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Ready or Not. Here They Come! Youth Reentry from Probation by Diane Lefer posted on Monday, 26 July 2010
The world hasn’t changed since Frederick Douglass said, It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. Father Greg Boyle has taught us Nothing stops a bullet like a job. As our Probation Department moves in the direction of reform, the good news is that the department recognizes the need for reentry services for kids coming out of the system–often traumatized, unable to read and write, set free on the mean streets in an abysmal job market while carrying the stigma of lockup. The federal Department of Labor shares this recognition and granted the county $300,000. The bad news is that money is to be spent on “planning” rather than any direct services.
On Friday, professionals who work with youth, local residents and other community stakeholders of Mark Ridley-Thomas‘s Second District met in Carson for a Reentry Summit–six hours of panels and discussion exploring what the community needs.
Existing maps already show the high density in the district of kids who are in the system. Existing statistics already show us disparities: Manhattan Beach, for example, has an unemployment rate of 4.4% while to the east, in the Florence-Firestone community, the rate in June reached 24.0%. We already know most kids being locked up are black or brown. We know that community colleges–where most black and brown students go for higher ed–is the least funded element in the entire State education system.
At the Summit, we heard about programs that have already proved they work. Raul Diaz, a case manager with Father Greg’s Homeboy Industries explained that while they still offer services to anyone who walks in the door, Homeboy now tries to involve juveniles while they are still in probation camps. Kids in lockup and their families participate in a 90-day pre-release program and another 90 days post-release with intensive case management to be sure they have what they need whether it’s tutoring for literacy or documents and support to get back into school or transportation to keep appointments.
That’s great, except the organization is now hurting for funds, laying off staff and unable to hire young people in desperate need of a job. They can reach only a limited number of juveniles and so, as a young man named Carlos told me later, his own release wasn’t quite so smooth: He was given an hour’s notice to change his clothes, then “they open the door and leave you on the street. No shoelaces, no money, not even a bus token to get home.” (Hey, I know $300,000 won’t stretch far, but it could at least give each of the 200,000 kids who go through LA County probation each year a bus token.)
Jesus Escobar had a better experience. As he explained, he went from lockup to the Day Reporting Center–a new program of the Probation Department–where he learned the basics, such as how to fill out a job application. The best thing, he said was finding “all kinds of services under one roof. They even provided pants, shirts, neckties.” Jesus found a job, enrolled in and succeeded at East LA College and has now transferred to USC, hoping his next step will be law school.
Kids who’ve been in trouble need caring advocates. We already know this. Erick Cerda of DCR told of the young man who was barred from becoming an EMT because of his prior conviction. The program managed to get his case reopened and the felony charge reduced to a misdemeanor. The young man was able to complete his training and today can be out there not just earning a living but saving lives. The DCR program works, but it’s a pilot project accepting a limited number of participants, and only males.
YouthBuild, at least, has a larger scope. According to James Smith who directs the program in Watts, this nationwide program has a long admirable record since its start in Harlem in 1978. Today there are 15 YouthBuild sites in LA County about half of which operate their own charter schools. Multi-million dollar grants put them on track to reach as many as a thousand kids pre-release. Post-release, participants can be trained in construction.
“Get the training now,” says Smith, “and when the economy gets better, get the jobs.” YouthBuild prepares young people to earn full high school diplomas rather than the G.E.D. to move them more easily to higher education. “They get stipends,” said Smith. “In the real world, it’s called money,” because when a post-release youth has some funds and a roof over his head, he’s obviously more likely to stay out of trouble. Participants, he said, know they have to “pull their pants up and get their attitudes right because they’re going to work.”
Donvielle Holley of Quantum–which provides on-the-job work training, agreed. “I can teach you Microsoft Office skills but I can’t teach you attitude.” And Quantum, alas, can serve fewer than two dozen young people.
