Reconnecting Communities and Juvenile Offenders

From meeting with gang leaders and asking their permission to work with their members to helping families get their shot-out windows repaired, Gary Ivory shared stories from his pioneering work with Youth Advocate Programs (YAP) in Tarrant County, Texas, during an Abundant Community Zoom conversation with Peter Block and John McKnight.

Ivory is now Senior Executive Officer and National Director of Program Development of Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., which is working in 24 states. The YAP model develops community-based alternatives for juvenile offenders, allowing issues to be worked through at home and in the neighborhood instead of in a correctional institution.

Ivory’s YAP work in Tarrant County started in 1992 when the governor invested in community-based alternatives. The county had one of the highest homicide juvenile crime rates in the country. The YAP approach partners an advocate from the neighborhood with a young offender to work on what is needed for them to become stable.

YAP directors who recruit the advocates and supervise are called wizards, a term from psychologist Marty Beyer. The wizards use “Zip Code Recruiting” to find and hire advocates from the same neighborhood as the youth who was referred from the state juvenile justice system. The credentials an advocate needs are not academic but are traits like compassion, unconditional love, forgiveness, and the willingness to not judge people. Once hired, advocates are trained and then connected to the young person and their family. They work with the youth anywhere from five to 15 hours per week, depending on what’s needed at the time.

“The advocates are change agents. They’re people who care about the community so when violence happens in their community, it impacts them as well,” Ivory said.

An important part of the model is that the advocate and young person co-develop a plan that includes a timeline of how long the advocate will be formally involved. “We’re not interested in fostering dependency or for them to be with us long periods of time. As soon as they’re able to solve their own problems, then we’re ready for them to move on,” he said.

In addition to hiring neighborhood-based advocates other YAP guiding principles include: a No-Refusal Policy, meaning that everyone should be given the opportunity to thrive where they live and not be moved to a correctional facility; a non-judgemental approach that finds strengths and gifts the youth has and links them to institutions or groups within the neighborhood; and not giving up—advocates are trained in a model called “Wraparound Advocacy” which means mobilising the community around the young person and their family.

During the first year of YAP in Tarrant County (1992) there were about 100 young people in the program and a 44 percent reduction in the number of neighborhood youth committed to the juvenile justice department.

“We know that a lot of that had to do with the interventions that we were doing . . . that had a big impact on their lives and helped to transform not just the lives of the young people but even helped to transform the lives of the advocates,” Ivory said.

Using a relationship-based model based on attachment theory, positive relationships with the families result in an increased likelihood of them taking ownership of the issues. The program also helps with employment barriers through subsidizing wages.

The Tarrant County success rate has sustained over time, and for over 20 years the county has had the lowest commitment rates to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. This means problems are being solved in the neighborhoods instead of committing youth to correctional institutions.

During the conversation, Block and McKnight commended Ivory for his work. “What you’re doing is renewing and reconstructing and reaffirming. If people are interested in reform, you’re giving people another path. It’s just stunning, powerful,” said Block.

McKnight added, “You see individuals as part of a family. You’re not in the medical model of, ‘We are the knowledgeable people, and this kid is the problem,’ but you’re saying, ‘The community is our resource base. The home is the center of our work.’ That’s a real invention. That happens so rarely.”


Home page image: sophiea




About the Lead Author

Jennifer Neutel
Jennifer Neutel
Jennifer Neutel is a journalist and the website curator for Restore Commons. She lives in a small town on Lake Ontario with her family.

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