an uphill battle,” says Ronald E. Richter, the city’s family services coordinator. “These young people and their families present complex challenges.”

But whether the children go to residential correctional facilities or not, they come back to the community eventually anyway, Mr. Richter said, and the program “helps parents learn how to supervise and manage their adolescents so that they act responsibly instead of engaging in dangerous behaviors.”

Every year, hundreds of children in the city under 16 are found guilty of crimes ranging from graffiti to assault. They are tried and sentenced in the family courts; more serious crimes like murder are usually sent to the criminal courts.

Until the Juvenile Justice Initiative, family court judges had few options for dealing with youngsters convicted of less-serious crimes. They could place them on probation and hope for the best, or send them to upstate residential centers. The decision would typically depend as much on the gravity of the crime as on the stability of the child’s family. Judges are more likely to send a child into state custody if the home situation is complicated or unsafe.

“We were locking up way too many children, ” said Leslie Abbey, who runs the program for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. “It was relied on too heavily, and it wasn’t working.”

The problem with incarceration, as juvenile justice reformers saw it, was that it could make behavior worse by introducing teenagers to even more hardened youths.

Some states and other counties in New York, including Westchester, have been experimenting for years with intensive in-home and in-community therapy for children who have significant criminal records but are not psychopathic.

The basic idea is to reach and help borderline youths at a moment of crisis, and turn them away from a more serious criminal path. By treating them in the context of their families and environments rather than in isolation, officials found that recidivism was usually less than half that of residential correction programs. The city says that it hopes its program will be as successful, but that it will take many years before it can be sure.

Still, at roughly $17,000 per child, such in-home therapy programs cost a fraction of the annual expense of keeping a child in secure detention, which can be $140,000 to $200,000.

In fact, the financial incentive is such that both the city and state are rapidly moving away from residential detention. Gladys Carrión, the commissioner of the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, recently announced that she would close six nonsecure facilities, a cut that will save the state $16 million a year.

The elimination of detention beds puts more pressure on the city to succeed.

It is a tough order, but Qadriyyah Razzaaq, for one, is a believer.

Ms. Razzaaq has been caring for John Whittington, 15, the son of a cousin, since he was 5. But last year, Ms. Razzaaq, a home health aide with her own children to care for and a job that often requires her to work 12 hours a day, was ready to give up on John, who was getting into ever more serious trouble.

First, on a dare, he set a fire in a school toilet, she said. Then he began running with gangs, and his graffiti appeared in hallways in his apartment building. Finally, she said, he robbed someone of an iPod.

When he was arrested for the iPod theft, she didn’t even go to detention to get him. “I was so angry,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘I am going to leave him there and teach him a lesson.’ ”

When Ms. Razzaaq heard about the Juvenile Justice Initiative, she was not optimistic. “He had already been in counseling,” she said, “I didn’t believe it would help.”

But to her amazement, the therapy at home made a difference. The counselors told her that John had been keeping secrets from her because he was afraid she would abandon him, the way his mother had. She spent more time with him alone, something he seemed to crave.

His behavior improved. John will still fail the seventh grade for a third time at the end of the school year, but so far he has not violated probation.

At home, Ms. Razzaaq has a new level of trust. “We have little problems, but we speak about it first,” she said. “He doesn’t wait to be caught.

“I know his future is so much better than it would have been if he had gone upstate.”

 



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