From Winston Peters we learned the Public Defenders office recognizes that when kids get into trouble with the law, they need more than ordinary legal representation. The office now has psychiatric social workers on staff to work with kids and their families as well as lawyers who specialize in getting kids back into school and getting kids with disabilities the special education services they need. Very impressive. But we already know the Public Defenders office only has enough funding to serve 50% of the indigent youth who are arrested.
Another example of inadequate funding and wrongheaded planning: According to Rev. Eugene Williams, AB 900 now in the legislature would pay to build a 500-bed corrections facility that could be expanded to 1,000 beds, but makes zero provision for services or programs inside the facility.
In the second panel of the day, Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition asked for a moment of silence for young people recently killed and for others facing life behind bars. Then she asked everyone to stand. She rattled over a list of documents and asked people to sit if they could not produce what was asked for: California drivers license or State ID, Social Security card, adult immunization record, TB test, recent utility bill, transcript from last school, and more. By the time she finished with the list of documents a child in LA County needs to get back into school, every adult in the room was seated. Not one of us could have re-enrolled. No child should be released from a juvenile facility without a school placement.
McGill once again laid out the proposals she’s been making for years–recommendations that usually get her applause, even standing ovations, but little or no action.
“Ban the Box,” said McGill, and she was not referring to Wal-Mart. With kids being routinely transferred into the adult criminal justice system, they leave lockup with criminal records. Even a McDonald’s job application has a box to check if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony. Checking that box means excluding a young person from college financial aid, housing, and most employment. It means kids from probation fire camps who’ve risked their lives on the front lines fighting forest fires are banned from joining fire departments with good middle class union jobs after their release. Exclusionary policies mean until YJC intervened at the Mayor’s Office even the Gang Reduction Youth Development summer program excluded kids on the unreliable gang database.
She urged a change in language. “Offender,” “high-risk,” “delinquent” are all labels that disempower and disrespect.
Myrna Brutti, director of the “Safe Schools–Healthy Students” program at LAUSD, was also concerned with erasing stigma. She frames the need for mental health services not as “there’s something wrong with you,” but rather let’s address what’s standing in the way of your being successful. (Winston Peters offered a conservative estimate that a third of all kids in Juvenile Hall suffer from some form of mental illness.) She acknowledged that until she took the job, she didn’t even know LAUSD offered mental health services “so how was the community supposed to know?” (Let’s consider that the lack of access to information may be entirely intentional. Once again, inadequate funding: Large numbers of students who clearly need help languish on waiting lists.)
“If you don’t think racism creates mental health problems,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas during his luncheon address, “then you need to think again.”
Clinical psychologist Heidi Rothman with the County Department of Mental Health stressed that family involvement in any reentry or treatment plan is critical but professionals have to do a better job of listening to what families need and want. And understanding when a mother says, “I don’t want my child back,” it often means a woman is scared her child won’t succeed and that she lacks the resources to help. She needs a support system helping her if she is to help her child.
Dr. Cheryl Grills, who received her doctorate from UCLA as a clinical psychologist but also trained as a traditional African healer in Ghana, insisted true mental health is not merely the absence of symptoms. It exists in a context that includes access to decent housing, to transportation, to healthy foods. “Our children are overdiagnosed and overmedicated,” she said. She challenged the buzzword of “evidence-based practice” which has evolved to favor a couple of treatment modalities–mostly traditional therapy. In communities so lacking in safety nets, she argued, a child’s mere survival shows a capacity for resilience that should be built on instead of coming at the kid from an illness perspective. Employ cultural traits and practices that build on that resiliency. “Culture matters,” she said. “It’s in the room. Accept it, acknowledge it, incorporate it.”
Like McGill, she favors a restorative justice model. Instead of treating kids as clients with pathologies, “give youth the role of valued members of the community.” She wants to build “self-efficacy” instead of just talking about “self-esteem.” Reach kids in libraries, in parks, she said, not just in a therapist’s office. Adults–including the community’s elders–have to provide a protective shield and minimize the trauma the kids experience every day. “Organize the parents,” she said. “So it’s not a single parent dealing with a probation officer or a principal. A group of 100 parents is going to go a lot further.”
