The Art of Interrupting Deadly Youth Violence

SOS Outreach Workers (from left) David Bookhart, Derick Scott, Achisimach “Chis” Yisrael and Lavon Walker cruise the streets of Crown Heights looking to strike up a conversation. Being both positive influencers in the community and credible messengers with similar pasts are key to helping shape the neighborhood’s future.
SOS Outreach Workers (from left) Derick Scott, Achisimach “Chis” Yisrael, David Bookhart and Lavon Walker cruise the streets of Crown Heights looking to strike up a conversation. Being both positive influencers in the community and credible messengers with similar pasts are key to helping shape the neighborhood’s future.

NEW YORK — “I want these gang members to know it ain’t the only way,” Rico, a 27-year-old standing in the doorway of a dusty bodega on Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn, said. A long-time member of the notorious Blood street gang, Rico said it had been months since he picked up a gun – a change in lifestyle he attributed largely to the positive influence of a handful of guys from the neighborhood.

This story is part of a series of articles exploring Community-Based Alternatives. Read more from the series here:
This story is part of a series of articles exploring Community-Based Alternatives. Read more from the series here.

Outside the Albany Homes housing projects a few blocks down, a 20-something-year-old who refused to give his name, had a similar story.

“I thought for this man the other day. I had a thing for him [wanted to hurt him], but I stopped myself,” he said.

It’s small victories like these the outreach workers of Save Our Streets (SOS) Crown Heights work toward everyday, dedicating their time to act as role models and mentors in an attempt to tamper the spread of gun violence within a 40-block area of central Brooklyn. A walk down the street can be a testament to the work done by Lavon Walker, David Bookhart, Achisimach “Chis” Yisrael and Derick Scott each afternoon as they comb the community, and a reminder of the high stakes at play.

A makeshift memorial for “Drizzy,” an 18-year-old who was the latest victim of gun violence at our visit, sits on a Crown Heights street corner across from a small bodega in Brooklyn.
A makeshift memorial for “Drizzy,” an 18-year-old who was the latest victim of gun violence at our visit, sits on a Crown Heights street corner across from a small bodega in Brooklyn.

Around the corner from Albany Homes, leaning against a light pole, is a makeshift memorial for Drizzy, who barely a month before, at age 18, became the most recent local casualty of gun violence. A few empty bottles and scrawls of “RIP” on water-logged pieces of cardboard were all that some of his friends had to remember him by.

Like many urban neighborhoods, parts of Crown Heights suffer from the image, and sometimes the reality, of high violent crime rates. SOS, however, aims to change the image and the reality of life in the neighborhood with a unique approach. They treat gun violence like a disease.

It’s a method known as the CeaseFire model, sculpted after an evidence-based initiative in Chicago that had shown results over the past decade. [Editor’s note: After JJIE reported this story, Ceasefire Chicago changed its name to CureViolence.] The approach confronts the problem head-on, working to establish a culture that speaks out against violence through an emphasis on community interaction, conflict mediation and other tactics in a troubled neighborhood with high levels of violence.

“The Chicago CeaseFire model is a public health approach,” Amy Ellenbogen, director of the Crown Heights Mediation Center, said. “If you can get to the people spreading the gun violence – keeping with the analogy that gun violence is like a disease – then you’re going to have a positive impact.”

It’s a program that showed enough promise in Chicago to be replicated in more than a half-dozen inner-city neighborhoods around the country, in places like Oakland, Boston, Phoenix, New Orleans and, most recently, Richmond, Va.

In Boston, a group of Harvard researchers paid close attention after the city decided to re-launch its CeaseFire program following a rash of gang shootings in the mid-2000’s. An earlier rendition of the program had shown strong, but not well documented, results. Among the 19 targeted gangs, between 2006 and 2010, shootings dropped at nearly three times the rate of gangs not in the program – meaning Operation Ceasefire participants were less likely to shoot and be shot at. [Editor’s note: The Boston Ceasefire program was, in fact, a different model that shared the same name as the program in Crown Heights.]

The killing hasn’t stopped in any of the troubled city neighborhoods focused on by the independent nonprofits, but in many cases the number of shootings and number of people who have been shot at have dropped over the years.

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Still, other places have struggled to achieve the same results. A similar program in New Orleans’ crime-ridden Central City neighborhood actually saw an increase in violence since launching in mid-2012. But officials remain steadfast that the program can work in New Orleans just as it did in other parts of the country – given enough time.

Overall, the Crown Heights program has helped lower the number of shooting incidents in the neighborhood, but has struggled to keep the downward pace over the past year. However, its success has been enough to rally financial support for a sister program in the South Bronx. There, city officials hope to see a similar decline in the months and years ahead.

Out of That History

SOS Outreach Workers David Bookhart and Lavon Walker cruise the streets of Crown Heights looking to strike up a conversation. Being both positive influencers in the community and credible messengers with similar pasts are key to helping shape the neighborhood’s future.
SOS Outreach Workers Derick Scott and Lavon Walker cruise the streets of Crown Heights looking to strike up a conversation. Being both positive influencers in the community and credible messengers with similar pasts are key to helping shape the neighborhood’s future.

The Crown Heights neighborhood has grabbed a few headlines over the years. Some of the most impactful followed unsavory moments in the community’s history: a three-day riot in 1991 divided along racial and religious lines, and a police corruption scandal that left the 77th Precinct, which covers the area, in shambles back in the 1980s.

But those incidents were decades ago, a time one New York Times writer called “a different era in New York.” Today, Crown Heights is still a bustling neighborhood of storefronts, five-plus-story apartment homes, synagogues, churches, parks, bodegas, schoolhouses and neighbors.

