New Juvenile Justice Facility Ready to Lead Young Women in New Directions. Now It Needs the Young Women.

William Gettman Jr., Northern Rivers’s chief executive officer, stands before a mural painted by former residents of the foster-care facility in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Schenectady that will also house 16- and 17-year-olds in a separate, specialized program under Raise the Age. Photo: Elizabeth Floyd Mair

The bedrooms are ready, but the area’s family courts have not yet placed any young women in Northern Rivers’ new intensive residential program. Created in response to Raise the Age (RTA) legislation that went into effect in New York State last Oct. 1, the program called New Directions, has the goal of giving young women who have committed lower-level crimes the self-knowledge and skills to keep them from breaking the law again.

 “God save that first kid who comes in,” quipped William Gettman Jr., executive director of Northern Rivers. “They’re going to get so much mentoring and nurturing!” 

Formerly, New York was one of just two states that treated 16-year-olds as adults under the law. As of last October, most 16-year-olds — other than those charged with violent felonies involving a weapon or causing serious injury, or those involving sex crimes — were to have their charges heard in family court and not be sent to prison with adults; the law phases in 17-year-olds this October.

The staff of New Directions was recruited, hired and trained together, and the program was ready as of Dec. 15, said Gettman. His organization, Northern Rivers, is the parent organization to Northeast Parent and Child Society and Parsons Child and Family Center; Northern Rivers provides services to 16,000 children, adults and families in 35 counties in upstate New York. 

New Directions received start-up money from the state and then, on Dec. 15, 2018, began receiving $1,050 per day per bed, regardless of whether the bed was occupied, in an arrangement that will continue for the program’s first three years, which Gettman called a “three-year safety net.”  

According to Gettman, 13 enhanced residential programs set up in response to Raise the Age across the state have a total of 171 beds, but, as of June 3, only 20 beds were occupied by 13 young men and seven young women. When the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) asked the 80 or so existing child-welfare facilities in the state to create these programs, only 13 volunteered. Gettman added that Northern Rivers volunteered, but could not offer to set up an intensive program without some certainty that it would be funded. 

So the state agreed that, for the first three years, it would guarantee the program’s revenue. 

“I think that was fair because it is new,” Gettman explained. “There are mandated services, and if we didn’t have the state investment, we could be months and months behind in filling those.”

Northern Rivers has prepared a residential treatment program in Schenectady ready for young women to be placed there under Raise the Age; the program is located in an existing foster-care facility. The facility is equipped with an in-ground swimming pool, at left, and a pavilion where barbecues are sometimes held.
Photo: Elizabeth Floyd Mair

During the six months since Dec. 15, then the state would have paid out about $1.5 million to Northern Rivers for the program.

“The law is relatively new, less than a year, and many RTA cases haven’t been adjudicated yet,” wrote Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the Unified Court System, in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change.

Chalfen continued, “While it is my understanding that relatively few young people are being detained in facilities, that was one of the goals of the law: To keep as many young people safely in their communities as possible and to keep communities safe with them not committing additional crimes while released — not to fill all available beds.” 

Spokeswoman Monica Mahaffey of the state OCFS sent a statement in response to questions about these residential programs, including what OCFS is doing to get the word out about them to judges or district attorneys around the state: “We believe the system will be appropriate to serve youth entering [OCFS custody], based upon projected bed need analyzed by a multi-state agency data team. We will continue to monitor youth being processed in the system, but as Raise the Age has been in effect for only nine months and 17-year-old youth will be included later this year, it is far too early in implementation to draw conclusions about the eventual need for capacity.” 

While the staff waits for that first young woman to arrive, Gettman said, they are not just sitting around. They are working on the campus’ existing programs, getting hands-on experience, and they are out in the community, getting a sense of possible opportunities for residents. 

The state expected to have 150 youths in beds, Gettman said. “They made predictions, but this was a sea change, in terms of kids not going to jail,” he said.

“We can do it:” New Directions Case Manager Jessica Mitchell stands before a poster of Rosie the Riveter, an image from World War II reborn as an iconic symbol of equal rights. 
Photo: Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Gettman isn’t sure why the New Directions program is still waiting for its first resident. He expects that, when the second phase of Raise the Age kicks in in October 2019, applying the law to 17-year-olds and allowing most of them to be treated as youths rather than adults, there will be more young people placed in these facilities. 

The kinds of crimes that could put a youth in an enhanced residential program like New Directions include, Gettman said, violent incidents with another child, extensive property damage, self-injury, assault and larceny or serious petty larceny. 

