Staying Connected

Implementation

The C2H initiative represented a major shift in organizational culture for public youth justice agencies and private providers. Implementing the reforms required many decisions and consensus was not always easy to achieve. More than two years into the initiative, officials still differed in their views of Close to Home. Some strongly supported it, but others remained concerned about its effectiveness and long-term sustainability.

Photo from the New York Foundation

State officials were sometimes skeptical about the decision to expand ACS’s child welfare mission to include work with young offenders. City officials acknowledged that ACS lacked experience in the juvenile justice arena at first, but they were confident that staff members were developing the necessary expertise. In some ways, ACS was well positioned to assume responsibility for the expanded youth justice placements. Caseworkers experienced in foster care and group home placements might be especially capable of recommending the right mix of placements and services for individual youth, whether they required juvenile justice or child welfare services.

For OCFS, Close to Home was a departure from business as usual. The agency operated a largely institution-based system for decades, and those facilities were important employers in the local economies of several upstate communities. The C2H initiative would likely mean the loss of OCFS jobs. It was no small task for OCFS leadership to manage the associated stress and conflict. OCFS held a series of negotiations with unions to explain the new policies and to seek their buy-in and support. Although agency officials worked hard to retain employees and move them into different positions, layoffs were unavoidable. State officials told researchers that more than 1,200 positions were lost after OCFS began to downsize facilities in 2007. The C2H initiative would likely accelerate the process.

When judged by the stated goals of the C2H initiative, however, it was clear that the reforms were working. During the first year of implementation, youth from New York City who once would have been sent hours away to upstate New York placements were now staying in the City and staying in contact with their families, neighborhoods, and schools. The youth justice system was changing, at least for the young people who otherwise would have been in OCFS’s non-secure placements.

Phase 1

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Phase 1 of C2H (the transfer of youth in “non-secure placements”) began a few months after the enabling C2H legislation passed in 2012. Some new educational and service-delivery programs were open in four months. Transfers of placements began within six to seven months.

Everyone involved in C2H was aware that the shift in placements occurred during a time of generally declining youth crime and a falling rate of placement overall. Among New York City youth, placements were falling for at least a decade by the time C2H was launched. Between 2006 and early 2014, the total number of New York City youth in some form of placement due to law violations dropped from nearly 1,400 at any given time to slightly more than 400.

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Just before the launch of C2H, New York City had dozens of youth in State-run non-secure facilities. Once those placements began to be transferred to the City’s responsibility, the change process moved very quickly. Phase 1 resulted in 52 new City-based placements within the first month. By the end of 2012, the non-secure facility population had climbed to 157, and the total population reached a peak of 213 four months later in April 2013.

The relatively fast start of transfers did not mean that the entire process would go smoothly. City officials admitted to researchers that they were often frustrated by how long it took contractors to prepare new facilities and programs. Providers often felt rushed. Some had never operated a youth justice facility before, and they had just four months to hire qualified staff and to open up new program sites. The youth in these placements had complex service needs, often including serious trauma. The City planned to build its array of new services and placements around principles from the “Missouri Model,” and most of the new providers had insufficient experience with that approach. Naturally, providers were not always able to open as quickly as they had hoped.

Handling the mix of case types in the new system introduced other complexities. Some providers were unprepared to serve females. Bed capacity became an issue immediately as City facilities received more girls than anticipated during the early discussions about C2H. Eventually, ACS had to change the designation of some programs from male to female in order to compensate for the miscalculation. It took longer than expected to build the gender-specific programming required to serve female offenders with mental health treatment needs and histories of trauma.

Even when the new agencies were ready to accept them, the process for completing transfers of custody to the City posed other challenges. The C2H legislation required that OCFS review each case individually to determine who was eligible for transfer. The agency could not simply transfer an entire class of youth. Separate petitions and court proceedings were required, and the process took longer than expected. In order to expedite it, attorneys for many juveniles agreed to waive their client’s right to attend every court appearance. Some judges opposed this shortcut, however, and their cases involved full hearings on each petition.

Confidentiality and information sharing further complicated and slowed the transfer process. To provide youth with an appropriate mix of services, the State required OCFS to inform the City’s ACS about the service needs of each youth in some detail. First, however, OCFS had to obtain information releases and consents from parents and families. Obtaining these releases was time consuming and it slowed down the process of matching each youth with appropriate programs and facilities.

Despite the complications and delays, City officials interviewed for this study were encouraged by the performance of the ACS contractors. Once the early obstacles were overcome, it was clear that youth from New York City were gaining access to a broader array of services and supports. The expanded investments in localized services appeared to be paying off for youth and families.