Although the tensions that led to the unrest in 1991 have cooled, the demographic and social make-up of the neighborhood hasn’t changed much in the past two decades. It still boasts large African American and Hasidic Jewish communities, and still has a large number of children growing up below the poverty line – more than 30 percent of 7- to 21-year-olds according to data from the Center for the Study of Brooklyn at the City University of New York.

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Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, instances of violence declined in Crown Heights and New York as a whole, according to police data. It was an encouraging trend for a neighborhood that has long struggled with the noxious cocktail of extreme poverty, street gangs and easy access to firearms, but by 2007, violent crime began to tick up again.

With a rising number of incidents, members at a local nonprofit already dedicated to helping the community with issues like pregnancy and truancy prevention, community-based mediation for disputes and limited efforts to reduce gun violence – among other things – saw the need to do more.

In 2009, a chunk of federal stimulus money allowed the nonprofit to expand its community outreach work and focus on reducing gun violence, specifically. The gift allowed New York’s Center for Court Innovation and Crown Heights’ Mediation Center to bankroll the Save Our Streets program and hire nine full-time staffers to work out of its small storefront on Kingston Avenue. Today, the program continues to be funded by a mix of federal, state and nonprofit contributions.

SOSAd3Since hitting the streets in early 2010, SOS has helped reduce the number of shooting incidents in its 40-block catchment area, the section of the community it concentrates its efforts on. The number of victims dropped at an even greater rate, although 2012 saw an end to the downward trend seen the first two years of the program. That year still saw 24 fewer shooting victims than in 2010, with the number of victims falling from 73 to 49.

In the Streets and Withstanding the Heat

Taking a public safety approach offers a systematic framework for groups like SOS to identify and, hopefully, head off the spread of violence before it occurs, and limit the impact when it does. Like the Chicago model, SOS singles out the highest-risk individuals – those most likely to be shot or shot at – through the out-in-the-streets, hands-on work of the outreach workers.

When violence breaks out SOS dispatches interrupters to the scene, a group of community members who jump into the action in an attempt to calm high-tension conflicts and “beefs.” If the violence interrupters were firefighters, Project Director Ellenbogen said, “they’d be the ones jumping out the planes to put the fire out.”

“The best mediators are able to get into the heat of anger that’s involved in a dispute and they’re able to sit in the fire with the disputants without being consumed by it,” SOS Program Manager Allen James said. “Well this is a hotter fire than the average [situation].”

SOS Project Director Amy Ellenbogen sifts through statistics of shooting incidents within the group’s 40-block catchment area. 2012 saw a slight uptick in violence following two years of decline, but the overall number of shooting are down since the program launched in 2010.
Crown Heights Mediation Center Director Amy Ellenbogen sifts through statistics of shooting incidents within the group’s 40-block catchment area. 2012 saw a slight uptick in violence following two years of decline, but the overall number of shooting are down since the program launched in 2010.

“I think that’s really why CeaseFire works,” he said. “Because you employ a bunch of people that are similar to local community health workers who get in there and they can stay in the fire longer than an outsider could, or someone uninitiated to that life.”

Those are direct interventions, but SOS also works with local businesses, community leaders and religious organizations to spread its message of nonviolence. For some, shootings have become just another fact of life in Crown Heights – but SOS workers want them to know it doesn’t have to be that way.

It starts with outreach workers working to identify which people in the community are most likely to end up on either end of a gun.

They look at a number of factors to determine each individual’s risk level: Do they carry a weapon? Do they know somebody that has been shot in the past 90 days? Are they involved in a street organization or gang? Do they have a history of violence? Recently released from prison? Fall between the ages of 16 and 25?

JJIE Resource HubIf the person meets four or more of the qualifiers, they’ll likely be added to one of the outreach worker’s caseloads. Kids under 16 may be encouraged to get involved with Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets (YOSOS), a program specifically tailored to have an impact on and educate younger demographics.

After identifying some of the most at-risk individuals, outreach workers do their best to work with those men and women on an ongoing basis and change their outlook on violence.

“One of the biggest challenges is overcoming the years and years and years of confirmation that nothing can change,” Achisimach “Chis” Yisrael, a former SOS Outreach Worker, said, seated behind the large conference table in the Mediation Center. “It’s a hell of a thing when you’ve got to go and step in front of individuals that were born, constantly reminded, with the belief that this is as good as it gets.”

“As far as the community, it’s almost the same challenge,” he said. “This is a community [that], although [they] don’t engage in those [violent] activities, watch these individuals that do and think there’s no changing them.”

The Mediation Center, where SOS is housed, still offers a number of services besides violence prevention that community members have come to rely on over the years. If a person is persuaded to take a different tack in life, or is recovering from a shooting, for example, they still often need help on a path to a safer and more stable future. The Mediation Center refers people to services which provide job training, educational support and teach basic social skills, many of which spill over into the work of SOS and help lay a foundation for more positive outcomes for some at-risk individuals working to overcome their challenges.

Rico, 27-year-old member of the notorious Blood street gang, greets Save Our Streets outreach workers as they walk down Kingston Ave. in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York. Rico would only give his street name, but credits the work of Achisimach “Chis” Yisrael (left), Derick Scott, and others for helping him find a life beyond the gang.
Rico, 27-year-old member of the notorious Blood street gang, greets Save Our Streets outreach workers as they walk down Kingston Ave. in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York. Rico would only give his street name, but credits the work of Achisimach “Chis” Yisrael (left), Derick Scott, and others for helping him find a life beyond the gang.

It’s an aspect of the program Rico, the long-time Blood gang member, said helped him to find a different way of living and earning money. “These brothas right here, they’re the truth,” he said. “Everything they do is realistic. They don’t just drop you into a job, they help you get a job.”

And through continuous support, that’s the kind of outlook SOS hopes to instill. The immediate goal is to temper tempers and reel in hostile disputes before they get out of hand, but the ultimate goal is a change in the way these individuals view and interact with the world.

