Reconnecting Juvenile Offenders and Their Communities
Conversation with Gary Ivory ~ January 16, 2019
About every six weeks for the last five years, John and Peter have hosted online / dial-up conversations with community-building pioneers as their guests. For their January 16, 2019 dialog they invited Gary Ivory to talk about how he and his organization, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc., have reinvented an alternative to what professionals thought was true about serious juvenile offenders.
John and Peter talk with nationally recognized youth advocate Gary Ivory about how he and his organization, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc., reimagined ways to reconnect juvenile offenders to their community instead of sending them to correctional institutions.
John: I want to welcome everybody, but especially Gary and introducing Gary to the rest of you. I think there’s a history that’s very important for us to know, and that is that a long time ago, I think in the 1960s or 70s, in Massachusetts they hired as the director of juvenile corrections a man named Jerry Miller. He was perhaps the most innovative public servant, so called, that I’ve ever known. I want to commend a book that describes what he did. It’s called Last One over the Wall by Dr. Jerome Miller. If you want to read what it really means to be a radical in public service, I can’t commend any book as highly as that one.
What he is best known for was that there were, I think, 11 reformatories in Massachusetts. They were horrendous places. He took over, tried to reform them, decided you couldn’t reform them, and then developed a method by which he let all of the kids who were in reformatories out of the reformatories and got them connected into community life. It was, I think, the most amazingly creative and effective public action in the corrections/human service world that I’ve ever seen, and that initiative took on more and more forms and more and more people were involved. One of the great heirs of Jerry Miller’s initiative is with us today, and I can’t wait for him to help us know how they’ve taken that beginning and developed it into what may be the most effective way of dealing with young people who the other people say, “We want to put them away.”
Gary, I want to welcome you, and I wonder if you could pick up the story and tell us how you operate today in Tarrant County.
Gary: First of all, I’m honored to be here today. I appreciate the introductions. They’re very, very generous. Let me begin with my start with Youth Advocate Programs in 1990. Tom Jeffers who took on the mantle of Jerry Miller and then later on Jeff Fleischer, who’s currently our CEO, started doing work in Tarrant County, Texas, in 1992. At that time, the county chief probation officer, Carey Cockerel, had received an offer from the then-governor Ann Richards to invest in community-based alternatives. He looked around the country and found YAP. At that time, I was in New Jersey. I was a chaplain at the time and started working with YAP.
Then I moved back to my home state of Texas. Tarrant County, at the time, had one of the highest homicide juvenile crime rates in the country. Gangs had overtaken many of the neighborhoods, especially in southeast Tarrant County. There were very high commitment rates to the state correctional institution, called at that time the Texas Youth Commission, which is now called the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. They brought us in to do work in some of the areas of Tarrant County where the mail was not even being delivered because some of those neighborhoods were so violent. We had come in with our approach.
I would first like to share some of the principles that to me guided our philosophy then and guide us today in the 24 states that we’re working in. First, and this was very shaped by John, I just want to acknowledge, by the work that you had done. One of my favorite works of yours is The Careless Society.
So, some of those guiding principles are the following. First, having a neighborhood-based recruitment of residents. We call them advocates. But these are people who really are from the neighborhoods where young people live, the ones who were being referred to the Juvenile Justice Department. We hire people from those same neighborhoods. In fact, we had a mandate that we wouldn’t hire an advocate unless they were from the same neighborhood where the kids who were being referred to the probation department came from. We referred to that as Zip-Code Recruitment.
The other thing is we refuse to deny any supportive services to any young person. We call that a No Refusal Policy. Simply saying that everybody, regardless of history of offense, should be given an opportunity to thrive in their own neighborhoods and not have to be removed and placed in a correctional setting.
Our No Refusal Policy is simply saying that everybody, regardless of history of offense, should be given an opportunity to thrive in their own neighborhoods and not have to be removed and placed in a correctional setting.
Another principle was a non-judgmental approach, a non-judgmental stance, that our approach was to say that everybody has … and this, John, comes out of your work … has gifts, talents, strengths, and it’s our job to find those gift, talents, and strengths and to link them to existing, indigenous institutions within our neighborhoods, faith-based communities, neighborhood associations, places like that.
Then, we believe in having what we call just simply not giving up. That we wanted to hire people that simply wouldn’t give up on young people. So, we targeted the neighborhoods where most of the referrals to the juvenile department were coming from. We targeted these areas called Poly Stop Six, which were where most of the crime was happening. We hired advocates from them, and we trained them in this model we referred to as Wraparound Advocacy where we literally going to wrap support around them, that we weren’t going to just do service provision as is traditionally done but that we were going to really do community mobilization as well and mobilize the community, the faith community, and all the other institutions around them.
If we have time, we’ll talk a little bit more about that.
