Analysis: Holes in the Evidence for Evidence-Based


ebp_dick_mendelFourteen years ago, I authored my first major report on juvenile justice, “Less Hype, More Help: Reducing Juvenile Crime, What Works – And What Doesn’t,” marking an exciting milestone in my career.

The report was released at a full-bore press conference at the National Press Club, where I got to present my findings, and it generated a modest swirl of news stories across the country. Better yet, it earned me my first and only interview on national television. Well, kinda sorta national television — MSNBC.

But looking back at the report today, re-reading the first few pages, I feel as much sheepish as proud.

EBPgraphic2-01I feel sheepish because the report opens with what, in the cold sobriety of hindsight, I can only describe as a naïve, hyperbolic tale about the wondrous transformation available to our nation’s juvenile justice systems if only they would adopt the handful of so-called evidence-based treatment models. (Read the opening passages of “Less Hype, More Help.”)

I was reminded of “Less Hype, More Help” this month by the rollout of a JJIE’s new online Resource Hub on evidence-based programs and practices, and by Gary Gately’s feature story JJIE published Wednesday about evidence-based programming. Both are well-written and packed with information — well worth your time.

But reading them only heightened my sense that discussions of evidence-based juvenile justice remain, well, naïve and hyperbolic, just as I was in 2000. I know better now, and in this column I want explain why my unqualified praise for these gold-standard models was misplaced.

Don’t get me wrong. There is an important place in juvenile justice reform for carefully crafted treatment models with hard evidence from randomized trials. And there’s an even more important place for rigorous outcomes measurement and data-driven decision making. But my suggestion that we can revolutionize juvenile justice in this country by replacing the current system with plug-and-play programs was a fantasy back in 2000. And it remains a fantasy today.

This is true for several reasons.

graphic2_EBP-01First, no effort to reform juvenile justice should begin with a treatment program, evidence-based or otherwise. That’s putting the cart before the horse, a loser’s bet. Juvenile justice operates as a system, not a collection of programs. While programs are important, even the best program models will come to no avail if they are embedded within dysfunctional systems prone to making bad decisions in untimely ways about how to serve and sanction court-involved young people.

The second problem is definitional: Who decides what is or isn’t evidence-based, and using what criteria? Lists identifying effective, proven or promising adolescent prevention and treatment models have proliferated rapidly in recent years, but — due to the lack of any consensus in the field on how to define “evidence-based” — they vary widely in their criteria for inclusion. Some set the standards of proof so low that many recommended models lack any reliable evidence of effectiveness.

Third, rules requiring exclusive or heavy reliance on evidence-based models necessarily exclude many home-grown or idiosyncratic strategies that are rooted in communities but lack the pedigree of a rigorous, carefully controlled evaluation study. That kind of research is expensive, beyond the means of many community agencies and grassroots organizations that have a keen interest in — and untapped capacity to support — youth in high poverty neighborhoods where most juvenile court cases arise. Such rules can also stifle innovation, which is critically needed given the still-small array of interventions with powerful evidence of effectiveness and our still-limited scope of knowledge of what work best for youth facing different types of risks and needs.

All of these issues pose vexing challenges to the evidence-based movement in juvenile justice. In this column, I want to focus attention on another, less appreciated problem facing the evidence-based programs movement. That is the seldom discussed fact that the research behind even the most highly-regarded intervention models isn’t nearly as strong as many assume (or allege).

Unconvincing Evidence for Prevention Models

In 2006, the editors of Youth Today (a bi-monthly newspaper on youth development now published by the Center for Sustainable Journalism, the same organization that publishes JJIE) sent me to cover a national conference about evidence-based models for reducing delinquency and adolescent substance abuse. Three years later, Youth Today hired me to write a series of columns featuring new research on what works and doesn’t work in youth development.

These assignments gave me a chance to examine the evidence on model programs more closely, not just on juvenile justice interventions but also delinquency prevention, child welfare and other children and youth programs. The more I looked, the more concerned I grew.

For instance, one of my Youth Today columns in 2010 touted a highly-regarded Australian model called “Positive Parenting Program,” or Triple P, a community-wide strategy for reducing child abuse. Unlike other community-wide approaches to reducing child abuse, which yielded “limited or no evidence of effectiveness,” Triple P showed encouraging results in a host of overseas research studies. And a 2009 evaluation in South Carolina found that counties that implemented Triple P had far better results than non-participating counties in terms of overall maltreatment rates, foster care placements and emergency room visits stemming from child maltreatment.

Swayed by these studies, I informed Youth Today readers that the Triple P model “can make a dramatic and cost-effective difference.”

Not so much, it turns out.

In 2012, an independent review of the available research found “no convincing evidence that Triple P interventions work across the whole population or that any benefits are long-term.” In most cases, the available studies were methodologically weak and involved very small samples. And all but one was authored by personnel affiliated with the Triple P model.

Learn more about community-based alternatives and disproportionate minority contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubThen this spring, University of Cambridge criminologist Manuel Eisner published a working paper delineating “Seven Reasons to Be Skeptical” about the about Triple P study in South Carolina. In 2007, two years before releasing their results, scholars working on the South Carolina evaluation publicly detailed their study design, including the sample to be studied, research protocols and outcome measures. Yet when their final paper appeared, many of these parameters had changed without explanation: a different age range of children, a different time period for comparison, a different unit of analysis. Worse yet, the final study reported on just three of the 11 outcome measures identified in the research plan, and it added a new measure that wasn’t included in the initial research plan.

These kinds of “post-hoc” changes are telltale warning signs in evaluation research, offering easy opportunity for researchers to cherry-pick the data they choose to report. Meanwhile, the Triple P study did not acknowledge any conflicts of interest, as required, even though the study’s first author was a Triple P consultant and the second author was the founder of Triple P and director of a thriving for-profit business dedicated to replicating the model internationally.

Sadly, problems with post-hoc changes, data cherry-picking and conflicts of interest are not limited to Triple P or to child abuse prevention. Over the past dozen years, serious critiques have also been published questioning the research behind several of the most widely touted school-based models for preventing delinquency, substance abuse and/or smoking.

These critiques find that scholarly papers evaluating model prevention programs — typically written by the developers and promoters of the models — have frequently employed dubious methods and selective reporting to justify positive findings.

Among the models whose research has been subjected to sharp criticism are Life Skills Training, the Seattle Social Development Model, Project Alert and the Midwest Prevention Project, all of which have been touted as proven or effective on lists of evidence-based practices maintained by Blueprints for Violence Prevention, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Education, National Institutes of Drug Abuse,and/or Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The model developers have ardently defended their research, of course, and raised some persuasive points. Yet, to an informed lay observer like me, the critics have the better of the argument: Troublesome methodological anomalies do seem pervasive in the research behind a number of prevention models widely recognized as evidence-based. While these kinds of anomalies do not prove intentional misconduct — unconscious bias is far more likely — the result nonetheless is research that tips the scales in favor of the models being studied and presents an unrealistic and inflated portrait of their impact. (Some of the models have since been downgraded or removed from some lists.)

Dennis Gorman, a scholar at Texas A&M who has written many studies critiquing the research on evidence-based prevention models, concludes that “Much of what goes on in the analysis of these school-based prevention programs is simply not consistent with the type of rigorous hypothesis testing that one associates with the term ‘science.’”

In fact, a few years ago, Gorman and a colleague published a paper about Drug Abuse Resistance Education (or DARE), one of the few models that has been found to be ineffective based on evaluation research. The paper found that, using statistical techniques commonly employed in studies supporting many other models, they could show that DARE, too, was evidence-based — even though any objective reading of the evidence finds that the DARE model has little or no effect on participating youth.