“A lot of people have experienced failures from other programs in the past,” outreach supervisor Lavon Walker said. “So it’s up to us to really put it out there that we’re a different program and we are going to be successful – and it’s been proven to be successful.”

He continued: “The evidence has spoken for itself with the mindsets that we changed, the shootings that we were able to stop and the mediations we were able to accomplish. And that’s what we use to, also, try and get other people to buy in to what our movement is, to what our message is.”

The Credible Messenger

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Part of the outreach workers’ success comes from their other title, that of a “credible messenger.” All of the guys grew up in the community, have similar backgrounds to a lot of the high-risk young people they work with, and have been forced to face many of the tough decisions the highest-risk individuals face every day.

Similar backgrounds could mean having spent time in jail or prison, running with a street gang in their younger years or just growing up in tune with the street culture that dominates the community’s social sphere. These factors and others help add credibility to the advice they give and the work they do, going a long way to build trust and rapport. These aren’t well-to-do outsiders telling poor people how to live their lives, but rather people from the community others could, potentially, relate to.

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“They say man sharpens man, and steel sharpens steel,” outreach worker Derick Scott said. “It’s about time you have a bunch of guys that care about individuals in the street, that have a passion, because real recognize real.”

Scott has done volunteer work in some capacity or another since high school, he said, but “at the same time I was still doing dirt in the streets. I was one leg on the fence, one leg in the dirt.”

Eventually landing in prison, he said his “eureka” moment came the first time he walked into the prison cafeteria. That’s when he started to change, ultimately shifting his focus in life to helping others do the same.

“That was my rock bottom, so to speak – looking around that mess hall,” he said. “I went back to my cell, and I started to … I broke down.”

“I would teach the young guys that just because you’re in one prison doesn’t mean you have to be in another prison. This is a physical prison,” he said. “Most of us were more locked up on the outside, because we continued to do the same things over and over and over again, but expected different results.”

“So my place for change and changing the mindsets [of others], started in prison, and I brought it back out here,” he said, hoping he can keep others from following in his footsteps.

A Month Since Drizzy

A whiteboard in the SOS office keeping track of the number of days since the last gun violence.
A whiteboard in the SOS office keeping count of the number of days since the last shooting in their catchment.

Still, the outreach workers are quick to say they couldn’t do the work alone. They are just one of the components in a system working to change the cultural norm and ways a part of society perceives violence in its lives. Partnerships with local businesses, religious outfits and community organizations are key.

Clergy leaders regularly incorporate messages of anti-violence into their sermons and, at times, work as a liaison between SOS and community – especially when particularly heart-wrenching incidents occur. Dozens of businesses around the area sport SOS signs in their windows, counting the days since the last shooting incident.

At the time of our visit, it had been 34 days since Drizzy was shot and killed – the most recent victim. That’s not a bad record, considering the neighborhood’s history. Still, it won’t stop neighbors, community leaders and the dedicated workers trying to Save Our Streets from striving for more. Tomorrow they will wipe off the dry erase board and write “35” – and count toward a brighter and safer future.

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Book Review: ‘Born, Not Raised’ by Susan Madden Lankford

The most engaging elements came from the kids themselves.

Scrawled on the bottom of handouts, the backs of postcards or between the lines of wrinkled notebook paper, the writings from the kids in a San Diego-area juvenile hall provide a window into much more than just their mind and soul.

“I Really don’t Remember my childhood because I’ve tried so hard to block it out,” Brown, a 16-year-old girl inmate, wrote as part of an assignment “Born, Not Raised” author Susan Madden Lankford handed out. “The earliest memory I have is at the age of 11 when I was malested by my grandfather.”

Some wrote elegantly, poetically even, with a form that can only come from practice and attention in literature class – or perhaps just attending class at all. Others struggled to string together coherent sentences, or express their ideas and feelings in terms that could be understood. More often than not, the writings were dotted with misspellings and poorly executed penmanship.

Even from the one line, fill-in-the-blank answers that seemed common response on the author’s worksheets, the reader is offered a peek into a world seldom visited by those not forced to live it.

Worksheet question #8: If you have one wish to change something in your life, what would it be?

Joseph Minton, 16: “my mom and dad’s drug uses.”

For these kids, it was (and is) reality. Some never had a parent to teach them to read and write, or time to perfect their skills. Some were happier to find a bed in juvenile hall than return to their turbulent home lives. Others couldn’t wait to hit the streets again, with no plans to change the habits that landed them in the clink in the first place. Of course, each story is unique and impossible to sum up in a nicely worded paragraph, or even an entire book, but as you travel through the oversized pages of “Born, Not Raised,” an unmistakable pattern begins to emerge.

Spanning the course of two years, photojournalist and author Susan Madden Lankford paid weekly visits to the juvenile delinquents of San Diego, with her college-aged daughter in tow. She discovered that these kids, the juvenile delinquents, were much more than the label implied. They were ordinary people, not unlike teens across the nation, struggling with and searching for many of the same things as their peers.

The book is amazingly insightful about the lives, minds and challenges faced by many young people on the brink of criminal enterprise. But it isn’t a work of photojournalism or engaging literature, as one might hope.

Lankford, an award-winning photographer and photojournalist, starts by detailing the many hurdles and meetings it took to gain access to the other side of the metal doors at the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility in suburban San Diego.  She pulled it off, obviously, but early on you’re disappointed to learn that bringing the camera along was out of the question. So, we rely on the kids to paint a picture of their own realities.

Focusing predominantly on female inmates, the book chronicles the life of a small group of young offenders as they make their way in and out of state custody – leaving the narrative at the detention door. Lankford is searching for the reason, searching for the connection between life events, development and what led these kids to varying degrees of disruptive and destructive existences – often a tale of broken families, drugs, violence and ultimately, incarceration.

