There are no simple answers for reentry adolescents.
Many of them shouldn’t have been forced to go through it to begin with, as they were sent to juvenile lockup facilities for status offenses.
I’ve done a great deal of work with reentry teens, and have found that it usually takes a good month or longer to deinstitutionalize them. They’re essentially experiencing shell shock as they come back from a very rigid environment where they are literally told when they can eat, have bathroom usage, get phone calls that are observed and read mail that was meant for their eyes, but has been already opened and read by others. They are ill prepared for the outside world, and with each day they are incarcerated it takes that much longer to adjust to their newly found freedom.
Many of them come back to communities that had no use for them prior to their incarceration, and so clearly they are no more wanted after they return. They left splintered families who were incapable of parenting before they left, and surely didn’t change while they were away.
Many of these young people go right back to what is familiar to them, and where they feel secure and wanted. Unfortunately, this often includes gangs, corners for hustling and back to negative behaviors.
Many are high school dropouts, have no formalized training and are essentially unemployable. They laugh at the idea of taking an $8 an hour job at a fast food restaurant as they know all too well that the hustle on the corner can net them vast amounts of money instead.
Many are dads, but know nothing about being one because they didn’t have one, and so there is no positive parenting role model to follow. They crave love, support and someone to look after them. More times than not, this does not exist for them. The same negative behaviors that existed before, including drug use to numb their feelings of insecurity, begin again.
What is needed for the reentry teens are structured live-in programs for at least three months as they reintegrate themselves back into freedom. They need education, GED tutoring, counseling of all types, parenting skills if they are a parent. Their own families must be involved in the program, and if they don’t come in voluntarily they should be court-ordered in as they must finally take responsibility for their kids.
These reentry teens need not be thrown to the wolves only to have more recidivism. They need guidance, support and mentors. These mentors play a very important role for these kids. They become their anchor as a relationship is formed within maintained boundary lines.
I know how important this is and how much it is needed as I have mentored dozens of reentry teens through the years. Many need a mentor desperately, but fight against it as they’ve been abandoned and hurt so many times by adults who should have been there for them, but weren’t. Because of this, trust is a major issue for them, and although in small measure they may want to, they can’t.
The mentor-mentee relationship takes on a life of its own. It is hard work, not for the faint of heart, but the rewards can be tremendous as the relationship grows, and the reentry teen slowly learns to trust, maybe for the first time in his life.
Although the reentry in-house program should be at least three months, when these teens are released, they should have not just an idea for their immediate future, but also a structured life plan put in place. They should not be allowed to leave without their GED. They must be either enrolled in further educational or vocational training, or have a job with a livable wage.
They should have follow-up for one year. Their mentor should go with them into the world, playing a very important role in their life. That mentor will continue to be the anchor, the shoulder to lean on, the problem solver, the one to go to a sports event with or a movie. Because of my mentoring, I have had the pleasure of being invited into homes and families who never would have touched my life otherwise.
Reentry is tough for everyone involved; especially for the returnee. However, success can be accomplished, and recidivism need not occur. Life will go on, and with each passing day, the returning teen can find a new and positive life for himself. Most of all, he will become a person happy with himself, and not in trouble with the law.
Jackie Ross is an experienced social worker with urban, disenfranchised youth, lifelong child advocate and community activist. She previously founded a 501(c)3 in New Jersey that served youth, families and other adults.