Questions About MST Research

Not surprisingly, questions have also been raised about the research into model programs aimed at reducing crime and delinquency among those already involved in lawbreaking behavior.

In 2005, veteran social research scholars Anthony Petrosino and Haluk Soydan examined 300 evaluation studies of intervention programs designed to reduce criminal behavior. They found that studies conducted by the developer of the model being examined showed large reductions in recidivism (average effect size of nearly one-half a standard deviation), while studies conducted by independent evaluators found an average effect size of exactly zero.

As Eisner puts it, “There is evidence of a worrying pattern in criminological evaluation research and that systematic bias is one possible explanation that we can’t afford to ignore.”

To date, there has been less scrutiny of the research behind the two types of models that have produced strong results in reversing delinquency and other problem behaviors among troubled adolescents: cognitive-behavioral therapy, and family-focused treatment approaches such as FFT, MTFC and MST.

So far as I’m aware, the research behind the leading cognitive behavioral therapy models has not been subjected to an exacting review regarding research methodology or potential bias introduced by model developers evaluating their own models. (As with the prevention models, developers have conducted much or most of the experimental research for several of the leading CBT models.) Likewise, I have not seen any serious methodological critiques of Functional Family Therapy or Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care.

However, Multisystemic Therapy (MST) was examined in a 2005 study by a research team lead by Julia Littell, a social work scholar at Bryn Mawr College. Littell identified a number of weaknesses in the MST research, and after employing a statistical technique called meta-analysis to synthesize the results from multiple studies, she characterized the research on MST as “inconclusive.” The available evidence, she found, “does not support the hypothesis that MST is consistently more effective than usual services or other interventions for youth with social, emotional, or behavioral problems.”

MST developer Scott Henggeler and other scholars affiliated with MST authored a sharp rebuttal, questioning Littell’s analysis and citing their own research showing that weak results in MST are typically tied to lack of fidelity to the MST model, rather than weakness in the model itself. Indeed, studies by MST-affiliated researchers consistently show that results are far better in MST programs with high adherence to the MST model than those with lower adherence, and MST’s sponsors have developed elaborate processes to promote adherence in MST replication sites.

However, Littell remained unbowed in her criticism, countering in a follow-up essay that the treatment adherence measure employed by MST researchers to measure fidelity was ill-defined, and that the other criticisms of her study were replete with “logical and factual errors.”

Littell also noted that Henggeler and his colleagues face an enormous conflict of interest as both the promoters and evaluators of their own model. Citing publicly available data, Littell reported that MST had reaped $55 million in research grants through 2004, and that MST Services Inc., the for-profit enterprise established by Henggeler and his team to support MST replication, collected $400 to $550 in licensing, training and consulting fees for each of the 10,000 families then served by MST each year.

Time for Higher Research Standards

Lacking advanced statistical training, I am not qualified to score the debate between Littell and the MST promoters. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that if implemented carefully and targeted to youth fitting the profile for which it is intended, MST is most likely a highly-effective intervention. I’d be less confident to bet that MST would outperform similar interventions without the brand name (or evidence-based) imprimatur.

Indeed, a comprehensive analysis commissioned by the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform in 2010 found that MST and Functional Family Therapy "fall well within the range of other family programs” and that “some no-name programs produced effects even larger than those found for the model programs.”

The point is not that we should abandon or turn away from the movement toward evidence-based models like MST. That would be foolhardy. The rapid proliferation of empirical evidence about what works and doesn’t in addressing delinquent behavior has been one of the most important and promising developments in juvenile justice in recent times, and the emergence and spread of carefully crafted intervention models backed by scholarly research is an entirely welcome development. Indeed, several states (like Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana and Ohio) have made achieved impressive results by replicating evidence-based models on a large scale — improving youth outcomes, reducing recidivism and saving taxpayers’ money.

But continuing to ignore the valid empirical questions being raised about the research supporting these models would be equally foolhardy. To employ a baseball analogy, we’ve only reached first base in our research about evidence-based juvenile justice. We need many more models, and we need to develop a much deeper understanding of what works, when, for which youth and under what circumstances.

And, critically, we need higher standards for research. We need more transparency.

Fourteen years ago the emergence of models with any evidence of effectiveness was newsworthy, and the spread of such models was paltry. Today, these program models are household names in our field. Together, they have become a growth industry in the field, and they now consume hundreds of millions of dollars per year in state and local funds.

This isn’t little league any more.

A Love Letter to Evidence-Based Practices for Combating Juvenile Crime

(The opening passage of "Less Hype, More Help")

Today, several of the models touted in “Less Hype, More Help” are widely known, such as Multisystemic Therapy (MST), Functional Family Therapy (FFT) and Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC). But back then few people had heard of these approaches. Hence my temptation to trumpet them so boldly.

Or part of my temptation. I was also seduced, like many others since, by the aura of precision and certainty these evidence-based models inject into discussions of juvenile justice. My opening passage oozed with the smug certitude often bred by the imprimatur of peer-reviewed science.

I started with a question:

“What if we could take a chronic juvenile delinquent, a kid who has been arrested five, six, 10 times, and instead of sending him away for a year to juvenile prison for $40,000 or $50,000 (only to come home with a 50 to 70 percent chance of re-offending) ... what if instead of that we could keep him at home, spend less than $5,000 working with him and his family over four or five months and cut the likelihood that he’ll re-offend in half?”

And then another:

“What if, for a chronic delinquent who is just too unruly to stay with her parents, instead of sending her to a group home or youth prison we could spend just a little more to place her into a specialized foster home for six to nine months, work with the child and coach her parents and reduce the amount of time she can expect to be incarcerated by 75 days over the next two years?”

And then a third:

“What if, for chronically disobedient elementary school children, we could spend just $1,500 for a two-pronged program — video-based parenting skills training and classroom-based social competence training for the child — and reduce problem behaviors dramatically (by 30 percent or better) in 95 percent of all cases, significantly reducing the number who will be arrested later as juveniles?”

Then came the punchline:

“Well, you can stop asking, ‘What if?’ We can. We can. And we can.”

If only it were that simple.



Evidence-Based ‘Gold Standard’: Coveted, Yet Controversial

EBPgraphic2-01It seemed a throwback to the days of the country doctor: Go to the patients instead of having them come to you.

As a young intern in the pediatrics department at the University of Virginia’s medical school in the mid-1970s, Scott Henggeler got that advice from his supervisor, a social worker on staff.

He heeded it, taking the department’s van out for house calls into the natural beauty of the Shenandoah Valley in the Charlottesville area and soon had an epiphany about the folly of trying to treat some of the most troubled youngsters in an office setting.

Scott W. Henggeler, Ph.D.
Scott W. Henggeler, Ph.D.

“I visited probably about six, seven homes, and in each case, all it really took was to just set foot inside the door and you realized how goofy your academic treatment plan was,” Henggeler told JJIE. “Doing the home-based stuff just removed the barriers, really removed most of the barriers and helped you better engage with the families, but also very importantly, you got much more accurate assessment data.

“When you understand better, and there’s really nothing better than sitting in someone’s living room for this, when you understand the real-life context of folks – who’s living at the house, what people are like, what their life is like – it helps you develop better and more accurate treatment plans,” he said. “And it also gives you better outcome data because you’re there seeing if the change has actually happened vs. bringing them into a clinic to report what’s happening.”

Henggeler and his colleagues ultimately expanded treatment not only to include juveniles’ homes and families but also their schools, teachers, neighborhoods and peers.

