Preparing New Group Homes for Young Lawbreakers

The Bloomberg administration is swiftly moving on its plans to establish several new group homes that will house New Yorkers aged 15 and under who have been sentenced for crimes. The city has chosen 11 nonprofit providers to operate the nonsecure, residential centers, which will open as early as September. This leaves the organizations just a few summer months to get the facilities up and running.

The new residences will each house from 4 to 24 young people, making room for more than 300 juvenile delinquents to serve their time in the city instead of in juvenile facilities upstate. One of organizations' first challenges has been finding affordable, spacious sites in the city. Some are converting properties they already own or lease, while others will rent new sites. Former convents and homes that once housed priests are proving especially popular. These buildings are too big to use for private homes and the diocese can keep them off the tax rolls by leasing them to nonprofits.

The new residences will be overseen by the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), and are expected to provide not only supervision but also counseling and social services. Despite the nonsecure, label, these city residences will in fact be locked and fully staffed, though not ringed with barbed wire like the upstate lockups they will replace.

Officials say that keeping teen offenders close to their families, communities, and lawyers, and in city-run education programs, should help smooth their transitions home and reduce the likelihood that they will commit new crimes. "This is as significant a shift as I have seen in my thirty years in the business, and a most welcome one," says Bill Baccaglini, executive director of New York Foundling, which will be running one of the new facilities.

The nonsecure residences are part of the city's Close to Home, initiative, which transfers responsibility for all but the most severe of the city's young lawbreakers from the state to the city. Though most of the new sites will open in the five boroughs, a few specialized residential programs for young people with specific issues, like fire starters or girls who have been exploited as prostitutes, will be located on residential campuses in Westchester and Long Island. ACS expects some of these specialized programs to move into the city within two years.

All of the new sites must meet certain state and city requirements, like having high quality video surveillance in common areas and windows that activate alarms when opened too far. "We want the facility to be appropriate and friendly to the young people so it feels as homelike as possible, and yet it has also to be a facility we can watch and monitor appropriately for the safety of the young people in the facility, but also for the community," says Alan Mucatel, executive director of Leake & Watts.

Leake & Watts will open a 12-bed home in the Bronx in a building that used to be a group home for mothers in foster care and their children. When renovating the site, the agency is getting rid of nooks where young people can hide from view and "that can lead to something unsafe and inappropriate," says Mucatel. Instead, the house will have large, open common spaces and bedrooms all on one floor.

All of the providers have experience working with young people who have committed crimes, most commonly as an offshoot of residential foster care programs, or as an operator of detention centers for young people awaiting trial. Most say they aim to strike a balance between keeping young delinquents and their new neighbors safe while also creating comfortable, welcoming environments that resemble family life. They plan to have a high ratio of staff to young people and will encourage parents and other family members to visit regularly. Most also plan to give the young people increasing degrees of autonomy as they win staff members' trust, including chances to make excursions outside the facilities without a chaperone. "As soon as it is deemed safe and appropriate, the child will be going on home visits," says Elizabeth McCarthy, executive director of Episcopal Social Services of New York.

Young people will live in the new facilities an average of seven months, and attend one of two schools that are hurriedly being created by the Department of Education. Under the current plan, many will return to their former public schools as they get close to returning home, in order to help make the transition less abrupt.

Over the next few months, ACS will train staff for the facilities in crisis management. This includes de-escalating volatile situations by talking with and calming young people, while avoiding the restraints and excessive force that a 2009 Federal Justice Investigation found routine at juvenile justice facilities upstate.

The administration has also asked the facilities to choose therapeutic evidence based, models that have been shown to have positive results. Most of the providers plan to adopt elements of the Missouri Model, a reform effort that began in Missouri but has been attributed to reducing recidivism rates among juvenile delinquents in other states as well. The model emphasizes rehabilitation and uses small groups, minimal force, and strong relationships between staff and young people, where staff are seen as supportive rather than custodial.

The organizations have only until the fall to put everything in place. "There's a tight timeframe here," says Mucatel. "There's all the anxiety that comes along with doing any new program. You want to do it right. You want to hire engaged and ambitious staff. And we are bringing on a model that is new to us, the Missouri Model, and I'm sure there will be some adjustment to us culturally to make that who we are."

Most of the providers say they are not yet clear on how or whether they need to inform communities about the new facilities. Several did not want to reveal the addresses of the new homes for fear that it might spur local resistance. But Mucatel of Leake & Watts says it is critical to find ways to work with neighbors and link the young people and their families to local supports right away. "The success of these programs is going to count on community engagement and family engagement. That's the whole point. That's what will give these young people a sense of feeling rooted in their neighborhoods, and propel them to making choices that will keep them out of the criminal and juvenile justice system," he says.

Boys Town, an organization with long experience in juvenile justice, already runs two homes in the city for teens convicted of crimes. One is a small group home in a brownstone on a tree-lined street of Park Slope. A married couple, Kenneth and Sarai Ortiz, run the house, which they share with six young men.

One of them, Omar (not his real name), is skinny and soft-spoken with brown hair and braces. He has also spent time in an upstate lockup where the boys had two big dorm rooms with beds lined up prison-style, he says, and everyone had to shower together, something he particularly hated. He says he often felt isolated, and scared for his safety. Upstate, Omar says, it felt like both the staff and the young people were just doing time.

But in the Park Slope group home, he says, "We're like brothers. We work together and do chores. I consider them family." After looking carefully around the living room at his surrogate brothers sitting on a couch, he breaks into a grin, adding, "Most of the time."