Adela Barajas didn’t like the talk of mental health either. “What? You’re going to take us out of prison and put us in a mental institution?” She provided a sobering perspective from her community in LAPD’s Newton Division. “Our youth are being sent to prison and we’re burying our loved ones.”
Barajas has been on both sides of the pain. Her sister-in-law was murdered. Her brother served a ten-year prison term for drugs. His young daughter witnessed the killing of a godparent, the murder of a boy she knew, and the killing of a close friend. A month before her dad got out, she was arrested. She went into Juvenile Hall as a scared 13-year-old kid and came out a year later “hardcore.” Maybe growing up in an environment like hers, you need something mentally “wrong” with you not to suffer from depression and/or PTSD while according to Barajas, communities most affected by homicide are largely overlooked when it comes to services.
Coordination of services and communication may improve soon in spite of what Judge Donna Groman noted: it’s hard to accomplish anything given the LA bureaucracy. Myrna Brutti agreed the “right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.” But civil rights organization the Advancement Project has designed an internet data base envisioned by Sheriff Lee Baca that can provide quick service referrals to 18,000 resources based on zip code, police reporting district, or key word. The bad news is that given how thin resources are stretched, desperate families are still likely to get busy signals, waiting lists, more runaround while the zip code where Adela Barajas lives is only too likely to come up empty.
I'm tickled. The young people at Peace Camp who participated in my crash course in street theatre are rehearsing today. Along with San Pedro Neighbors for Peace and Justice they've decided to create a piece to perform in front of the military recruitment center in Long Beach. I love their energy and enthusiasm.
My article in today's LA Progressive:
To LA’s New Probation Chief: Condolences on Your Appointment
Civil rights lawyer Connie Rice welcomed new Probation Department chief Donald Blevins to LA Monday night by offering him thanks–and condolences. After all, why would anyone take on the challenge of cleaning up a department long known for abusing rather than helping the kids in its custody, losing track of money and ID badges, punishing whistleblowers and protecting wrongdoers?
At a meeting with the Empowerment Congress at the Exposition office of County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas whose Second District includes much of LA south of the 10 including Watts, Compton, Inglewood, and Culver City as well as some points north including parts of Hollywood, Wilshire Center, and Koreatown, Chief Blevins asked for the community’s help not just in turning the department around but in actively working on behalf of youth. He was greeted enthusiastically by members of the Probation Department who have waited a long time to see leadership that would put kids first.
The new chief who was sworn in three months ago began his 34-year career in San Diego and most recently served as Chief in Alameda County which is smaller than LA but with similar demographics and problems.
A little more than a year ago I visited the Alameda County Juvenile Hall in the Bay Area and was impressed by the clean, new, modern facility with classrooms, a health clinic, and mental health services, all built on his watch. Make no mistake, however: lockup is lockup. The only windows in the cells look out on the control desk and when you walk by it hurts to see in each square pane the little faces of kids as eager to be let out as puppies in the pound.
But as Chief Blevins explained on Monday night, in Alameda he worked to change the culture of the officers. They’d been trained with the “care, custody, control mantra,” he said. He wanted them to see themselves as counselors and role models instead. What I saw on the unit for teenage girls was a counselor who chatted easily with the kids, sharing girltalk. Instead of a uniform, another wore a T-shirt featuring a smiling Obama family. Still, the counselors were not pushovers: I saw them turn on a dime from warm and friendly to instantly stern as soon as, in their parlance, “the tone was getting too high.”
In the Bay Area, I saw failures, but also saw the system sometimes works. A young man who since his release found a corporate job and a wife told me, “Juvie was one of the happiest times in my teenage life. When I was on the street, I was so busy hustling, getting into trouble and fights, trying to make a name for myself I never had time to sit down and play checkers or play chess. I’m sorry to say that’s where I had a real childhood–in Juvie.”
What will Chief Blevins do in LA?