By the early 1990s, the clinicians named their pioneering approach “Multisystemic Therapy” (MST) – focusing on the “systems” in a child’s life, and after numerous trials, MST expanded rapidly. Today, MST – which is affiliated with the for-profit company MST Services, based at the Family Services Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, S.C. – operates in 34 states, the District of Columbia and 14 other countries.

Multisystemic Therapy stands out as one of the best-known and most thoroughly researched among what’s referred to in juvenile justice circles as “evidence-based practices” (EBPs) – programs and practices that have been shown through research to prevent or reduce juvenile crime and help youths make better choices.

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Learn more about community-based alternatives and disproportionate minority contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubVisit the Evidence-Based Practices section of the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


But the EBP designation is both coveted and controversial.

Purists maintain only programs subjected to the highest scrutiny should be employed in juvenile justice, viewing them as akin to the gold standard in medicine.

Skeptics acknowledge programs designated EBPs can be very effective, but say limiting funding to such programs cuts off too many promising homegrown and grassroots programs that aren't big brand names in the field.

In juvenile justice, the term evidence-based practices can be traced at least until the mid-1990s, when randomized, controlled trials – modeled after those used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when reviewing applications for new drugs – tested the effectiveness of particular juvenile justice programs.

Being deemed an EBP is no small matter. In requests for proposals, numerous states, counties, the federal government and private foundations specify that a reform effort must be qualified as an EBP to receive funding.

And getting the EBP designation comes with no small price tag. Some experts peg the cost of a randomized, controlled study of a juvenile justice program at anywhere from $300,000 to $5 million.

Seven national registries, three of them federal, bestow the EBP designation, using different labels for it. But the registries vary widely in the quantity and rigor of supporting evidence they require. All told, at least 450 programs addressing youth behaviors including juvenile crime have been given the stamp of approval as being evidence-based by at least one of the registries.

The Gold in Blueprints

By all accounts, the registry with the most stringent review standards in juvenile justice programs (and now, other programs serving youths) is maintained by Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, based at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation funds Blueprints.

The Colorado institute’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence started Blueprints in 1996 (as Blueprints for Violence Prevention) to help identify and replicate violence, delinquency and drug prevention programs that have been proven effective.

Delbert Elliott, a University of Colorado sociology professor emeritus.
Delbert Elliott, a University of Colorado sociology professor emeritus.

Delbert Elliott, a University of Colorado sociology professor emeritus and the founding director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, said Blueprints grew out of frustration with how Colorado had been making decisions on funding juvenile justice programs in the 1990s.

“They were made on who you know, your political contributions, because the committee that was making these selections were all politicians,” Elliott told JJIE. “What was surprising to me was that nobody was asking the question about what we know about whether this works. Is there some research evidence that this program has proven to be effective, that we know if you put kids in this program you’re going to get some positive effects?”

Each of the 1,300 programs evaluated by Blueprints has been reviewed by an independent panel of evaluation experts, and only nine juvenile justice-related programs have received the “model” program rating, while 23 have been rated “promising.” To qualify as a model program, a program must be evaluated in at least one randomized, controlled trial, positive results must be sustained for at least a year after the intervention ends, and the program must be capable of being replicated elsewhere. (Elliott says programs should be rated model to be implemented statewide or nationally but that the promising rating suffices for use at the local level.)

“You have to be really careful when we’re investing public monies in these kind of programs; you have to be pretty sure that you’re going to get positive effects,” Elliott said.

He noted some juvenile justice programs, like Scared Straight, have been proven not only ineffective, but harmful.

“We don’t have a Hippocratic Oath that we require for the developers of these programs,” Elliott said. “So the whole evidence-based movement is a way of saying we should be investing in …. programs that work.”

Clay Yeager, a senior consultant for the Washington-based Evidence-Based Associates, which helps jurisdictions implement and manage EBPs, applauded the Blueprints registry.

Clay Yeager, a senior consultant for the Washington-based Evidence-Based Associates.
Clay Yeager, a senior consultant for the Washington-based Evidence-Based Associates.

Yeager, who is based in York, Pa., and had served as the director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention from 1997 to 2002, said he advocates randomized, controlled trials as the gold standard for juvenile justice programs.

“If a standard is good enough for us to utilize when prescribing medication, why should we have a lower standard for programs addressing problems in kids and families and communities?” he said.

Not surprisingly, Yeager said he’s wary of the half-dozen registries besides Blueprints. Their EBP designations, he said, have been diluted to the point that they have “lost their meaning and value” in assessing the potential effectiveness of programs.

“It’s created a great deal of confusion among the consumers out there – and by that I mean public policy officials, practitioners, not being able to discern clearly the differences among the standards that qualify each of these 450-plus programs as meeting the test for being evidence-based,” Yeager told JJIE.

“There have been so many iterations and variations on this singular theme of being evidence-based, and it’s minimized the value of what that term was originally intended to mean,” Yeager said. “It’s a disservice to the kids, to the families, to the taxpayers ... to not have more clarity about what constitutes evidence-based programs, what constitutes the definition of the evidence-based.”

Evidence-Based Associates has helped jurisdictions implement and manage MST and other Blueprints model programs, including Functional Family Therapy, which involves intensive work with troubled youths and their families.

Yeager notes the U.S. spends $6 billion to $7 billion a year on locking kids up, an average of $88,000 per youth per year, despite a dearth of evidence it’s effective.

By contrast, MST costs an average of about $5,100 to about $11,950 per family in the U.S. In the course of an average of four months of treatment, therapists make multiple contacts in the family’s home and surrounding community.

MST points to research showing the treatment reduced long-term re-arrest rates by as much as 25 percent to 70 percent and sliced out-of-home placements by as much as 47 percent to 64 percent. The therapy also led to decreased substance abuse, fewer mental health problems for serious juvenile offenders and much better family functioning, according to MST.

FFT Traces Roots to Home Visits in Watts

FFT costs an average of about $3,500 per family, and each family is typically seen both in office and home settings 12 to 15 times over a three- to five-month period

FFT founder James Alexander.
FFT founder James Alexander.

FFT founder James Alexander, a psychologist and adjunct research professor of clinical psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, traces his interest in helping troubled youths and their families to his days of doing home visits as a social worker in the Watts section of Los Angeles just before the 1965 riots.

“I immediately was thrust into issues of race, culture and, of course, a lot of violence, family disruption, all of those kinds of things, so that’s when I started getting the bug to want to do something about it,” Alexander told JJIE.

“We’re trying to help people become adaptive and effective and functional in ways that work for them.”

FFT, based in Seattle, now operates in 45 U.S. states and 10 other countries. FFT has been shown to significantly reduce recidivism and to help youths overcome delinquency, substance abuse and violence.

While EBPs have received considerable support, not everyone views the gold standard of evidence-based approaches as proof programs are likely to be effective.

Worthy Programs Left Out?

Jeffrey Butts, the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said though being evidence-based does not guarantee good results, many act as if it does.

Jeffrey Butts, the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
Jeffrey Butts, the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

“In a perfect world, where everyone was smart and read everything they could and paid attention and were students of the field and took their job seriously, it wouldn’t be a problem because people would realize that there are multiple sources of information,” Butts said in an interview.

“But in a dumb, clumsy and attention-deficit world, it’s a problem because someone says, ‘Hey, I’m on the Appropriations Committee in Indiana or Nebraska or something and we need a community-based program. Which one should we go with?’ And some 22-year-old on the staff of the committee says, ‘I’ll go to this [EBP registry] website and look it up and find you a good program.’

“In that world, it’s a problem because that 22-year-old staffer talking to the insurance salesman who just got elected to the state legislature is not very sophisticated, and they do go for the easy, seemingly simple answer of these programs registries.”