Under Raise the Age, violent crimes involving the use of weapons or resulting in serious physical injury would not be eligible for treatment, so youths in those situations would not be placed in New Directions. 

Gettman said he did know of a young person in another residential program under Raise the Age who was involved in a “situation” and then wound up assaulting a police officer. According to youth advocates, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and eventually state lawmakers, New York needed a sea change in the way it detained girls.

A Human Rights Watch report from 2006 detailed a pattern of excessive force used against girls in detention at two remote facilities — Tryon Girls Residential Center in Johnstown, and Lansing Residential Center in the Finger Lakes. Eventually, the Department of Justice opened an investigation. The DOJ’s report from 2009 found that the conditions at these and two boys’ facilities violated constitutional standards for protection from harm and mental health care. Staff, the report said, used excessive, inappropriate force and failed to properly evaluate and diagnose mental-health problems, among other violations. 

In 2017, New York passed its Raise the Age legislation, capping years of advocacy after the DOJ report. The past decade has seen one state after another adopt these laws, on the basis of neuro-scientific research that shows that the brain is not yet fully developed during the teenage years. Data that shows youth do better when they are diverted and treated, rather than incarcerated; and figures that suggest diversion and treatment are more cost-effective because youth are less likely to re-offend than adults. 

Empty but ready: Team leader Vernice Walker plumps the pillows in a dormitory room at Northern Rivers’ facility in Schenectady. Photo: Elizabeth Floyd Mair

The Facility 

New Directions is located on part of the second floor of an existing 56,000-square-foot residential treatment center for children in the foster care system on a quiet side street in Schenectady’s Woodlawn neighborhood, across from a line of tidy bungalows and ranch-style homes. The facility is licensed to care for 56 children aged 12 to 18. 

The state pays $300 to $500 a day per child in the same facility under traditional foster care, depending on the individual’s educational and other needs, Gettman said. But the New Directions program is shorter and more intensive, needing to achieve results over a maximum of eight months’ residence and then a four-month period of what Gettman termed “aggressive aftercare.” 

“If we do this right, this will change the child welfare system. It costs a little more,” Gettman said, “but kids won’t be cycling back.” He said he believes the program will not have the high recidivism rates of 50, 60 or 70 percent seen now; young people’s health outcomes will be better; and they will be stronger and more resilient.

New Directions is the only program of its kind in the area, and would serve young women from Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Columbia and Schoharie counties, as well as youth from other areas whose crimes are committed locally. There currently is no facility for males in the Capital District, Gettman said, so young men would be placed in an existing program further away, such as The House of the Good Shepherd in Utica, which can accept both young men and women. 

Common spaces in the facility, such as the activity room, cafeteria, gym and outdoor swimming pool, and services such as the 24-hour-a-day nurses’ station, are used by both the foster care residential treatment program and New Directions. 

The exits are not locked, but the young women who live there would also not be free to go at will. “We would try to prevent you physically from leaving,” says William Gettman, demonstrating stepping forward and reaching his arms out to the sides like a basketball player on defense.

Staff would focus on positive redirections that would be meaningful for the individual youth, he said. “But we are not allowed to physically stop you. If you did leave, we would jump in the van and follow you and try to convince you to get in.” 

A crucial element in the program’s success will be the bonding that takes place between youth and staff, Gettman said. “It’s not about the building; it’s not about the regulations. Ninety percent is about the relationships,” he said. 

Eugene White, marketing and public relations manager for Northern Rivers, observed, “It’s a lot more effective to create an environment youth don’t want to bolt from.” 

The whole family is in care

From the day of placement, staff will work with the young woman and her family to create an individualized treatment plan focused on permanency, to help her achieve positive outcomes during her eight months of residency and four months of aftercare, said Kimberly L. Cummins, a social worker who oversees several of Northern Rivers’ residential programs, including New Directions.

“We ask what are the positive relationships they can build so they have a positive environment when they leave,” she explained. 

“Eight months is not a long time,” said Gettman. “We can’t wait until the seventh month to begin planning.” 

This planning, led by a case manager, is dual-pronged, focusing on helping the young woman develop various kinds of skills to avoid crime, and working with her family and its ties to the community to create permanent supports. Progress toward the goals is evaluated every three months.

“Raise the Age was predicated on bad outcomes of 60, 70 percent recidivism,” Gettman said. “We want to change that.” He described the goal of New Directions as “no recidivism, or low recidivism.” 