He is proud that Central Juvenile Hall now offers parenting classes to the mothers and fathers before their kids go home. The number of kids held in custody is at a 30-year low as the department is doing a better job of assessing which kids will do best if kept out of juvenile hall and instead receive supportive services in the community. Options such as electronic monitoring are also keeping young people out of lockup. “I need programs in the community the kids come from,” he said, “so they don’t have to take a bus crosstown.”
We heard from a 17-year-old whose probation officer gave him one week to enroll in school after his release if he didn’t wanted to go back to Juvie, but he couldn’t find a school that would take him. Blevins said he understood “the school district doesn’t always want our kids back. What they hope is that a kid will go away and just not come back.” In cases like this, he says his staff will help. “We pay taxes for our schools and they have an obligation to teach.”
In Alameda County, Blevins explained, before a kid is released, the parents come in and receive orientation. The kid has a classroom waiting in the community. If kids take psychotropic medications, the meds go home with them and appointments are scheduled in the community before they even leave Juvenile Hall. Sounds reasonable. But in LA? “We’re not doing that here yet,” he said. If he has his way, we will.
He acknowledged that DMC (Disproportionate Minority Contact) remains a problem, but Probation alone can’t resolve the disparate treatment accorded to youth of color. There are other “decision points. We don’t control who law enforcement brings. Or that some kids get released to their parents at the police station and others get taken to juvenile hall,” but he pledged cultural sensitivity on the part of his department and that a kid who has committed a minor offense won’t be locked up for giving attitude to the officer and that all mitigating factors will be considered.
“Locking kids up doesn’t change behavior. If you don’t provide treatment, it doesn’t work.” What he believes does work is cognitive-based therapy and evidence-based practices that have shown results rather than once-touted ideas such as boot camp that became popular with law enforcement and the public while having the wrong effects. “Boot camp stresses physical fitness and the military culture,” he explained, training that meshes perfectly with gang culture. Kids left boot camp well equipped to lead a gang.
A young member of the Youth Justice Coalition asked if the Chief would support State Senator Leland Yee‘s bill, SB 399, which would give a small number of prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles at least a chance at eventual release. “I’m a father, so I have mixed feelings,” Blevins admitted, saying he understood why a parent would want to lock away for good anyone who hurt his child. But he said he also understood that when you make a mistake at fifteen, you might be very different at 35. He concluded he is now leaning towards supporting the bill.
Another YJC member asked if the chief would support their 1% campaign to divert that much of the county’s criminal justice funding to intervention and youth development programs. Alone among criminal justice professionals I’ve heard answer that question so far, Blevins said, “That sounds like a good idea.” Still, he feared with his $36.8 million budget “how we fund it is a bit of a challenge.” But he added, “We have some grants,” and he agreed, “If you have a good strong prevention network keeping kids out of the probation system, that’s a good model.” He admitted when it comes to prevention there’s currently a gap and that should be remedied.
My own concern was even if he does the miraculous and turns LA County Probation into a model department, that won’t help the kids in Juvenile Hall who are never going home given that the D.A. files cases involving juveniles directly into adult court and seeks extreme sentences: 25-to-life, 35-to-life, 80-to-life even in cases in which no one is hurt or in which no one is killed.
I asked if he’d had any meetings with the District Attorney’s Office to share his own philosophy. “I’m willing to have this conversation with the District Attorney,” Blevins said but his further answer cast the problem in a whole new light. “The D.A.s have lost faith in the juvenile justice system.”
Given the problems in the Probation Department, that made sense. Can we be surprised that prosecutors want to send kids to adult prison if the alternative is a few years in a youth facility with inadequate education, no job training, no therapy, and possible abuse followed by release? Blevins thinks the D.A.’s practices may change “if I can build the faith that if a kid is in our system he’ll be handled appropriately.”He did add, “But in those really egregious cases I think we all agree that the kid has to be sent away for a while.”
OK, I guess, though people may not agree on whether “a while” should mean a life sentence. Or what constitutes “egregious.” (I just learned of a boy from Sacramento who was sent to Juvie for stealing hubcaps. Someone thought that was egregious: the kid just turned 18 and was transferred to adult prison to serve a 5-year sentence for his crime.)