In an e-mail to JJIE, Butts acknowledged brand-name programs like MST and FFT have merit in treating youths they’re designed to treat, but said, “We need a full menu of options, and we need to continue to develop new options by evaluating new models and new intervention concepts.”

Shaena Fazal, the national policy director for the nonprofit, Washington-based Youth Advocate Programs Inc. (YAP), noted it is not deemed an EBP by some registries, but said YAP has a strong evidence base: Its effectiveness has been documented in 10 external studies and recognized by the Casey Foundation, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the National Council on Crime & Delinquency and John Jay’s Research & Evaluation Center.

YAP provides community-based alternatives to out-of-home placements in 17 states, with interventions including intensive support for youths and their families in their homes, communities and schools.

Shaena Fazal, the national policy director for Youth Advocate Programs Inc. (YAP).
Shaena Fazal, the national policy director for Youth Advocate Programs Inc. (YAP).

“We are like probably every other nonprofit not currently in that gold standard of having a randomized, control-group study,” Fazal told JJIE. “In some of our programs, we use specific evidence-based practices even though the YAP model per se has not achieved the gold standard of evidence-based practice with a randomized control group.”

As Fazal wryly noted, no such gold standard exists for the practice of locking up about 160,000 youths a year.

“When people talk about juvenile justice reform and evidence-based practices, we’re very reliant right now on incarceration, which is not at all an evidence-based practice,” she said. “And nobody ever asks for a randomized, control-group study of kids incarcerated, and if they did, they would find that that’s a pretty big barrier.

“That’s one point I like to make because I think it’s worth thinking about. Why is it that we set a standard so high in the community, but we don’t for the harms and dangers of jail?”

YAP, which began in Pennsylvania in 1975, taps into paid advocates “from GEDs to Ph.D.s” who work with youths and their families in the community, Fazal said.

But how can the potential of such generic, community-based programs be evaluated without conducting costly randomized, controlled studies?

A Template to Bridge the Gap?

Mark Lipsey, a research professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., has devised an experimental template for doing so.

Mark Lipsey, a research professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Lipsey, a research professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Lipsey’s “Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol” (SPEP) is based on a meta-analysis conducted by him and his colleagues of more than 500 studies done in the past 20 years.

SPEP scrutinizes recidivism reductions resulting from both brand-name programs like MST, FFT and Aggression Replacement Therapy along with generic programs under the umbrellas such as group therapy, family therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

“If we start asking every program to have a randomized study to show that it works, every real-world program out there, there’s no hope that will ever happen,” Lipsey told JJIE.

He pointed to the divide that sometimes emerges between EBP purists and those who advocate generic programs.

“In my mind, these are not oppositional. These are complementary,” Lipsey said. “There are some people who are really tied closely to the brand-name concept who find it oppositional to think that anything else might be legitimately called evidence-based. I don’t see it that way. I see different ways of using the evidence.”

Lipsey’s SPEP is a key component of the Juvenile Justice System Improvement Project at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy in Washington.

Shay Bilchik, founder and Director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University.
Shay Bilchik, founder and Director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University.

Shay Bilchik, the founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, praised SPEP, saying: “I think the thing that Dr. Lipsey’s work gives us is the fact that we don’t always need to replace our current program with a Blueprints program … in order to show that in essence you’re delivering what the science tells us is effective practice.

“We can use the Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol that Dr. Lipsey’s developed to take a look at those homegrown programs and see how close they come to the evidence-based, Blueprints-type programs,” added Bilchik, who served as administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention from 1994 to 2000.

SPEP, Bilchik said, can also help identify programs that may not be performing as well as they could be because of poor implementation.

Echoing the sentiments of other observers, Bilchik said, SPEP can reveal programs that fall short of their potential because of a mismatch between the programs and the populations being served.

And whether they’re EBPs or not, programs work best when they target high-risk youths, when they’re tailored to the specific needs of youths (based on results of validated screening tools), and when they focus on treatment and skill-building rather than punishment and deterrence.

James Bell, executive director of the Oakland-based W. Haywood Burns Institute.
James Bell, executive director of the Oakland-based W. Haywood Burns Institute.

James Bell, executive director of the Oakland-based W. Haywood Burns Institute, which strives to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system, said requiring programs to be EBPs can lead to such disparities.

“So many community-based organizations that had been serving young people – and this is certainly true for young people of color – that weren’t evidence-based practices felt tremendously threatened by this new wave of it has to be evidence-based, and the only way you can be evidence-based … is to have a randomized, controlled study,” said Bell, who also founded the institute, named after the late civil rights leader W. Haywood Burns.

Bell said he also has a moral objection to using control groups of children who receive only placebo treatment and thus don’t benefit from the program being tested.

He said it’s time to seek common ground between brand-name EBPs and generic, community-based programs.

“I believe the way forward is to not keep pitting the developers of evidence-based programs against the community people, and we should quit trying to make the community people actually reach the level of evidence-based practices,” Bell said.

“To me, those are formulas for failure. What we should do is everybody should want the best practices for young people.”

Financial supporters of JJIE may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.

Visit the Evidence-Based Practices section of the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub:


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Summit to Bring Together Juvenile Justice Pros, Youthful Advocates
“Building the next generation of juvenile justice leaders” is the focus of a two-day youth summit in Washington.
>> Read Full Story


OP-ED: Why Do We Need to Do This Work?
When it comes to dual status youth — youth involved with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems — our work reforming the juvenile system is far from complete.

OP-ED: Passionate Voices From the Youth Summit
As two of the Justice Policy Institute’s newest recruits, we are excited to join our fellow youth advocates in the juvenile justice community for the 2014 Juvenile Justice Youth Summit.

Capitol Hill Roundtable: Interrupt the ‘Poverty-to-Prison Pipeline’
You’ve heard about the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Now, add to that the “cradle-to-prison pipeline,” the “poverty-to-prison pipeline” and the “prison-to-poverty pipeline.”


OP-ED: Contrarians Needed to End Juvenile Justice Status Quo
When it comes to dual status youth — youth involved with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems — our work reforming the juvenile system is far from complete.

New Orleans Immigration Court Handling More Than 1,200 Cases of Unaccompanied Minors Fleeing Central America
Referrals of children to immigration courts in Louisiana have surged in recent years. Most of those children end up in New Orleans/ The local immigration court already had a huge backlog, now it's completely overloaded. What's next?

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California Teacher Uses Writing to Inspire Incarcerated Youth

Johnny Kovatch and former InsideOUT Writers students in 2010.
Johnny Kovatch and former InsideOUT Writers students in 2010.

LOS ANGELES — The walls of California’s juvenile halls act as a barrier to a world most people will never experience or understand. More often than not, these halls are viewed as places of isolation and despair.

However, others, like Johnny Kovatch, see an infinite amount of potential and opportunity that can be found just on the other side of these walls.

Kovatch, a long-time juvenile justice advocate, volunteers at several of California’s most well-known juvenile halls and prisons, including Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, Ironwood State Prison and Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles. He first began volunteering at these institutions as a way to connect with incarcerated youth around the state.

JJIE Los Angeles Bureau“I wanted to work with a population that was underrepresented,” Kovatch says. “These kids don’t know it but they represent truth and they represent purity.”

A personal tragedy in Kovatch’s own life also contributed to his desire to help reform the juvenile justice system.

“When I was in high school, my friend was murdered and robbed for $40,” Kovatch says. “I always wondered what would cause a kid to do something like that. I wondered what was missing from that life, and whether it was a parental influence, a lack of love or a lack of support that was the incentive behind it.”