Some glitches were unexpected. Delays in the opening of new placement facilities forced state-level providers to transfer many youth from OCFS residential care directly to City aftercare services rather than first sending them to residential care in the City. This pathway was not anticipated during the initial planning of C2H. Local providers were not always ready to provide proper supervision for youth in aftercare status, and State officials believed that ACS did not have sufficient staff to oversee the sudden increase in aftercare youth. In the first months of C2H, according to OCFS records, it took an average of 21 days to connect a newly released youth to City-sponsored aftercare services. The delays triggered a spike in violations (sanctions for youth who violated the terms and conditions of aftercare) and some youth were returned to custody as a result.

Safety and security turned out to be challenging in the early days of C2H. The programs contracted to serve youthful offenders during the first year of C2H experienced an unexpected number of AWOLs (“away without leave” or youth who leave a program site without permission). By mid-August 2013, there had been 662 AWOL incidents lasting at least 24 hours. After the first year, AWOL incidents declined steadily, and by the end of 2013 the AWOL level in City facilities was below the State average. The early AWOLs, however, suggested that at least some of the City’s new facilities may have been rushed into service before they were fully prepared.

Other delays occurred because new provider agencies had issues obtaining the appropriate licensure required for opening. All told, the transfer process took five months longer than expected. Despite everyone’s best intentions, there were two youth justice systems working at the same time during the initial months of implementation — the old State system managed entirely by OCFS and the newly designed City system authorized by the Close to Home legislation.

The number of youth actually transferred from State placements was only half the original estimate. About 300 youth from New York City were housed in non-secure State facilities when C2H was launched, but due to implementation delays, half of them completed their placements in upstate facilities. Once all non-secure placements had been moved to City programs, State and City officials agreed that the new arrangements were operating successfully. Eventually, Phase 1 changed how New York City responded to low-risk juvenile offenders. All newly adjudicated cases disposed to non-secure placement were placed with the City’s new system.

Ongoing Coordination

OCFS approved and continued to oversee the plan that ACS developed for managing the new localized placement system. ACS and OCFS wanted to ensure that all service sectors were well-coordinated before moving into Phase 2 of C2H. One of the most critical components was education. The NYC Department of Education’s District 79 Superintendent, Tim Lisante, was engaged early in the planning process. District 79’s Passages Academy provided educational services to most NSP youth with 11 sites located throughout the City. These sites also served non-secure detention (NSD) youth, but NSD and NSP youth were educated in separate classrooms. Two providers operated their own schools (ACS 2013b).

Delays in implementation affected educational goals as well as treatment goals. In the initial plan for C2H, officials intended to transfer as many youth as possible in September 2012 in order to avoid interrupting their schooling in the middle of an academic year. However, transfers were just beginning in September and continued through the Fall, which complicated the transition process for many youth.

Establishing effective student discipline strategies for C2H youth in the school setting was another immediate challenge. The two City schools designated for the non-secure placement population served the City’s juvenile detention system as well. Schools were not fully prepared for the integration of both populations.

Officials were generally pleased with the educational component once the early bugs were worked out. Unlike the pre-C2H system, youth placed in care under C2H would remain enrolled in the City’s Department of Education system without interruption, and the credits they earned during placement would now count toward their educational record when they returned to the community. Previously, the credits that youth earned during State placements were not easily transferred because the State and the City used different educational credit systems. When youth were released and returned to City schools, each school Principal had the legal authority to deny the transfer of credits. Under the new system, all schools serving youth during placement were licensed and accredited by the City.

Photo from the Brooklyn Reader

Other measures were implemented to insure greater continuity between facility-based schools and community schools, including an online education and reentry planning tool called “Plan to Succeed NYC.” Students, families, and community schools could access the system for planning and simple communication. The City school system also created a new counselor position to assist families and to prepare youth for their return to a community school after placement.

These practices were a dramatic improvement compared with the previous era when justice-involved youth were routinely denied access to their former schools after placement. After the launch of C2H Phase 1, the City Department of Education reported a significant spike in credits earned by placed youth, as well as higher percentages of youth taking and passing the State Regents exams.

Disciplinary Practices

The planning process included a focus on disciplinary protocols, as these varied widely across the City’s youth facilities and led to inconsistent practices and confusion for youth who moved between the school setting and the residential setting. Officials from the City’s Department of Education reported that behavioral incidents in the residential setting often carried over into the classroom, sometimes leading to violent clashes between students. New protocols had to be created, and educational staff were forced to improvise until the new procedures were put in place. The lack of advance planning was described by some officials as detrimental to the early success of C2H. The Department of Education reported increasing rates of fights and runaways during the 2012-2013 school year. Residential providers and educators had to work quickly to solve a new set of problems.

