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Joaquin Sapien: Violent Crimes Mar Effort at Less Restrictive Homes for Children

The arrest of three runaway boys shines light on New York City’s latest program for troubled youth.

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Image from Flickr user Randall Pugh

By Joaquin Sapien
By arrangement with ProPublica

In 2013, New York City began an experiment in how to more safely and effectively deal with children with minor criminal records: house them in small group homes close to their own neighborhoods; provide twenty-four-hour supervision; and create two levels of oversight, involving both city and state officials.

In 2014, the number of arrests of young residents of the homes totaled 177.

Problems surfaced quickly. That first year, children ran off from the “non-secure” homes some 740 times. One child wound up stabbing someone to death in Queens. In 2014, the number of arrests of young residents of the homes totaled 177.

And then this week, three boys left a home in Brooklyn, made their way to Chinatown in Manhattan, and allegedly robbed and raped a thirty-three-year-old woman in the staircase of an apartment building on Eldridge Street. The woman was hospitalized and the boys were arraigned in Manhattan Superior Court on Wednesday. The home, run by the Nebraska-based nonprofit Boys Town, has been temporarily closed pending further investigation.

The alleged crime will doubtless draw attention to the city’s experiment, a program called Close to Home that is directly overseen by the Administration for Children’s Services. The idea was born of disaster: the secure upstate facilities that long housed juveniles convicted of crimes had for years been rampant with violence and sexual abuse, eventually becoming the target of federal investigators. But Close to Home was also born with a model in mind: an alternative-to-incarceration program for troubled youth in Missouri that has significantly reduced the number of repeat offenders in that state.

“Over and over, we see that when young people who have gotten into trouble are allowed to remain in the community and receive intensive services, they achieve better outcomes than those sent to out-of-home placements,” Gladys Carrión, the commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services said in testimony to the New York City Council last year.

Supporters of the nascent Close to Home program view it as a work in progress, but an improvement over the system of locked, abusive detention facilities that it replaced. The core ambition is rooted in the belief that children who break the law can be rehabilitated with the right treatment, like counseling and therapy delivered close to the children’s families. Right now, only children who are deemed “low-risk” and likely to benefit from such treatment by a Family Court judge are sent to the homes. There are plans to expand the program by opening more secure facilities for more serious offenders.

But state reports and at least one set of surveys conducted by outside observers show the program has faced significant hurdles in retaining workers, ensuring safety, and installing independent oversight.

In a report analyzing the program’s first year of operation, the New York State Office of Child and Family Services, which Carrión once led, said that most of the homes struggled early on to provide “an environment free from numerous altercations, AWOLS and incidents of contraband.”

The most well-known of that year’s incidents involved Andrew Benitez, a seventeen-year-old boy who ran off from his Staten Island home and made it to Queens, where he allegedly stabbed an eighteen-year-old to death with a retractable razor. After the murder, ACS closed the boy’s home, known as Stephen’s House, and directed other Close to Home facilities to strengthen security measures.

According to ACS records, there were 177 arrests made of children living in Close to Home facilities in 2014, up from 169 in 2013. But in that time span the program grew, serving 583 young people in 2013 and 707 in 2014. In a statement, ACS spokesman Chris McKniff said the arrests of the rape suspects this week have again inspired the agency to tighten monitoring of the homes. The agency is now questioning Boys Town officials about how the boys were able to escape.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of this crime that has happened in the community,” said Kara Neuverth, a Boys Town spokeswoman. “Because of privacy laws we cannot confirm whether these youth are in our care. However, we take any allegations of criminal activity by our youth seriously and cooperate with authorities.”

Just last month, The New School Center for New York City Affairs released a report on Close to Home, finding a mixed bag of outcomes. Incidents of children running away had gone down over time, as had arrests. But the use of physical restraints by staff had gone up, and the number of youth-on-youth assaults and child injuries had risen as well. In interviews with dozens of group home staffers and administrators, the New School found that the homes had trouble finding and keeping qualified employees.