Kovatch first began volunteering in juvenile detention centers as part of a program called Restorative Justice, where he provided one-on-one counseling to juvenile inmates. During his time in the halls, however, Kovatch discovered a new passion: InsideOUT Writers.

Johnny Kovatch holding a student's son while attending his court date.
Johnny Kovatch holding a student's son while attending his court date.

“I saw a teacher named Todd Rubenstein teaching a writing class through the glass within one of the units,” Kovatch says. “I always wondered what he was doing, and knew that I should be a part of that program.”

InsideOUT Writers is a nonprofit organization that uses creative writing to encourage personal growth and transformation within the California juvenile justice system. The organization is funded both by the county and private donors, and it ultimately aims to reduce the juvenile recidivism rates by offering a range of services to currently and formerly incarcerated youth.

The main focus of InsideOUT Writers is the Writing Program, which is open to students who are being held in various juvenile detention centers across Los Angeles County. Currently, there are 39 classes being taught each week by volunteer instructors like Kovatch.

“During my first class with InsideOUT Writers, what I discovered was that all of the students were extremely grateful that I was there,” Kovatch says. “At the end of class, every kid came up to me and said thank you, welcomed me back and asked if I would be there the following week.”

Carol Chodroff, who has been involved in juvenile justice issues for almost 20 years and is now a board member of InsideOUT Writers, has seen firsthand the positive impact that the Writing Program can have on students.

“The first time I sat in on a writing circle, I saw the kids interacting and the power of literature and poetry. I felt change happening in the room,” Chodroff says. “So many of the kids in the program have lives that are filled with sadness, obstacles, challenges and pain. Now, they have this opportunity to express themselves and to find their voices. Seeing them work together in class shows the best of the education process, the best of rehabilitation and the best of humanity, really.”

The classes and writing prompts address a wide variety of topics, but they all ultimately have one goal: to give the students the confidence to express themselves and get their thoughts and ideas out in the open.

“The biggest thing I encourage is when there’s something they feel like they don’t want to write about because it would too hard or too painful, then I tell them that’s exactly the type of stuff that they should write about,” Kovatch explains. “They write about everything. They write about how they grew up, they write about abandonment, their peers, maybe those who have been incarcerated or have died in gang related activities, and they write about wanting to have a better life.”

Participation in the Writing Program is completely voluntary, and it can often be challenging for students to first decide to attend a class.

Johnny Kovatch and his former InsideOUT Writers student, Jaki Murillo.
Johnny Kovatch and his former InsideOUT Writers student, Jaki Murillo.

Jaki Murillo, a former student in the Writing Program, was tried as an adult for attempted murder and robbery at the age of 15. After being found guilty, she began serving her prison sentence at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, Calif. It was here that Murillo first heard about InsideOUT Writers.

“My old roommate first told me about InsideOUT Writers and she told me I should go, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t get along with the other girls and wasn’t open to new people, so I didn’t go.” Murillo says. “Instead, I used to write by myself in my room, but I would flush it down the toilet because I didn’t want people to read it.”

However, one day after a yoga class that was being held in Murillo’s unit was cancelled, she decided to finally give the writing class a shot. That was when she met Kovatch for the first time.

“From day one, the way Johnny presented himself, the way that he cared, I had never experienced something like that before,” Murillo said. “He never gave up on me. He would always come up to my room and ask me to come out, and eventually I just gave in.”

Although it was not easy, Murillo slowly started to become more open with her teachers and her classmates.

“I started seeing everybody sharing and eventually you just start sharing yourself,” Murillo says. “I would write a lot about betrayal and drugs and drug addiction, and it helped me be more comfortable with myself. I went through a really deep guilt process about a lot of the things I’ve done and it really helped me heal. I was able to share with people from a whole other world and way of life.”

Kovatch continued teaching Murillo for the next year, and was constantly inspired by her both inside and outside of the classroom.

“She always showed up with a positive attitude, she was always smiling and she showed a courage and strength that inspired others to open up and be as honest and truthful as possible,” Kovatch says. “It was her vulnerability that gave others the courage to be just as vulnerable.”

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Learn more about community-based alternatives at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubLearn more about community-based alternatives at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


Murillo’s time with InsideOUT Writers did not end once she was no longer incarcerated. Now, she is part of the organization’s Alumni Program, which aims to transition former Writing Students into productive lives once they are released. She is also getting ready to begin classes at Los Angeles Mission College this fall, and she hopes to eventually pursue a career in the film industry.

For Kovatch, Chodroff and all of the other InsideOUT Writers volunteers, it is crucial that programs like this one continue expanding to juvenile halls across the country.

“In my mind, one of the biggest issues we have as a society is that we put our emphasis on the wrong end. All of the money gets thrown into putting a Band-Aid on the problem and paying or incarceration and giving kids long sentences rather than preventing them from ending up in that situation in the first place,” Chodroff says. “InsideOUT Writers really advocates for the kid when they’re on the inside. They try to help them survive in this culture that is really counter to everything children need. When they get out, InsideOUT Writers acts as a preventive measure for a new cycle, supporting their reentry and giving them new opportunities.”

No matter where the students and alumni are at now, what Jaki Murillo and many other InsideOUT Writers will remember most are the instructors that guided them throughout their journeys.

“Johnny has a tattoo on his arm that says ‘No estás solo,’ meaning ‘You are not alone’,” Murillo says. “No matter what the struggle, he never gave up on me and he always showed up. “

These three simple words written on his arm constantly remind Kovatch’s students that they will always have someone supporting them along the way.

“I want them to remember that they have their whole lives ahead of them,” Kovatch says. “Kids are redeemable and it’s important for them to understand that why they were incarcerated doesn’t define them. They are more than what led them in there.”


Juvenile Justice Week in Review: $200M to Help Boys & Young Men of Color


sb10069485ch-001Eleven major foundations have pledged to spend a total of nearly $200 million for efforts to help boys and young men of color succeed, in concert with President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative...

Continue Reading →
Jonathan Lippman: New York’s ‘Pro-Activist’ Judge
Meet the judge who's catalyzed legislative discussion around raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York.
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Drug Program Aids Staten Island Prescription Drug Abusers
John Scarabaggio’s overdose story is one that’s heard far too often on Staten Island, where prescription drug abuse is rampant.
>> Read Full Story


OP-ED: Yes to Equal Treatment; No to Equally Bad Treatment
Iowa policymakers should reject building a new prison for girls and instead, adopt gender-specific, trauma informed treatment in the community for court-involved girls.

OP-ED: Lock-Up Must Not Translate into a Death Sentence for Kids
For youth in detention the rate of completed suicide is two to four times higher than in general population.

CJJ Releases New Resources on Status Offenses
Over the last few months, Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ) has released several new publications related to status offenses as part of their Safety, Opportunity and Success (SOS) Project

How State and Local Governments Can Improve Outcomes for Youth 
Two publications recently released break down what state and local governments can do to improve outcomes for youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

If you want to receive the top juvenile justice headlines in your inbox each Thursday, you can subscribe to the JJIE newsletter.

JJIE Subscribe Button 2014

Foundations Pledge Nearly $200M to help Boys, Young Men of Color

sb10069485ch-001Eleven major foundations have pledged to spend a total of nearly $200 million for efforts to help boys and young men of color succeed, in concert with President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.

The foundations said in a 12-page executive summary to a still-unreleased report that the funds are to spent over the next three years – what they hope will be the “first steps in what will be longstanding commitments from these and other funders.”

Not all 11 foundations are helping fund all the efforts.