She largely drives the story through the guidance and professional insight of child-adolescent psychiatrist Diane Campbell. Throughout the book, Lankford offers short reprieves from the tireless Q&A-style transcriptions of interviews with the kids, Campbell and other professionals with brief paragraphs and introductions designed to move the narrative forward – forcefully at times.

Billed as a work of photojournalism and anthropology, the book is stuck somewhere between academic research and raw dialogue. The size of the sampling and the resulting work does indeed provide strong insight into the inner workings of troubled teenage minds, but can hardly be classified as anything more than a slice of the big picture.

Lankford, with Campbell’s supporting expertise, makes a strong correlation between early childhood development and teenage delinquency, pushing solid parenting as the best deterrent to criminal activity. But the flow becomes stilted as the author tries to transition from one Q&A session to the next, doing her best to stick in interesting details and set the scene with little more than a few paragraphs at a time.

Ultimately, you get the feeling you’re being led from one room to the next, hearing only the dialogue and exchanges that further the child development argument. At times the connection between the teens being interviewed and the broader insight Campbell dishes out is terrifyingly poignant, but by over-directing the conversation Lankford manages to oversimplify and cast doubts on her own argument. Often the interviews with officials in the juvenile justice system seem disconnected from the expert opinion and overall arc of the story. At the least, other factors that contribute to disruptive juvenile behavior are given much less weight by the author than early childhood development, while they seem to matter more – much more at times – to the staffers working with the kids.

By the end, each chapter had turned into a struggle, with more insight coming from the teen’s work than the writing itself. Parenting, especially in the early years, definitely plays a major role in childhood and life development. What you see from the kids, however, is not the gearing of hardened criminals – although some are in the making – but a yearning for stability, family and above all else, love.

For all the dull moments, “Born, Not Raised” is worth the read for anybody directly dealing with at-risk or troubled youth, or simply looking for an avenue into the peculiarities of the teenage psyche. Yes, times may change, but the foundation of what it means to be human remains unshaken.

“Take care of your kids cause it sucks when on one cares,” 15-year-old inmate, Yale, wrote.

Pell Grant Cuts Begin in Summer School

Financial Aid office, Kennesaw State University. Photo: Clay Duda/JJIE

It might make for a more leisurely summer, but Kennesaw State University student Steven Welch didn’t dump college courses to have more free time. He did it because he couldn’t afford the cost.

Welch, 24, had to make the move because he no longer qualified for a Pell Grant to cover the cost of summer tuition.

Restrictions on the grant program, long used to help low-income and some middle-class students stem the cost of higher education, were enacted by Congress last year — but students are feeling the impact for the first time this summer as the changes are implemented across the country.

Before this summer, students could use more than the allotted $5,550 per year to help cover the cost of tuition and other school related expenses. Now, however, Congress has mandated that a student may not exceed a total of $5,550 per academic year, among other updates to the program.

The changes for many students come at a particularly harsh time, when student debt is at record levels and the number of students eligible for Pell assistance based on financial need is on the rise.

“I’m only taking two summer classes instead of four, and I’m paying out of pocket,” Welch said.

“Having the Pell Grant has been good,” he said, noting that it saved him from having to take out additional student loans to finance his college career. “Not everyone can pay out-of-pocket or don’t have good enough credit to get student loans, so it helps those in need.”

Amended from previous financial aid legislation and established in 1972 as the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, the federally ran Pell Grant program has long offered assistance to students pursuing an undergraduate degree at public and private colleges across the United States without the obligation of repayment after graduation.

The percentage of college-aged students receiving the grant has increased in recent years, up to 35 percent during the 2010-2011 school year compared with 20 percent a decade earlier, according to Education Department reports.

Kennesaw State University sophomore Dennys Rosales, 19, checks with the Financial Aid Office to see if his summer tuition will still be covered by the Pell Grant.
Kennesaw State University sophomore Dennys Rosales, 19, (left) checks with the Financial Aid Office to see if his summer tuition will still be covered by the Pell Grant.

The program has also faced a number of challenges in the past few years. Operating costs have more than more than doubled since the start of the recession – from a little more than $16 billion during the 2008-2009 academic year, to about $36 billion in 2011 – due in large part to an influx of qualified, lower-income students.

The maximum yearly award has also grown under President Barack Obama from $4,731 to $5,550, yet the skyrocketing costs of tuition has left the largest gap ever between the price of attending college and the amount covered by the Pell Grant. For the 2010-2011 academic year, the Pell covered an average of 32 percent of tuition costs, compared to 72 percent of costs in 1976.

“Even with the grant program [students] are still left with a bill that’s more than half their costs at a public university,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of financial aid and scholarship resource sites and

Students receiving 100 percent of their yearly Pell allocation during the fall and spring semesters, but who still want to attend summer courses, will be forced to find another way to fund those classes, drop summer classes and stay in school longer, or ration Pell money awarded earlier in the year.

“The other options are basically student loans,” said Timothy Opgenorth, Director of Financial Aid at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Even in Illinois the state grants are only good for the fall and spring terms.”

Opgenorth expects to see at least some decline in student enrollment this summer due to the new Pell restrictions, he said.

“Obviously, being in financial aid, we want to see all students be able to go to school,” said Opgenorth, pointing out that about 50 percent of undergraduate students at UIC received some level of Pell funding in the past year. “The less financial aid funding available – whether that’s grants or that’s loans – makes it tough for low income families [to afford the costs of college].”

The changes also cut the maximum amount of Pell grant money students can receive in their lifetime by a third, and exclude undergraduate students who receive a bachelor’s degree prior to hitting their lifetime maximum.

The new lifetime award for Pell recipients has been capped at 12 semesters, or 600 percent of the annual maximum pay out, whichever comes first. The lifetime limit is down from 18 semesters, or 900 percent, during the 2011-12 academic year.