Edward Fabian, the assistant vice president for the non-profit Sheltering Arms, was candid on this point: “We went on this grandiose ideology that everyone on staff would have a BA,” Fabian said in the report, adding that he now has only five of his original fifty hires. “They said ‘I didn’t go to school for this.’”

Children placed in the $100 million Close to Home program are not allowed to leave the homes without permission. ACS said all homes have locks and alarms, with a minimum of two workers on site at all times.

But the board met only once and never visited a single facility.

Boys Town has a $6.8 contract with the city to provide beds for up to thirty-four children. A person familiar with the operations of Boys Town’s Brooklyn home said two workers had been fired this week over allegations they had falsified records concerning oversight at the facility. The firings were first reported by the New York Times. Earlier this year, a panel of child advocates appointed by ACS to provide some measure of independent oversight splintered. Several of its members quit over what they viewed as a reduction in their investigative powers.

The board was originally set up by Carrión’s predecessor, Ronald Richter, under the Bloomberg administration. The board was supposed to visit facilities, interview children and staff, and make recommendations on how to improve performance. The idea was that children might be more open in conversations with advocates rather than a government investigator.

But the board met only once and never visited a single facility.

Then, in December 2014, Carrión announced at a City Council hearing that the board’s role would significantly change: Its members would no longer be allowed unannounced visits; they would have to sign a confidentiality agreement and report directly and only to Carrión.

Carrión argued that plenty of oversight was already in place—the state Office of Child and Family Services, the city’s ombudsmen, local prosecutors, the police, the City Council, and ACS’s inspector general.

“We can’t be stepping over each other,” she said at the December hearing.

Reverend Annie Bovian, the Executive Director of the Women’s Advocate Ministry, was one of at least six members of the board who left because of the more restrictive terms.

“To me it was nonsense. There is no such thing as too much oversight. You can’t have too many people looking into situations as disturbing as what goes on in the world of juvenile justice,” she said in a recent interview with ProPublica.

McKniff said the board wasn’t so much disbanded as it was refocused. Today, he said, the board includes a parent of a child who has been in the juvenile justice system, as well as an adult with prior experience in that system.

“There is now greater clarity of the Board’s role so that they can better assist [Carrión] in improving our entire juvenile justice continuum,” he said in an email.

Richter, who set up the board, did not immediately return a call for comment.

The New School researchers did find some evidence of success in the homes. A former resident who lived in one of the homes for a year spoke about how the program helped turn around her erratic and at times violent behavior. “I feel like I’m more calm now. I feel more mature, in a way,” she said at a Close to Home event at the New School in Manhattan last year. “I see the mistakes I made in the past and what caused me to go there and I feel like I wouldn’t have made it as far as I did now if I would have stayed at home.”

She is now enrolled full-time at a public high school.

“The placement of this type of facility is just too close to home.”

The Close to Home program, with its problems and triumphs, is supposed to expand. Right now, there are twenty-eight so-called “nonsecure” homes, almost all in the city’s outer boroughs, with one in Westchester County. The next step is to open at least six “limited-secure” residences. These homes will house juveniles convicted of more serious crimes and afford them less freedom. The windows and doors will be locked around the clock, the homes will have a high perimeter wall surrounding them and most of the social services will be provided on-site.

But the plans to build these facilities have been significantly delayed. They were supposed to open last summer. That got pushed to fall. Now it’s June and the city is running into increasing opposition from residents who will live near the proposed sites.

Fearing a decline in property values and public safety, a group of residents in South Ozone Park, Queens, began holding weekly protests against the establishment of a home in February. In April, they filed a class action lawsuit seeking an injunction.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has sent a letter to Mayor Bill DeBlasio asking him to intervene.

“Residential neighborhoods like South Ozone Park need schools, not prisons,” said Katz, in an April press statement. “The placement of this type of facility is just too close to home.”

Joaquin Sapien has covered criminal justice, military healthcare, and environmental issues for ProPublica since 2008.

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