The biggest chunk of the funds, more than $81 million, is to go toward “comprehensive reforms needed to dramatically reduce racial and ethnic disparities in, and the overall use of, confinement for boys and young men,” the executive summary said.

“Reliance on the juvenile and criminal justice systems locks too many young men and boys of color out of opportunity before they fully have a chance to start on the path to adulthood.”

The executive summary provided little detail on specifically how the money is to be spent for that or other efforts.

The full report, “A Time for Action: Mobilizing Philanthropic Support for Boys and Young Men of Color,” is expected to be released this fall.

webgraphic_Dmc_2In February, Obama announced the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to help boys and young men of color.

“The My Brother’s Keeper piece served as a catalyst for [the foundations’ funding commitment] … and sparked a new sense of urgency and focus for these foundations in ways that you probably wouldn’t have seen happen so quickly otherwise,” said Damon Hewitt, a senior adviser at the Open Society Foundations, one of the 11 philanthropic foundations.

“We’re all in conversation with each other, which is the really important piece … because I think this is so powerful,” Hewitt told Youth Today.

He said the foundations had been working on some of the initiatives to help boys and young men of color for more than a year before the White House announced My Brother’s Keeper.

“The beauty of what the White House has done [through My Brother’s Keeper] is it helped the stars align and make some big things possible by focusing energies and commitments,” Hewitt said.

A White House task force on My Brother’s Keeper released a report on the initiative to Obama on May 30.

At the time, the 11 philanthropies released a joint statement saying, in part, “The report’s emphasis on early childhood support, improving literacy, creating greater pathways to college and career success, and reducing unnecessary involvement with the justice system are all key factors toward improving the lives of boys and young men of color.”

The statement noted the 11 foundations joined forces in February to provide a private-sector counterpart to the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

Youth of Color and the Juvenile Justice System — Racial-Ethnic Fairness
Click here to read more articles about youth of color in the juvenile justice system.

“Our commitment to fundamentally improving the life trajectory of young men of color is unwavering, and it is essential to build on this momentum to improve the policies and structures that currently impede the ability of many young men to participate fully in American society,” the statement said.

The foundations’ executive summary also outlined other funding:

  • More than $55 million will to go toward “an unprecedented partnership to accelerate efforts to reduce suspensions, expulsions, school-based arrests and juvenile court referrals in our nation’s elementary and secondary public schools and pre-school settings.” Among other things, this funding is designed to spur further efforts by the public and private sectors to reduce racial disparities in school discipline.
  • More than $26 million is to be spent on efforts to help supplant negative portrayals of boys and young men of color with positive ones in print, broadcast and social media. These funds are meant to “lift up positive narratives that affirm the value of all human beings, including boys and men of color, and to minimize the effect of implicit bias.”
  • More than $21 million is intended to “catalyze matching funds from other national and community foundations, corporations, and public/private partnerships to build on existing local efforts and infrastructure that offer promise of success … to help communities develop and/or expand strategies explicitly aimed at reducing disparities and improving life outcomes for boys and young men of color.”
  • A seed investment of more than $11 million is to spin off the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, now part of the Open Society Foundations, as an independent entity.

Along with the Open Society Foundations, the other philanthropies that have contributed to the funding are the Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The California Endowment, the Ford Foundation, the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, the Kapor Center for Social Impact, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Drug Program Aids Staten Island Prescription Drug Abusers

John Scarabaggio, 23, who struggled with a prescription drug addiction.
John Scarabaggio, 23, who struggled with a prescription drug addiction.

John Scarabaggio almost didn’t live to see his 22nd birthday. In 2011, he was 21 years old and instead of going out and partying with his friends, Scarabaggio was deep in his struggle with prescription drug addiction, taking up to 50 pills a day to maintain his high. But he overdosed on July 21 that year, and took so many pills that he went into a coma for eight days.

“I wasn’t supposed to live, I wasn’t even breathing for myself,” Scarabaggio said. “All I remember was waking up eight days later on my mom’s birthday. It scared the hell out of me.”

Scarabaggio’s story is one that’s heard far too often on Staten Island, where prescription drug abuse is rampant. Since 2005, fatalities on Staten Island linked to accidental prescription drug overdoses increased by nearly 150%, more than double the rate of any other borough. But through youth organizations, rehab programs and a city-wide ad campaign aimed at preventing prescription drug abuse, Staten Island’s cry for help has been heard and young adults like Scarabaggio are able to get the help they need.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logoLast month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo passed legislation that would dedicate state money to equipping NYPD officers with FDA-approved anti-overdose kits and Police Commissioner William Bratton said officers would be trained in administering the naloxone nasal spray once the bill is passed. State Sen. Diane Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn) was in full support of the bill.

"The epidemic of heroin use and abuse has devastated families across Staten Island. It is a dark and painful substance that drags our teenagers far away from the happy and purposeful life they deserve,” Savino said.

“I applaud the governor for recognizing that New York State needs to step in now to save more of our young people before it’s too late."

The anti-overdose kit has already saved more than 10 lives on Staten Island since June, and could have helped Scarabaggio avoid his eight-day coma. But the day he woke up from it marked a turning point in Scarabaggio’s life. He started the long process of recovering from his addiction, a struggle that lasted longer than the time he spent addicted.

Scarabaggio grew up on the South Shore of Staten Island where said he had a good upbringing.

“We were well-off, I came from a good family,” he said. “I had no worries in the world.”

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Learn more about mental health and substance abuse at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubLearn more about mental health and substance abuse at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


He attended Tottenville High School, had an active social life and played on his school’s football team. When he was 20 years old, Scarabaggio started developing symptoms of a hereditary knee condition and needed surgery on both of his legs, keeping him on painkillers and in and out the hospital for almost a year.

“Before surgery, I always experimented with weed and pills, but I was never addicted,” he said. “But after the first surgery I was bed-ridden and it took four months for full recovery. Then after that, I had to go back for the other knee.”

Scarabaggio’s doctor prescribed OxyContin to help him deal with the pain from the surgeries.

“I started taking them because of the pain, but then I started abusing them and started getting high off them and then I got addicted,” Scarabaggio said.

Former New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley was instrumental in launching the ad campaign aimed at raising awareness and preventing prescription drug abuse.

“Painkillers are very common drugs and their sales have been skyrocketing,” Farley said.

Painkillers, or opioid analgesics, include oxycodone (either Percocet or OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin). Chemically, Farley said they are similar to heroin and they’re just as addictive.

John Scarabaggio, 23, who struggled with a prescription drug addiction, at work.
John Scarabaggio, 23, who struggled with a prescription drug addiction, at work.

Scarabaggio can testify. He said that by the time he made a full recovery from both surgeries, he was so addicted he couldn’t stop. He kept lying to his doctor and said he was still in pain so he could keep refilling his prescriptions.

“It was so easy, I didn’t need to doctor shop. I’d just go to him and said ‘I need more, I’m still in pain.’  It was as easy as getting cold medicine.”

As Scarabaggio kept using, his tolerance level went up and the more careless he became. He was court-mandated to attend an outpatient rehab program in early 2011 after getting arrested on a drug-related charge. It was his first attempt at recovery. The program was 30 days long, but Scarabaggio left after two weeks.

“It’s a horrible feeling,” he said about getting clean. “You go through the withdrawal, you sweat, shake, throw up. You go through every feeling and all you can think about is ‘why can’t I keep getting high?’”

After the two weeks he spent in rehab, Scarabaggio went back home and was clean for only two days.

“My parents were happy that I was doing good, but I was a miserable person. I didn’t wanna leave my house, I didn’t care anymore,” he said. “I had no heart.”