And the effects are retro active, impacting students who may have received any Pell funding since the program was started in the early 1970s. For an estimated 2 million students that means they no longer qualify for Pell Grant money this fall, regardless of when they received their first slice of funding from the program.

The Pell Grant has always been dedicated to helping finance undergraduate degrees, but in years past students had the option to apply for Pell funding if they returned post-graduation to pursue another undergraduate degree or to take additional classes – but not graduate school.

For some, like 23-year-old KSU student Careese Stephens, that change means staying in school longer.

Stephens, a psychology major and medical school hopeful, postponed her own graduation in an effort to hold onto financial aid while taking required pre-med classes that were not part of her major.

The Department of Education, which tracks the Pell Grant process and student eligibility, began sending e-mail notifications in April to students who no longer qualified or are nearing their lifetime maximum for the grant.

“It’s frustrating,” Stephens said. “I had everything planned out, and then I got that e-mail. It’s forcing me to look at options I otherwise wouldn’t need to.”


Budget Battle

Back on Capitol Hill, the battle over financial aid funding continues to warm as both sides push budget proposals for 2013, and grapple with a national deficit now equal to the nation’s economy (or 100 percent of GDP).

“Right now, the Pell Grant program is still facing a budget shortfall,” said Kantrowitz, publisher of “We’re in a situation where more money for one form of financial aid may mean less money for another form of financial aid.”

Under President Obama’s proposed budget, yearly Pell Grant awards would increase to $5,635 next year to mirror inflation, but a $7 billion projected shortfall for the program still lingers for 2014.

As an alternative, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed the so-called Ryan budget, a proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), calling for additional cuts to student financial aid and other spending in an effort to help reel in a federal deficit expanding faster than the economy.

In a budget hearing last month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Ryan’s budget would have a “devastating impact on higher education.”

“It would cut almost $3 billion from Pell aid to students in 2013, eliminating almost 400,000 recipients, and reducing the awards of 9.3 million others,” Duncan said at the meeting. “It would also hurt borrowers and students at a time when average student loan debt for a graduating senior is already more than $25,000.”

The Ryan plan calls for a freeze on maximum Pell awards at $5,550, a yet-to-be-determined family income cap and the exclusion on many part-time students taking just one or two courses each year. It would also have Pell funding come up for annual review, leaving some funding advocates worried the program could face another round of cuts in the near future.

Facebook App Puts Public Inside Foster Care System

“Trapped: Fighting the Odds of U.S. Foster Care”

Each year, more than half a million children come into contact with the foster care system in the United States. Of those, 80 percent suffer from severe emotional problems, according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Less than 50 percent receive their high school diploma, and far fewer go into any type of post-secondary education.

Those are some of the statistics, but what’s it’s like to walk in their shoes? What’s it like to face the tough challenges and choices these young men and women deal with on a daily basis?

A recently launched Facebook app aims to answer those questions by offering an interactive, social experience that should help raise awareness about the challenges and outcomes of the system.

Trapped: Fighting the Odds of U.S. Foster Care” allows users to track two fictitious brothers as they make their way through the child welfare system and mature into adulthood, both with extremely different outcomes.

Through the lives of “Jason” and “Jeff,” Children’s Rights, the New York-based non-profit that developed the application, hopes to broaden the public’s understanding of what goes on in a system largely shielded by confidentiality concerns.

“We occasionally read in the press about tragic child deaths or other problems in the child welfare system, but rarely are the public informed on the system-wide issues,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “’Trapped’ is our initiative to expand public awareness on the issues effecting kids in foster care, and it’s a very exciting concept.”

A typical foster kid is bounced between six to 10 homes, sometimes within a single year, before finding long-term placement, Lustbader said. For those that age out of the system and never find a permanent home – nearly 30,000 youth in 2009 – future outlooks are particularly dim.

“The prospects for kids who age out of the system are bleak,” Lustbader said. “Only 2.5 percent graduate a four-year college, as many as 31 percent spend time homeless and as many as 75 percent of boys spend time in jail.”

These facts are mirrored through the tale of “Jeff,” separated from his brother “Jason” shortly after entering the system.

“Jason” finds his way to a loving and supporting home, ultimately going on to college and landing a successful job. “Jeff,” on the other hand, is bounced between homes for years, eventually aging out of the system. Unable to find work and without any family or other support, he finds himself homeless and without a dime to his name.

The narrative is fictional, but it mirrors a swath of data about outcomes for some foster youth.

Standards and results vary by state. Between 2004-2008, more than half of the children in foster care lived in just nine states – California, Illinois, Florida, Indiana, New York., Michigan, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – according to a 2010 report by the Children’s Defense Fund.

At least 25 states failed to meet federal standards for protecting kids in the foster care system, according to FY 2010 data from the Department of Health and Human Services Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System.

“These are unacceptable outcomes from a system that uses tax-payer dollars,” Lustbader said. “The more people know about this, the more noise we make about these problems, [the more likely it is] we can hold the system accountable.”

Children’s Rights is a national advocacy group that has worked to bring change to struggling child welfare systems in more than a dozen states. The non-profit currently has class-action lawsuits active in three states related to the child welfare reform.

Louisiana ‘Strayed’ from Commitment to Juvenile Justice Reform, Report Contends

Louisiana juvenile justice Nearly a decade after Louisiana committed to sweeping changes to the state’s struggling juvenile justice system, some advocates contend the governor and leaders in the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice are “backsliding” on their commitments to reform.

Louisiana juvenile justiceAdvocates gathered on the steps of the state Capitol last week to unveil a report, “What’s Really Up Doc?: A Call for Reform of the Office of Juvenile Justice.” The 43-page document calls for the state’s recommitment to adopting a more therapeutic approach to juvenile justice based on the Missouri model as well as commitments to increase funding for community-based programs and replace some of OJJ’s top brass, among other goals.