There was also disagreement as to whether the Department of Justice should intervene. Connie Rice and many community members say yes. Blevins objects that DOJ already looked into the abuses in the juvenile camps and nothing there changed. Now he believes he can turn things around faster and more efficiently. “By the time the federal government gets here and figures out what needs to be done, we’ll be well down the road.”
I think he means it. And another glutton for punishment, the Interim Chief Cal Remington (who I wrote about on March 19) will stay on to help for the next several months. So, we’ll see.
What I can’t get out of my head is the story Connie Rice told at the start of the meeting about a boy in a juvenile camp who, while in county custody, was jumped in by a neighborhood gang. When he got out, no one warned his parents. No one checked on him. “We let this kid leave camp and the gang greets him. That was his re-entry.” The gang wanted him to complete his initiation. He refused. They asked again. He said no. After he said no the third time, they sent him a message, “putting a bullet in his baby brother’s head.”
In the meantime, Donald Blevins has a mountain to move.
“Let me throw the first stones at my own glass house,” Rice said Monday night, arguing that we have all of us failed the kids. “We have high school diplomas awarded to kids who can’t read. We need real rehabilitation. Real education. We have got to make these kids our kids.”
“Hold me accountable,” said the Chief.
I just learned that the Amnesty International Book Club at Vromans has chosen The Blessing Next to the Wound as their November selection. I hope we'll get to meet with the group in November before Hector leaves for the annual vigil at the gates of Ft. Benning.
Long hot drive north through the Central Valley. At least visiting was allowed this weekend. It was canceled the last weekend in June so the Department wouldn't have to pay guards to screen the visitors.
Duc Ta has been sent back to Corcoran, to a Level 2 unit -- which means he's no longer considered dangerous, he's at a much lower security level. That should be good, but it also means that instead of being in a two-man cell, he's now in a bunk bed on a pod with dozens of guys, in a unit where there's no education, no vocational training, no prison jobs, just men talking, shouting, playing radios, the TV on full volume in the dayroom. Duc says it's as loud as Wall Street. He puts on his head phones to screen out the noise and reads. The problem there is he is only allowed three books a month. Not knowing this, I ordered two books for him last month, including my most recent, The Blessing Next to the Wound, because there's a chapter about him. Of course I couldn't send him an autographed copy directly. It had to go through an authorized vendor, i.e., Amazon. The Post Office confirmed delivery on June 21. Duc still doesn't have the books. Maybe because he already had three in June and they haven't decided to release his July quota yet, or maybe because the books have to be inspected by a corrections officer and due to budget cuts, no one is usually available these days to do the inspection.
We were allowed to have a photo taken together. The Visiting Room has a backdrop you're required to stand in front of. It's against the rules to touch. If you make the wrong move, your visit is terminated. We asked permission to goof around with the backdrop and our request was granted.
If you wish to write to Duc Ta, his current address is: Duc Ta #T05420
PO Box 5248, B3-217 Low
Corcoran, CA 93212
Here's hoping his next address will be in the free world.
Catching Days is a multifaceted literary blog by a multifaceted writer and person, Cynthia Newberry Martin. Every month, she asks a writer to post a guest essay on How We Spend Our Days, and I was asked to offer up a day in July. In case you're interested in my day at Peace Camp, check out Cynthia's blog when the July day is posted on August 1.
Saw it last night: A disturbing bloodbath of a comedy about terrorism, torture, love of county and love of cats--the last of which I wholeheartedly endorse along with this stunning work of theatre. I'm not sure it would be possible to laugh if this play were set in Afghanistan or Iraq or New York. Why is it we can watch the carnage in an Irish village and laugh (OK--with some shame) at the exaggerations while recognizing the truths? The Irish lived through this violence and yet are able to take in the dark absurd reality of it all. Hoping the ceasefire holds over there.
Author, Playwright, Troublemaker