But he had a change of heart after his overdose. Right after he woke up from his coma, he was transferred to the Dynamic Youth Community rehab facility in Fallsburg, N.Y., where he remained for 13 months.

“I became normal John again,” he said. “I found out things about myself that I never knew before my addiction.”

Last September, Scarabaggio was transferred to Camelot Counseling, a group home for young men at the Seaview Hospital campus on Staten Island, where he was closer to his family. He recently finished the last seven months of his recovery and is currently back home, working at his father’s steel company in Newark, N.J., and is looking forward to taking classes at the College of Staten Island this fall.

“I’m strong now, I have no desire to get high,” Scarabaggio said. “I’ve had opportunities when I came home, people who were supposedly my friends were like ‘wanna smoke blunts?’ and I’m like ‘nah, I’m good.’”

A Celebration of Peace in a Community Touched By Gun Violence

Young girls sit together at the "Children's Day of Peace" event at the Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway.
Young girls sit together at the "Children's Day of Peace" event at the Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway.

NEW YORK — At a children’s summer party last Saturday afternoon at the Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway, Penny Wrencher made an introduction between two friends.

She knew they would have something in common.

“This is Nene,” Wrencher said to Taylonn Murphy, “She lost her daughter, too.”

Murphy and Vernell “Nene” Britt smiled, shook hands and looked at each other in recognition. They had both lost charismatic, basketball-playing daughters in shooting feuds.

For more information about community-based alternatives visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub

In the summer of 2006, Britt was awakened by a phone call with news that her 18-year-old daughter, Latina “Peanut” Bilbro, had been involved in a shooting. She descended the Redfern tower where she lived and discovered Peanut lying on the pavement with a fatal gunshot wound to her chest.

THE ANONYMOUS PEOPLE SCREENINGFive years later, across the city, Murphy’s daughter, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, also 18, was shot and killed in a hallway of Harlem’s Grant Houses.

The children’s party where Murphy and Britt met was organized by Wrencher and the Far Rockaway Police Athletic League youth summer camp as both a celebration for the community’s youth and a forum for anti-violence education. That the two met at the “Children’s Day of Peace” event wasn’t out of the ordinary. It seemed as though everyone in attendance had, in some way, been touched by gun violence.

Taylonn Murphy, Penny Wrencher, Shenee Johnson and Vernell Britt all lost children to gun violence. They came together at the "Children's Day of Peace" event at Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway.
Taylonn Murphy, Penny Wrencher, Shenee Johnson and Vernell Britt all lost children to gun violence. They came together at the "Children's Day of Peace" event at Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway.

“We were all affected by violence in different forms,” said a former Redfern resident and activist known as Queen Esther. “I’ve had family members killed. Boyfriends killed. I used to be part of that dysfunction and I suffered so much.”

Redfern Houses have been quiet lately. There hasn’t been a single shooting in the past year according to crime data from the New York Police Department. But residents remember a time, only years ago, when weekend shooting sprees would claim several teenage victims in the area.

In 2008, an aspiring dancer, Brandon Bethea, 15, was shot and killed in a shootout between rival crews from opposing sides of the Redfern Houses. Bethea’s family had moved her out of Redfern to get her away from the violence that marred the hallways and courtyards of the complex. She was there celebrating a graduation party when she was gunned down in a hail of 30 bullets.

Days later another teen, Tyrese Johnson, was gunned down in the doorway of the Last Stop Deli, just blocks aways from the houses. The 16-year-old was killed in a case of mistaken identity, police said.

They say that they are still healing from those wounds.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logo“We’re just trying to come together as a community,” said Wrencher, who lost her son, Andre Saunders, a 32-year-old MTA bus employee, in a 2009 shooting. “I don’t want to see another mother cry out.”

Party-goers wore matching T-shirts with the likeness and nickname of a lost loved one. “For the Love of Dre” read some, in honor of Wrencher’s son. Some women wore pink T-shirts with the words “Stack’s Divas” on the front, in reference to Rayquan Elliot, also known as Stack Bundles, a Redfern resident and rapper who was gunned down in 2007 and transformed into a symbol of anti-violence in the community.

In some ways, the “Children’s Day for Peace” was a kids’ summer party like any other. Wrencher transformed a seldom-used courtyard, donated to the Redfern Houses in honor of a resident who was murdered while on tenant watch in 2000, into a colorful bash. There were balloons, a DJ, a smoking barbecue station, face painting and dance performances. Homemade posters with inspirational words and anti-violence messages adorned the walls. “Stop the Violence, Increase the Peace” read one.

But according to residents, something so simple as an outdoor gathering for the kids at Redfern is an infrequent indulgence for a community that is starved for resources and constantly concerned about public safety.

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Check out our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub for even more information about community-based alternatives, including: 


“The kids need it. It’s a free day. Just a party,” said Denese Mars, 48, the center director for the Police Athletic League youth camp.

“It’s good to see them at least have something like this,” said Spud “Sleepy” Josey, 32, a former Redfern resident and father of two. Josey decided to leave Redfern Houses seven years ago when, in the middle of the day, he heard gunshots as he was getting his infant son out of his car.

“I said, ‘you know what? I’m gonna get out of here,”’ said Josey.

Penny Wrencher organized the "Children's Day of Violence" at Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway. She lost a son, Andre Saunders, in 2011.
Penny Wrencher organized the "Children's Day of Violence" at Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway. She lost a son, Andre Saunders, in 2011.

The rare chance to have an outdoor party for the children of Redfern also carried with it an opportunity for many community members to heal from their losses and reinvest in a safer future in the next generation of youth.

“Just seeing the kids, I get so much out of it. It makes me happy,” said Shenee Johnson, 40, who lost her 17-year-old son, Kedrick Ali Morrow, Jr., when he was shot and killed at a high school party in 2010.

“There are two ways to grieve. One is being bitter and the other is to help other people,” Johnson added.

Taylonn Murphy, the father of Chicken, has also rededicated his life to helping young people so that they don’t share the same fate as his daughter. He would like to keep a piece of her with him, he said.

Under his shirt, Murphy wore a beaded basketball necklace along with a frayed, laminated picture of Chicken in her honor.

“We don’t want to see these young people another face on a laminate,” said Murphy as he looked out at the kids enjoying the party.

See more photos from the "Children's Day of Peace" on JJIE's art blog Here.



Trains, Amputations and the Roots of Why Kids Are On the Run

trains_runaways_guatemalaFrom the Center for Public Integrity: 

The teen whose arms had been severed was still in shock, but he managed to muster a smile and embrace visitors with his bandaged stumps. Evilio Gonzalez had fallen off and then under a train he was riding on — a vain attempt to leave Honduras, cross through Mexico and get into the United States.

I met Evilio 10 years ago, while I was a reporter based in Latin America for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Cox Newspapers chain. Catholic nuns at the eight-bed Rosa de Tepeyac Hospital in Mexico City were caring for the youth’s wounds and shattered spiritual health. Among others in the clinic was Edgar Suniga, 14, whose left leg had been severed.

“Compared to what Jesus Christ suffered, this is nothing,” Evilio told me, demonstrating how the nuns were helping him learn to draw with his toes.

That same year, in Guatemala City, I also met Drik Borgan Godoy de Leon, a teen who spoke of his struggle to extricate himself from a gang. The 18-year-old was shot dead, just two months after our interview. I also met in Sandra Zayas, a beleaguered special prosecutor of crimes against women and children. One of her cases involved the murder of two Guatemalan sisters, 11 and 14, who were chopped to pieces because the elder sister spurned a gangster’s advances.