“In 2003, the state of Louisiana recognized that juvenile justice reform produced better outcomes for its citizens, youth and families, and made a commitment to this path,” the report said. “A decade later, the state has unfortunately strayed from this commitment, with facility and OJJ practices that are contradictory to the goals of reform.”

The state adopted reform legislation in 2003, also known as Act 1225, on the heels of highly publicized violence within youth detention facilities and litigation with the Department of Justice that found conditions of confinement for some youth in the system unconstitutional. Modeled after Missouri’s system that places an emphasis on rehabilitation and community-based programs rather than detention for troubled youth, Louisiana’s program was dubbed LAMOD – or the Louisiana Model.

Since then, the number of juveniles in detention has been reduced by more than half, largely due to the diversion of non-violent offenders to community-based programs and increased funding for those programs. Yet, like most states, budget constraints in recent years have left a shortfall of funding for the OJJ.

Under the governor’s proposed budget, the department faces a $24.3 million reduction in funding for the next fiscal year, bringing its annual budget to just under $119 million to run a system serving about 5,000 kids annually.

In March, the OJJ’s plan to do away with a $4.3 million contract that provides community-based treatment and education for teen offenders came under the scrutiny of the state’s Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission (JJIC). The program, run by Florida-based non-profit AMIkids, is the only one in the state offering so-called day treatment programs that allow juveniles to live at home while attending programs during the day.

Deputy Secretary Mary Livers, who runs the OJJ, told New Orleans’ Times-Picayune in March that the agency no longer needed the program that boasts an 85 percent success rate for the roughly 900 kids it serves each year.

“I think Dr. Livers is well qualified and a good person who is doing the best she can in a tough budget situation,” said Frank Neuner, attorney and JJIC member who helps oversee the OJJ’s transition from a detention model to a more rehabilitative, community-based one.

The advocacy groups that prepared the report – the Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) – raised specific concerns about Livers’ performance while heading the department, citing her “minimal experience in juvenile rehabilitation.”

Any Most* stakeholder[s] in Louisiana will tell you that Dr. Livers needs to be fired for true reform to take place,” said Shaena Johnson, JJPL youth advocate. “You can’t implement reform without having reform-minded people to implement it.”

Among their top concerns, the report said Livers’ management style, along with her appointment of inexperienced personnel to top leadership positions specifically to manage the state’s three secure-care facilities for boys, has contributed to an increase of violence and unsafe conditions within the detention facilities.

“The biggest issue I think we’ve had is the staffing issue,” Neuner said. “What we need to do is up the qualifications and requirements to be a staff person in OJJ facilities, so we have people that that’s their vocation, to help youth.”

Unlike Missouri, Neuner said the majority of employees working in OJJ facilities hold a high school diploma or GED, and haven’t undergone specialized training in dealing with youth. He said it was “pennywise and tom-foolish” not to invest in adequate staffing.

“Each youth that we lose to life imprisonment costs the state over a million dollars in future incarceration costs,” he said. “So if we can save one person by spending a little more now on rehabilitation, we save money in the long run.”

According the report, the facility directors appointed by Livers “seem more like placeholders than long-term leaders” and contribute to both unsafe conditions and high turnover among staff.

“The high turnover rate for the director position in each of the secure-care facilities for boys is of significant concern, and can be potentially attributed to Dr. Livers’ inability to appoint directors that understand and can implement the therapeutic and rehabilitation model that LAMOD and the Missouri Model envision [sic],” the report continued, calling for Gov. Bobby Jindal to remove Livers’ from the position.

When the OJJ was established as a separate entity from the Department of Corrections in 2008, Gov. Jindal tapped Livers to head the new office.

“So it’s inherently his fault,” said Johnson, who co-authored the report. “She was basically appointed because she was in the right place at the right time.”

Livers joined the OJJ in 2007, then called the Office of Youth Development, as the Deputy Assistant Secretary and later moved up to Chief of Operations before taking the helm as Deputy Secretary in 2008.

Responses from the Governor’s Office and the OJJ were not available at the time of publication.

Photo via

*A quote in this article has been edited for increased clarity.

Juvenile Crime Rates Falling in New York

new york arrestsJuvenile crime rates in the state of New York, but excluding New York City, fell 17 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to new data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS).

Not including New York City, there were more than 2,000 fewer juvenile crimes committed in New York state in 2011 compared with the previous year, according to the annual report. The state saw 12,325 juvenile arrests in 2011, versus 14,864 in 2010.

Within New York City, formal juvenile arrests dropped three percent and felony arrests fell 11 percent compared with the previous year, according to crime rates from the New York [City] Police Department presented in the DCJS annual report.

Robbery was by far the most common type of serious offense, making up 77 percent of the state’s and 74 percent of New York City’s Juvenile Offender (JO) arrests – a special designation by the state covering the most serious juvenile offenders and crimes.

The number of juveniles held in state facilities decreased as well, down six percent in New York City and 10 percent throughout the rest of the state.

The new figures come at a time when the Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Close to Home” initiative is set to revamp the workings of parts of the state’s juvenile justice system. Passed as part of the state budget in March, the “Close to Home” initiative will move New York City youth being housed in detention facilities upstate into programs within the city’s limits in an effort to bring them closer to their families and communities.

By shear numbers, New York City accounts for roughly the same amount of juvenile crime as the rest of the state. The city had 12,371 arrests last year compared to the state’s 12,325. As a result of the shift to house inmates closer to home and within the city limits, some detention facilities up state may face closure as the number of local offenders decrease.

Read the DCJS annual report released earlier this month.

Photo via Vacacion.

‘Drop Out Factories’ Decline, Nation Pushes for Graduation Benchmark

Drop out factories.

Since coined by a Johns Hopkins researcher working on high school dropout issues in 2004, that’s the name given to schools that lead our nation in dropout rates, graduating less than 60 percent of their students each year.

