Ohio Reinvents Community Youth Corrections: Youth Advocates: Mentors in the ’Hood

Bill Howard
November 1, 1996

Part of Tom Jeffers' life as a youth worker has just come full circle — after 21 years.

In 1975, he was deputy commissioner to Jerry Miller when Miller as head of Pennsylvania's State Office of Children and Families persuaded the courts and the governor, Richard Thornburgh, to remove youthful offenders from the notorious Camp Hill adult prison. Suddenly that November, 400 penned-up kids were about to be released. How was the state going to get them back with their families?

A few years earlier when Miller had become famous nationally for closing all of Massachusetts' training schools and placing only youth regarded as dangerous in secure detention there had been a similar problem. Jeffers was working for Miller then, too and he says they had solved it by hiring college students to act as advocates to help the freed juvenile inmates readjust to their communities.

Why not apply the same kind of aid to the Camp Hill kids? So Jeffers, who by the release date had changed to consultant status, quit working for Miller and went into business for himself, creating the Pennsylvania Youth Advocate Program, Inc., and contracting with the state to serve the freed youth with trained advocates working on an hourly basis to reintegrate them with their communities and families. The program clicked. "But starting it up was kind of a fluke," he said.

Miller moved on to found the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives to pursue is campaign for advancing community-based corrections for youth and adult felons.

Over the years, Jeffers' nonprofit parent firm, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP) headquartered in Harrisburg, Pa., has flourished. It has more than 130 employees. They supervise hundreds of advocates working at any one time with more than 1,500 troubled youth through a total of 45 county child welfare and mental health agencies and juvenile courts in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Closing the Circle

Just a few months ago Jeffers acquired a new client — the District of Columbia's Department of Human Resources, whose child welfare programs are now being run under court order by none other than his old boss, Jerry Miller.

The task: Miller is saying Jeffers to retrieve more than 100 District youth in institutional and other types of costly care outside of the city and reunite them with their families. In just a few weeks, Jeffers said, his youth workers had already managed to bring the first five teens back home. “Their cases have been closed."

"Strength-based" and "wraparound services" are YAP's watchwords in de-institutionalizing children. The agency trains its part- and full-time advocates to work from whatever strengths a youth or family may have, and then marshal, community services needed to help solve their difficulties.

"For example, say a youth in eighth grade only reads at the fourth grade level," explains YAP vice president George Dermody. "His advocate might have him read to first and second graders to build up his self-confidence — and improve his own reading ability.

"Or if a kid is good at working with his hands — and perhaps has been caught stealing bikes — his advocate might arrange for him to do community service at a bike shop. Some who do go on to become regular employees."

YAP hires as advocates working men and women who live in the same communities as their clients; they even may be related to the family. As part of the hiring process, potential advocates are assessed as to interests that may help match them up with a youth. Their backgrounds also are screened, Dennody said, and if hired, they undergo extensive training in developing strength-based techniques as well as how to become a partner with the youth's parents, much like Big Brothers/Big Sisters but on a daily basis.

The training involves ways of pulling together family members and friends as a support system for a youth. The advocate also must learn how to bring the community service system behind a teen. "Like getting a kid who was kicked out of the Y welcomed back in," he said.

"Also, we ask the mother to tell us what her son or daughter is good at — and where they need help. It's all very basic stuff in how to diagnose a problem and work on a solution."

Sparing Kids & Taxpayers

YAP will take on any case no matter how difficult and this could affect its success rate. For Ohio's Summit County Juvenile Court the firm's advocates working 7.5 to 30 hours a week with individual youth adjudicated as felons have helped keep 85 percent of them arrest-free. Outcomes for 559 youth in a 1994-95 Philadelphia program, Jeffers said, were even better — 97.3 percent remaining arrest free.

For New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services, Jeffers said, since 1989 YAP's advocates have reduced out-of-home placements of youth, many of them in other states, from 770 to fewer than 100. Placements at a state psychiatric treatment center for children also have been cut "dramatically."

Orange County (Goshen) N.Y., he said, saved some $800,000 from June 1995 to July 1996 by both the removal of children from residential care with the help of youth advocates and in preventing additional placements.

Jeffers was asked if he was aiming to put Maryland-based Youth Services International's multi-state congregate care facilities and those of similar for-profit outfits out of business. "Yes, we are," he replied. "The best institutions are benign."

Howard, Bill. "Ohio Reinvents Community Youth Corrections: Youth Advocates: Mentors in the ’Hood."Youth Today, November/December 1996, p. 41.

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