CenterForPublicIntegritySince I reported those stories, the grip that organized crime has on Central American countries has tightened further. Justice systems remain notoriously incapable of handing the crisis.The region has a long history of stark inequality, dictatorships and brutal civil wars that led to massacres of many poor inhabitants, including mass killings of Guatamala's Maya native people in the 1980s. The United States invested billions in military spending during that time to support select regimes in the area and is now financing drug war efforts there.

Many of the minors who are now turning themselves in at the U.S.-Mexico border speak of joining parents in “El Norte,” or talk of how they dream of finding a job. But more and more are now speaking of the horror at seeing friends and relatives killed, raped, extorted and the pressure they receive to serve gangs — or else.

Here is some illuminating information about deteriorating conditions in Central America, long in the making, and the U.S. debate over how to deal with the influx of minors showing up at the border.

A Syracuse University project known as TRAC released a report this week analyzing more than 100,000 juvenile cases filed in the nation’s immigration courts over the last 10 years. Only 43 percent of kids in these cases were or are currently represented by lawyers who help plead for asylum or another form of legal status, according to TRAC, the acronym for the university’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Immigration courts are clogged with backlogs, but juvenile cases only represent about 11 percent of all cases currently pending.

Kids, like adults, do not have the right to the appointment of attorney in immigration proceedings.

But TRAC found that having a lawyer increased the odds that kids would win their claims against deportation: In cases that have been resolved, nearly half the children who had attorneys — 47 percent — were allowed to remain in the United States. When children did not have legal representation, courts allowed only one in 10 to remain here.

A group of civil rights advocates filed suit this month arguing that it is an unconstitutional violation of due process not to provide minors with legal representation in immigration hearings, as the Center for Public Integrity reported.

Within 72 hours of their detention, such children are supposed to be transferred to shelters supervised by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There they are supposed to have an opportunity to speak to social workers and receive a talk about their legal rights and options. Those options include asking for an immigration hearing before a judge rather than being deported immediately. Deportations of non-Mexican or Canadian children can take many days to coordinate in conjunction with their consular officials.

Mexican or Canadian children, by contrast, can be handed over to child-welfare officials in their countries within hours if they volunteer to be returned during screenings that Border Patrol agents are obliged to perform of these children. Mexican and Canadian minors can also ask to be transferred to a shelter and request an immigration hearing. But after quick screenings, many end up quickly returned at various ports of entry.

Legislative proposals — with some bipartisan support — are emerging in Congress to alter the anti-trafficking act, a move that's dividing lawmakers. Changes to the law could give Border Patrol agents a role in screening Central American children shortly after they're detained and then deporting them more quickly if they agree to being removed.

As the Center has reported, the Obama Administration has also supported the idea of streamlining interviews of minors, with officials suggesting that many children are not likely to qualify for asylum or other forms of legal status.

Speedy screenings that end in children agreeing to leave are controversial because Mexican minors have been deported back to dangerous circumstances, including servitude as drug "mules" and as sex workers, as the Center found in 2011. An in-depth report by the Texas legal aid group Appleseed, which led observations of such screenings, also found that kids were sent back to perilous conditions in Mexico.

For years, researchers who study Central America have warned that organized crime was gaining strength.

A Congressional Research Service report in February of this year surveyed the gang problem in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and the struggle to address it. The U.S. Department of Justice has archived many reports assessing the growing threats of gangs. The Washington Office on Latin America also has a wealth of studies over the years warning of the need to address dysfunctional justice systems and continuing migration of kids and families that are divided. A 2010 report explores brutal practices by people smugglers.

Thousands of Central American adults hold temporary “protective” visas in the United States due to natural disasters, but cannot legally bring their children into the United States to live with them. The children are left behind in precarious circumstances — just one of the “push and pull” factors that help explain why children migrate, as an analyst with the Brookings Institution wrote.

The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute also has produced a number of pieces describing the complex roots and difficult choices for addressing the influx of minors. In 2006, a report on the history of violence and migration explained that U.S. officials often resisted giving asylum to certain Central Americans during the civil wars in the 1980s.

“The United States,” the report says, “sided with conservative governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, labeling its actions anticommunist, and invested billions of dollars. When hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled their homelands and sought asylum in the United States, this aid became the primary reason for denying the refugees' tales of torture, forced recruitment, and other crimes. To accord them political asylum would have undermined the U.S. government's policies.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees produced a report this year called “Children on the Run,” as the Center for Public Integrity reported in March. The report presents surveys of children explaining growing fear of violence and personal threats that U.N. officials argue constitutes a refugee crisis.


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Federal Complaint Challenges Texas Town’s New Ban on Housing any Border Kids

texas_Border_control_housingFrom the Center for Public Integrity: 

Civil rights groups filed a federal complaint Tuesday challenging a Texas city’s ban on providing housing to “refugees” or foreigners such as the Central American children who’ve been turning themselves in at the border.

The complaint against an ordinance adopted July 8 by League City, a Houston suburb, was filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, and Appleseed, a Texas public-interest law group. Appleseed has researched dangers faced by Mexican and Central American migrant children.

The complaint argues that the ordinance — one of a number being contemplated in Texas — is discriminatory and violates the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “There is particularly ugly language about Muslims in this League City ordinance also,” said Maddie Sloan, an Appleseed attorney.

CenterForPublicIntegrityThe number of children from Central America showing up along the U.S.-Mexico border has surged this year.  Since last October, more than 52,000 minors, many of them without parents, have been detained, double the total number of such kids detained during all of last year. For some kids, a Department of Homeland Security assessment found, violence in their countries is so great that the risk of traveling alone “is preferable to remaining at home.”

Marisa Bono, a MALDEF attorney, said the complaint against League City “is a warning to other municipalities that are considering similar resolutions. Cities can’t accept federal funds, and then use them to discriminate.”

The complaint asks the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate and halt ordinances aimed at “vulnerable children.”

The League City ordinance, approved in a 6-2 vote, lists a number of allegations that elected officials say motivated them to outlaw the provision of housing for children.

Language in the housing ban makes the claim that illegal immigrants carry diseases “endemic” to their countries of origin — an allegation that international health experts say is factually unfounded, as the Texas Observer reported.

The United Nations Children’s Fund reports that 93 percent of children in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are vaccinated against measles, compared to 92 percent of American kids.

Federal officials have not approached League City about placing children there at federal cost, as they have in other communities with suitable shelters.

But supporters of the ordinance said they wanted to take a stand, and protect taxpayers from having to shoulder costs for schooling or other services for children. The ordinance also asserts a need for a ban because “radical Islamist terror groups continue to exploit the situation to infiltrate the United States” — an allegation that has also not been proved or linked to the influx of Central Americans.

“Be it resolved,” the ordinance says, that all agencies in League City are “instructed to refuse requests or directives by federal agencies to permit or establish any facility for the purposes of processing, housing, or detaining any illegal aliens, designated as ‘refugees,’ or otherwise.”

Heidi Theiss, the council member who wrote the ordinance, talked to KPRC television in Texas about why she proposed the housing ban. “We are a very safe city, here in League City,” she said, “and it’s that way because we’re proactive.”

Some minors taken into custody at the border say they fear gang violence and reprisals and other dangers in Central America, an impoverished region struggling with organized crime and drug cartels, as the Center for Public Integrity has reported.

Debate is on over whether to alter existing federal legislation so that Border Patrol agents can quickly deport more of the minors rather than put them in shelters where social workers can assess them and they can get immigration court dates.

Advocates for children argue that as children, the minors need a safe place to reveal their circumstances and talk about whether they might be eligible to seek asylum or another type of legal status, or agree to be returned to their home countries in an orderly fashion.


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