Around the country, half of the more than 1 million students that fail to graduate high school each year come from just 12 percent of the nation’s schools, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.

President Barack Obama, retired General Colin Powell and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, among others, have taken notice.

Since 1980, dropout rates around the United States have decreased – and graduation rates are up – but nearly one in four public school students still leave high school without a diploma. Broken down demographically, the chances of graduation can be even slimmer.

“Right now, 25 percent of all of our youngsters and 40 percent of our minority youngsters are not finishing high school with their peers,” General Powell said in the introduction to an annual report aimed at tracking the progress and challenges of ending the so-called dropout epidemic.

“This lack of high-quality education has dramatic consequences for individuals, society, the economy, and even our national security,” he said. “We cannot afford excuses.”

It’s an issue that, in 2009, drove President Obama to announce the Civic Marshall Plan – an ambitious, sweeping education plan to increase the country’s graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020 and elevate America to be the world leader in college placement.

Named after former Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s massive effort to transform war-torn Europe after World War II, it is nothing short of a vision to transform our nation’s educational system. To reach the first lofty goal, the nation’s graduation rate needs to improve 1.5 percent every year for the next decade.

So far only Wisconsin has hit the 90 percent benchmark, with Vermont, and a handful of others, not far behind.

Nationally, graduation rates have improved in the past decade, but not in every state. Ten states have witnessed a decline in graduation rates since 2001, according to the updated Building a Grad Nation report Powell introduced. Others still lag far behind.

At least eight states, predominantly in the South, still have graduation rates below 70 percent and hold some of the highest concentrations of drop out factories, according to the most recent Department of Education data.

The number of these drop out factory schools and the students attending them has continued to decrease over the past decade, with suburban and communities in the South seeing the most significant reduction. In more recent years, some urban areas have shown accelerated rates of improvement, but to meet the goals set by the Civic Marshall Plan there’s still much to be done, the report said.

The majority of drop out factories are located in poor urban and rural communities, predominantly in northern and western cities and communities throughout the South, according to a 2004 John Hopkins report.

This week, Secretary Duncan joined the leaders of City Year — a non-profit dedicated to working with students around the country most at-risk of dropping out — to announce the launch of a 10-year strategy that, they hope, will leverage the energy of the nation’s youth and provide a road map to urban graduation improvements in some of the nation’s most struggling communities.

“City Year proves that poverty is not destiny,” Secretary Duncan said at the announcement of the program in Washington. “Their work with children in struggling communities is providing the support needed to encourage and help students stay in school and be successful.”

They’re calling it the Urban Graduation Pipeline and, with the support of a $10 million pledge from long-time City Year supporters Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine, will begin to expand their work to more than 1,000 urban schools and 900,000 students at-risk of dropping out.

“We know if you move students to the 10th grade on time and on track they’re four times more likely to graduate high school on time,” said Shaun Adamec, vice president of communications with City Year. “So our strategy is to move students toward that benchmark so they can contribute to that 90 percent goal.”

The goal is a “continuum of support” for students in grades three through nine to keep them on track for graduation. City Year hopes to bring graduation rates in targeted schools up to more than 80 percent in the coming decade, graduating double the number of students in some schools.

At-risk students will get multiple years of intervention and support in school from City Year AmeriCorps staffers to improve attendance rates, develop positive social and emotional behaviors, and elevate academic performance.

“We are launching a Long-Term Impact strategy, which harnesses the talent and energy of City Year’s young leaders as a breakthrough solution for struggling urban schools,” City Year President Jim Balfanz said in an e-mail announcing the project. “Inspired by a vanguard of high-performing, high-poverty schools that have demonstrated success is possible, we believe national service is a new human capital strategy to advance proven reform strategies and directly support the students who need it most.”

City Year AmeriCorps members, college graduates between the ages of 18 and 24 who commit to a year of full-time service, work hand-in-hand with school administrators and teachers to identify the most at-risk students, place them on focus lists to track progress and dedicate time during the school day to work with the students one-on-one and in small groups.

“What makes it so unique is that they’re near-peer,” Adamec said. “The Corps members – simply because of their age, their energy and their idealism – can form a bond with the students in the school that others may not be able to.

“Because they’re able to get to the central reason of why students are getting in trouble, they are able to refer it up the chain of command and help that student out,” he said.

The announcement comes at a time when City Year has seen a groundswell of support from idealistic young professionals stepping forward to serve. Last year, the organization received half a million applications for just 80,000 positions, according to the Corporation for National Community Service.

Already operating in 23 cities around the United States, the Urban Graduation Pipeline expansion will soon place the organization in cities that account for two-thirds of the nation’s dropouts.

Ultimately, City Year is one of more than two dozen groups and non-profits committed to helping make the Civic Marshall Plan a reality.

Photo by Clay Duda |

New Rules Protect Juveniles in Adult Prisons

juvenile prisonThe Justice Department released a landmark ruling on Thursday to help protect juvenile offenders from falling victim to sexual abuse in adult prisons.

The ruling marks the first-ever federal effort aimed at setting standards to protect inmates, both juvenile and adult, in correctional facilities on the local, state and federal level.

“The standards we establish today reflect the fact that sexual assault crimes committed within our correctional facilities can have devastating consequences – for individual victims and for communities far beyond our jails and prisons,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a DOJ release.

The standard also restricts the placement of juveniles in adult facilities, aiming to protect youth from sexual abuse by limiting contact between youth and adults behind bars through four specific requirements:

  • Prohibiting the placement of youth in the general adult prison population
  • Eliminating contact between adults and youth in common areas,
  • Ensuring youth are under constant supervision
  • And limiting the use of isolation for juveniles.

States that will be most affected by the new regulations are the 13 states that end juvenile court jurisdiction before the age of 18. Although classified by state-law as adults, the new federal rule clarifies that all inmates under the age of 18 deserve special protections.