Youth advocates had been particularly concerned about disciplinary practices given OCFS’ track record and ACS’ own history of problematic practices in the City’s detention facilities. Data from ACS’ own monitoring efforts had shown that during the fourth quarter of FY 2012 and the first quarter of FY 2013 combined, over 1,500 physical or mechanical restraints of children occurred with 125 reported injuries to children. In the same period, two ACS-run detention facilities had over 150 instances of room isolation.

For Phase 1 of Close to Home, ACS designed a set of discipline policies that providers were required to follow. To prevent abusive restraint practices, ACS required each NSP provider to adopt a positive behavioral management approach like the Safe Crisis Management System (SCM) – which focuses on de-escalating crisis situations. When youth presented acute physical behavior – i.e. risk of physical injury, danger to the facility, or intent to escape — ASC required providers to follow the SCM to deal with the behavior while avoiding the use of force and physical restraint. The use of room isolation was only permitted in NSP facilities that housed 13 or more youth and only after other de-escalation measures were ineffective. ACS also crafted a specific set of procedures that providers were required to follow after successful escapes (ACS 2012; 2013a).

Reentry and Aftercare

The end of placement and a youth’s return to the community are always critical moments for justice systems. During C2H implementation, ACS made reentry planning a high priority. Planning for each youth’s transition to the community was to begin while the youth was still placed. ACS specialists and placement staff developed a specific plan for every youth and worked closely with the family in order to address any potential difficulties that were likely to occur during the transition phase.

In the early stages of C2H, ACS relied on its existing providers for aftercare services. Many youth returning from non-secure placements received services from the Juvenile Justice Initiative’s (JJI) intensive aftercare program — a four-month program based on Functional Family Therapy. As C2H expanded, ACS planned to evolve its aftercare practices and to replace the JJI model with a new approach tailored for Close to Home. The goal was for local community-based organizations to play a central role in reentry and continuing care and support by providing specialized services for youth, such as mentoring, recreation and tutoring (ACS 2012).

The design of an effective and well-serviced aftercare program for C2H youth was one of the main concerns of State officials during negotiations leading up to the launch of C2H. The State considered the City’s initial plans to be weak. State officials pushed for the creation of a more comprehensive approach for aftercare. Although the State later agreed that ACS had improved its aftercare services, the need for well-structured aftercare programs remained an area of concern for OCFS.

System Oversight

Long before C2H, youth advocates had been critical of the oversight and accountability mechanisms in New York’s residential placement system. Many factors, including the distance between the State facilities and New York City, prevented families and lawyers from properly monitoring the system’s behavior. With the development of C2H, ACS provided more support for the independent Juvenile Justice Oversight Board, whose members were not ACS staff. Board members were empowered to visit facilities, to make recommendations for system performance, and to issue annual reports.

Existing accountability measures were still subject to criticism. Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco, director of the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association of New York, questioned the independence and transparency of the Board. In testimony at a City Council hearing in January 2013, she pointed out the lack of clear oversight and cited the need for standard practices like unannounced visits to providers and confidential interviews with youth.

The C2H legislation included a series of external oversight mechanisms designed to ensure high quality execution of the plan. OCFS was designated to oversee the implementation of the initiative, ACS’s case management and aftercare, and the licensing and functioning of the providers. OCFS also created a Close to Home Oversight and System Improvement unit (CTHO) to monitor the new City-based residential system (ACS 2012). The oversight unit organized site visits with staff and youth in provider agencies. It also planned to interview youth’s family members to gain a more complete understanding of the complexity of the reintegration issues facing youth and their families. The CTHO provided technical assistance and support to providers regarding ACS policies and regulations, AWOL protocols, gender-specific programming, and transition planning. According to one OCFS official, the core mission of the OCFS oversight team was to maintain the momentum of the State’s own juvenile justice reform efforts and to remain involved in shaping the quality of the City system under Close to Home.

The C2H legislation granted the State a significant oversight role and allowed OCFS to require corrective action if the City was ever out of compliance with the approved process. If problems persist, OCFS was authorized to use fiscal penalties and, ultimately, to terminate ACS’s authority to operate the juvenile justice services specified under Close to Home. As a City agency, ACS was also overseen by the New York City Council and the City’s Public Advocates’ office. The Close to Home legislation did not require ACS to release performance measures to the public, but with support from the advocacy community the City Council passed legislation in June 2013 that mandated publication of key demographic data and incident reports on youth detained and placed in City-run facilities.