Parents’ input at the start is important, said Gettman. Parents can tell the staff about specific things that act as stress points for the youth: they may say she should not be around a particular sibling, or that she resents a parent’s new partner.

The case manager and other staff can then begin addressing that situation, which could involve, for instance, family counseling and finding services for a family member who is struggling with addiction. 

Many youth who come to the Northern Rivers facility have experienced trauma, as have their families, said Mitchell, the case manager. “Trauma does a lot to the brain,” she continued. “Mom may not know how to do any of this. She may not know how to get out of her own way.” 

Parents may need help navigating social services, such as food stamps, Medicaid or income-based housing. The youth themselves may need help applying for a Social Security card or driver’s license.  

There is even a special scholarship, Mitchell said, to help families purchase things for the home.

“Sometimes the biggest barrier to getting a kid home is they don’t have a bed,” Gettman said. 

“While a youth is in this building,” White concluded, “the whole family is in care.” 

Upon her release, a plan is set up with the courts for four months of intensive aftercare by New Directions, back in the community but with rules and curfews set by the program and the court. 

The Program

The day at Northern Rivers for young offenders will be structured. 

Part of the individualized plan involves determining where the young person will go to school, including public school, vocational credits through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, community-college credits, and attending Northern Rivers’ own school. 

The youth are driven to school, and a staff member stays at school, particularly at the beginning, to support them in the school and be there in case there is need for redirection. 

In the evening, when the youth return to their rooms before bed, residents are asked to fill out diary cards about the day. 

There are several “community meetings” a day, with staff and residents standing in a circle, with each asking a few questions of the next person about their mood and their goals for the day. In the evening, residents are asked to write about their day and their feelings on diary cards. 

All of these glimpses into a youth’s frame of mind provides valuable clues for staff to use to help. 

Do the young women see all of this adult interest in their feelings as intrusive?  

White said, “In our society, unfortunately, there’s a stigma about asking people how they feel, how their mental health is. I would imagine a lot of youth in our programs have spent a lot of time not being asked.” 

Gettman added, “Or they didn’t feel safe answering.” 

In her experience, Cummins said, young people like writing the diary cards because it gives them a way to express their feelings without saying them aloud. 

There are many choices of recreational activities, such as sports and exercise, which can include playing basketball (“The kids love to play kids against staff,” said Walker), kickboxing or using the weight room; watching TV; playing board or video games; listening to music; reading; doing schoolwork or spending time outside.

Residents are allowed to join others off the campus in outside recreational activities, such as shopping, going to baseball or football games, or visiting New York City, when the team decides they are ready. 

“They saw the Jets play last year,” Gettman said, referring to children in the foster care program. “It’s normal childhood activities. It may be once-in-a-lifetime.” 

Different kinds of therapy are provided, depending on the young woman’s needs. The team includes several clinician, social workers and a psychologist and psychiatrist who each come in one day a week. 

“Girls are emotional beings,” said Mitchell, adding that many activities center on emotional regulation and learning to reframe negative thoughts. 

They also help young women practice mindfulness and learn how to be themselves and nurture themselves, she said. 

Cummins added, “Girls see themselves through relationships. Not only relationships between girls but with men.” In fact, she said, they are often brought into the criminal justice system through relationships, so staff help them rethink how to have positive relationships, including with men.

“A lot of these young ladies don’t have mother figures. We’re not their mothers, but they look to us as those mother figures,” Mitchell said. 

“We are their family while they can’t be in the community,” said Cummins. 

Just kids

Northern Rivers regularly holds open houses — for instance around the holidays in December — and invites neighbors. 

The facility has a good relationship with the Woodlawn community, Mitchell said. 

The kids volunteer in the community, she said, with activities like cleaning up Woodlawn Park. Staff attend meetings of the Woodlawn Neighborhood Association.

It’s important for these kids, who have come to the facility because of criminal activity, Cummins said, to feel that they are now part of a community. “It’s important for any kid,” she said. 

“When they are told, ‘You did a great job in the garden,’ they carry that with them,” Mitchell observed. 

“They might not say anything, but they carry it,” Gettman added. 

A group of retirees from General Electric recently came to the facility and taught the kids to play cricket, Gettman said. 

What they said afterward was what visitors always say, he reported: “Wow. They’re just kids.” 

Elizabeth Floyd Mair is a reporter for the Altamont Enterprise in Albany County, New York.  This story was produced as part of her Raise the Age reporting fellowship with The Chronicle of Social Change, and was co-published with the Altamont Enterprise.

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