“The PREA standards will protect hundreds of thousands of kids prosecuted in the adult system every year, and get us one step closer to completely removing youth from adult jails and prisons,” Liz Ryan, CEO and president of Campaign for Youth Justice, said in a release.

The ruling established the DOJ’s final standards on the Prison Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA). Congress passed the act in an effort to stop sexual violence behind bars, but the most recent draft in 2011 failed to address the unique challenges faced by youth in adult facilities.

In response to calls for public comment on the measure, a contingent of advocacy groups, professional organizations, individuals and groups from every state in the nation pushed Holder for a complete ban on the placement of youth in adult correctional facilities.

While not a complete ban, state and local facilities have a year to begin complying with the new rules or risk a five-percent-reduction in federal funding. Correctional facilities around the country will also be audited every three years to assess compliance.

After passing the PREA in 2003, Congress established the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) to develop and recommend a set of standards for the attorney general. Between 2004 and 2009, the NPREC held public hearings and tapped expert committees to draft the standards. The DOJ then released the standards for public comment in 2010 and drafted proposed rules a year later that were open to another round of comment.

Photo via

California Could Become First State to Ban Homosexual Conversion Therapy for Teens

lgbt youthIf passed, a California law will make it the first state in the nation to ban controversial therapy aimed at turning gay and lesbian teens straight.

State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), sponsor of the bill, said the so-called reparative therapy wrongly treats homosexuality as a disease and can be harmful to minors.

Some therapists are taking advantage of vulnerable people by pushing dangerous sexual orientation-change efforts,” Lieu told the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee last week. “These non-scientific efforts have led in some cases to patients later committing suicide, as well as severe mental and physical anguish.”

As it’s written, SB 1172 would ban juveniles under the age of 18 from undergoing “sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE) and require adults considering treatment to sign consent forms stating they understand the therapy has no medical basis and the potential dangers.

The bill has already passed two Senate policy committees and is due for a vote on the Senate floor, liking within the next month. If passed, the bill goes on to face the state Assembly before becoming law.

Specific SOCE techniques vary, but may include visualization, behavioral and social skills training, and in extreme cases electroshock or drug-induced behavior modifications.

The American Psychological Association and several other professional organizations have established the position that homosexuality is not a diseases or mental illness, and therefore does not need a cure.

Clearly, so-called conversion or reparative therapy is scientifically ineffective and has resulted in harm,” Lieu said in a release. “Simply put, this is an unacceptable therapeutic practice.”

According the Lieu, the bill is based on more than 40 years worth of scientific research, but some opponents contend the science behind the measure isn’t so straightforward.

SB 1172 makes serious errors in its representation of both the issue of change in sexual orientation and in the likelihood of harm,” the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) said in a statement opposing the bill.

NARTH, a professional organization that “offers hope to those who struggle with unwanted homosexuality,” said the bill “presents the issues of change and harm in a partisan manner” and overly restricts parent’s rights in selecting psychological care for their children, among other critiques.

Lieu’s office told MSNBC that the overall response had been positive, but he had also been the recipient of a slew of hate mail.

Photo via Flickr Sam T (samm4mrox)

Longtime Non-profit is Casualty of Economic Conditions, Funding Trends

kids class

After nearly 35 years of operation, Public/Private Ventures (PPV) will close by the end of July. The decision came after the Board of Directors concluded that, given current funding trends and economic conditions, PPV operations were not sustainable despite staff cuts and support from numerous private funders.

“We’ve been monitoring our finances for well over a year with the prospect that we might have to plan for a wind-down if we didn’t secure the kind of dedicated funding PPV has enjoyed in the past,” said PPV President Nadya Shmavonian. “But [that foresight] will allow us to do this in as responsible a manner as possible, with a real priority on moving the work and projects to a new homes.”

PPV, a national non-profit with offices in New York City, Philadelphia and Oakland, has worked to improve the effectiveness of social programs around the country, with a particular focus on young people from high-poverty communities.

The organization has about 40 active projects, and has already began the work of “winding down” — finding suitable organizations to continue the programs, on a project-by-project basis.

In addition to establishing a central repository for the firm’s more than 30 years of publications, “this means completing as many projects as possible by July 31, transferring others to suitable organizations that can finish the work, and fulfilling our obligations to funders and program partners,” Shmavonian said in an e-mail to colleagues announcing the closure.

Nadya Shmavonian
Nadya Shmavonian, president of P/PV

PPV still plans to publish several major publications before the July deadline, and at least some staffers hope to follow their projects to completion at partnering organizations.

“I think everyone here is deeply committed to their work,” Shmavonian said. “I have full confidence that the staff here is going to work with their head held high, and in pursuit of the mission we’ve worked so hard on all these years.”

“What we’re most worried about is: where will data be developed, analyzed and reviewed with a thoughtful, deep perspective on building knowledge about what makes programs effective working with some of the most hard-to-reach young people in our country?” Shmavonian said.

PPV has worked on a long list of projects across the social services industry over the decades – including longitudinal studies with the Boys and Girls Club, research and funding calculators for Out-Of-School program options and costs, and working with workforce development organizations in Chicago to help use data as a tool for performance improvement, just to name a few – but the current funding environment has made it challenging to continue the work.

“As a small firm, we have this mission focus on youth and that’s important, but it’s still hard to compete,” Shmavonian said. “I think one of the challenges in the funding environment is that there is not enough funders to give long-term, targeted core support to organizations that are key to whatever sector they are working in — and I think intermediary organizations should also be considered in that core support equation.”

“Part of what made PPV great through much of its early, and over half of its, existence,” she said, “was dedicated core support that gave us the opportunity not just to do project-by-project, but in fact be working on field building in partnership with funders and practitioners.”


Photos: Public/Private Ventures