Cultivating Better Futures for Troubled Bronx Youths

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At the urban youth farm at Brook Park in the south Bronx.

South Bronx Community Connections

A youth works on the soil of the urban farm at Brook Park in the south Bronx.

They could have been locked up for offenses ranging from theft to assault to armed robbery.

Instead, they planted vegetables at an urban farm, painted a mural to honor a community activist, staged a youth talent show, organized “safe parties” for teens at a local community center – away from the gunfire and stabbings outside.

The youths came up with a smorgasbord of ways to improve their impoverished Bronx, N.Y.,  neighborhood as part of the nonprofit Community Connections for Youth’s South Bronx Community Connections (SBCC) initiative.

By agreeing to participate for at least 60 days in the “positive youth development” SBCC provides, the youths avoid probation and have cases are closed and their records cleared.

Positive youth development has created quite a bit of buzz in juvenile justice circles.

For youths in SBCC, it means a chance at a new life, and the program’s leaders say it’s all about building on youths’ strengths and their ties to the community and family, rather than a “deficit-based” approach focusing more on “at-risk youth,” “dysfunctional families” and such.

Now an independent evaluation by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City has found that SBCC helped keep youths from returning to crime and being arrested again.

“Incarcerating youth has been a dismal failure,” said the Rev. Ruben Austria, who founded Community Connections for Youth in 2009. “Every dollar invested in putting youth through the juvenile justice system takes resources out of our communities.

“We are challenging juvenile justice systems to reinvest their resources in neighborhoods most impacted by incarceration to increase their level of partnerships with and financial support to neighborhood and grassroots organizations.”

The John Jay evaluation followed 62 youths referred to SBCC from 2011 to 2013 by probation officers or prosecutors.

“Juveniles who were meaningfully engaged in civic activities with ‘coaches,’ ‘mentors’ and peers for at least 60 days were significantly more likely to remain uninvolved in the justice system during the following year than was a [Bronx-wide] comparison group,” the evaluation said.

Austria said he had made a pledge to skeptical juvenile justice authorities:

“We said, ‘Look, here’s what we’ll promise you. You just use this diversion option, which is a 60-day, short-term window, and if they [juveniles] do what they have to do, then you seal and close the case and there’s no more supervision. Our promise is we will keep on engaging these youngsters … throughout the rest of their adolescence.’”
What’s the secret? Austria, who joined other New York officials in announcing the evaluation at an event Friday, said involving grassroots faith and neighborhood organizations in the community played a big role.

By keeping it hyperlocal, adult coaches and mentors and youths’ peers got to know – and work closely with – juveniles involved in SBCC, Austria said.

The program also stresses parental involvement. It offers formal training in parenting, and some parents also serve as peer mentors to other parents.

Parental involvement paid off: Kids whose parents were involved in the program stayed involved in SBBC for an average of 165 days, while those whose parents participated in up to four program activities stayed involved for an average of 205 days.

Community Connections for Youth received a $1.1 million grant for the pilot program from a federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention formula grant through the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

That money has run out, but Ruben says SBCC is continuing to operate with funding from private foundations.

He said officials in other jurisdictions have expressed interest in starting similar programs.

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