Support for Alternative Programs

Finally, many of the State and City officials involved in Close to Home believed that its success would rest largely on how well the youth justice system was able to expand and use alternatives to placement. The City’s Department of Probation, for instance, was deeply involved in developing and funding a wider array of alternative programs for young offenders.

Within the first year of implementation, it was clear that resources had been shifted successfully to community alternatives and that judges were really beginning to use the programs. The probation department reported that as of February 2014 the AIM and ECHOES programs were operating at near capacity.

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The ECHOES program took some time to reach capacity, in part because the DOP sited the initial set of 70 program slots in Harlem and the program there struggled to recruit sufficient numbers of clients. Realizing that the ECHOES program may have been too large in the Harlem neighborhood, DOP reassessed the scale and location of ECHOES providers and reissued contracts, including a second site in Jamaica Queens. By early 2014, 90 percent of the ECHOES program slots were occupied. The Department’s goal was to maintain an occupancy rate of 80 to 90 percent and City officials expressed confidence that they could meet this goal.

City officials also focused on the community and recreational activities available for placed youth. When ACS recruited provider agencies to serve youth in placement, they preferred agencies that endorsed a youth development approach. For example, Children’s Village and SCO Family of Services were NSP providers with a long history of emphasizing positive youth development and community involvement. They worked to ensure that youth had ample opportunities to participate in service projects in the community, including activities like working in a food pantry or helping to support homeless families. Providers were also encouraged to integrate recreational activities and the arts into daily programming for youth.

By 2014, ACS had established partnerships and contracts with a variety of community-based and alternative youth programs. Some of these programs included (Sherman 2015):

  • Voices Unbroken — Writing based workshops to help young people build literacy skills.
    Healing Arts of Montefiore Medical Center — Convening artists and young people to design and paint murals and other artwork.
  • High Five/Art Connection — Introducing youth in non-secure residential settings to the arts with visits to live theater and museums.
  • Carnegie Hall — Connecting youth with professional musicians to compose, produce and perform their own music.
    New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence — Working with young people in ACS programs to learn about the sources and effects of family and partner violence and its effects on relationships and health.
  • Girl Scouts Council of Greater New York — Providing workshops on financial literacy, leadership development, career planning and college preparation.
  • Yoga for Yoga — Offering weekly yoga sessions for youth in ACS programs.
  • Row New York — Introducing youth to rowing and leveraging physical activity as support for academic success.
  • exalt youth — Providing structured classes and individualized support related to work and labor market success, including paid internships.
  • Gender-Responsive Re-entry Assistance and Support Program — An evidence-informed re-entry program for young women transitioning from placement to the community.

Phase 2

Close to Home was designed to include a second phase affecting limited-secure placements. Youth in LSP facilities were higher-risk offenders, although not as high risk as those in secure facilities. The original C2H plan predicted that LSP youth would be moved to City-operated programs in Spring 2013, which was eventually postponed to Fall 2013 (Administration for Children’s Services 2013b). By the end of 2014, implementation had been postponed again and was scheduled for March 2015. During the extra year of planning, OCFS and ACS worked together to ensure that the City’s new LSP programs were ready before the launch of Phase 2.

According to ACS officials, a key reason for postponing Phase 2 was the difficulty the agency encountered in recruiting providers with appropriate resources and program space. Both ACS and OCFS agreed that it was better to delay the launch of Phase 2 rather than to rush a deadline that could result in opening programs with inadequate resources for youth. Selecting providers and determining the distribution of program slots were major decisions for ACS. In Phase 1, the agency relied on a decision-making process that matched individual youth with the most appropriate provider based on need. An ACS intake and assessment team gathered information from a variety of sources to learn about each youth and family. The team then accounted for any special needs of the youth and his/her educational abilities and included suitable provisions in the service plan.

For ACS officials, it was clear that the process for placing youth in LSP facilities would be at least as complicated. ACS worked with the Vera Institute of Justice to develop a classification tool designed to integrate information about youth behavior during past placements with other predictive information. The tool was still in development in 2014 and not yet fully implemented, but the agency hoped that it would supplement ACS’ other assessments in helping to make final placement determinations. Such a tool would be particularly helpful in instances when the family court ordered placement for a youth, but requested further input from ACS (ACS 2012; 2013a).

The government officials and private practitioners interviewed for this study were cautiously optimistic about the launch of Phase 2. Both the State and City embraced the vision of a youth justice system in which placements would be used sparingly and family members would play a key role in the design and follow-up of treatment plans. Phase 2 would be another significant shift in policy and practice and everyone involved was anxious to see it begin.

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