We started in 1992, and after the first year of working with about 100 young people, there was a 44 percent reduction in the number of young people who were committed to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. We know that a lot of that had to do with the interventions that we were doing. By hiring community residents, training them to work with the young people that were labeled the highest risk offenders, and we worked with them and their families and hire people from the same neighborhoods, same zip codes, that they came from 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.
One of the questions I get asked a lot is, “What is the credential of the advocates, these community residents, these people that live in the neighborhoods?” I always like to say that we hire people with a GED to a PhD. That the credentials that we’re looking for are compassion, unconditional love, forgiveness, self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others, the willingness to not judge people based upon their history or their offense or any of those kind of labels, that we’re much more interested in those credentials than we are any credential that one can get from an academic institution.
We hired them, we trained them, we connected them with these young people and their families. John, you referred to them as community guides. I like that term. We just simply call them advocates. They work with the young people anywhere from 10, 15 or more hours a week. Sometimes it may be five hours a week. It’s whatever’s needed at any given time. We like to say that the approach is to do for, do with, and then cheer on, and then move out so that they can take care for themselves. 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.
The advocates are change agents. They’re people who care about the community so that when violence happens in their community, it impacts them as well. They’re not outside the community. They have a stake. They know the needs of their particular communities.
One of the things that we like to refer to the people that work for us, especially the program directors, the people that lead the work of the recruitment of the advocates and the supervision of the program, we like to say that they’re the wizards. That’s a term we get from Marty Beyer who wrote an article many years ago –– she’s a psychologist –– about first you find a wizard [see
First You Find a Wizard… at https://www.martybeyer.com/content/first-you-find-wizard%E2%80%A6].Well, we think that the wizards really lie within the context of neighborhoods, that they have all of the caring and the gifts and talents that we need to solve the most complex problems. Now I shared with you all the 44 percent reduction in crime. That has been sustained over a period of time to keep young people out of correctional placement. In fact, Tarrant County, for a number of years, over 20 years, has had the lowest commitment rates to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which simply means that we’re solving problems in the neighborhoods versus committing them to correctional institutions.
There’s also a cost savings or cost benefit to that in that public dollars, public resources, are being utilized to help to support young people and families versus doing what we know to ineffective, which is saying, “We’re going to commit them,” and then they go from the juvenile system to the adult system. Then it becomes multi-generational, and then we incapacitate neighborhoods. We know that neighborhood incapacitation through arrest, incarceration, long-term confinement does not work, so this is a way for us to address that.
There’s also this notion as we know, many of you probably heard of the notion of million-dollar blocks. I think it’s Todd Clear who’s done work around that, that there are several blocks around this country where there are literally a million dollars or more in public dollars, federal, state and local, that goes towards either incarceration, confinement, and a lot of other [approaches] to remedy a lot of social problems that could be remedied differently if we utilized a different approach. [For more on million-dollar blocks, see e.g. http://countermapcollection.org/collection/million-dollar-blocks/] We know that this works. The question that I get asked a lot is people say, “Well how do you recruit these advocates, these wizards, these neighborhood residents? Where do they come from? Can they pass a background check? Do they do the work that a person who’s a therapist or a clinician can do?”
In every neighborhood whether urban, rural, suburban, ex-urban, there are people that are committed to caring for and supporting young people within their communities.
My response is always in every neighborhood whether urban, rural, suburban, ex-urban, there are people that are committed to caring for and supporting young people within their communities. With the right training, the right skill building, the right support, they can help to address those needs without relying upon incarceration, and that we can do this without jeopardizing community safety.
That’s the next question I get asked. Not only can we hire them from within the communities, but can we do this work without jeopardizing community safety? I’ll say this, that in all the years that we’ve done this work in Tarrant County and many other places around the country, we’ve never had a case where a young person has committed a heinous offense that’s been on the front page of a paper because they weren’t confined. So, I think that answers that question about community safety.
With that, I’ll be happy to answer any questions.
John: Gary, one of the things that I wonder about is who finances you? I know that Youth Advocate Programs are in how many, 20 some states?
Gary: 24 states, yes.
John: 24 states, but what’s the usual source of the financing for this kind of activity?
Gary: Great question. The Tarrant County model was initially funded by the governor’s office with what they call Community Corrections Dollars. Say, we don’t want young people to come to our state correctional facilities. We’d rather for them to be treated, supported, worked with in their neighborhoods and communities. It’s cheaper. It’s more effective to do it that way, so that’s initially how it was funded. Then eventually county commissioners, some people call them county supervisors in other states, began to expand it. Then thirdly, the governor’s office through the Texas Juvenile Justice Commission helped to provide some seed funding for this type of initiative as well because they find it’s very effective and it’s cost effective, and we’re employing people from the neighborhoods to do the work. I think that’s very compelling to be able to do that.
Typically, we’re funded by county government, sometimes local governments, very little federal funding. But it is primarily what we call redirection. Redirecting money from correctional, out-of-home placement or residential placement, back to working with people in their homes, in their neighborhoods, and it’s safer. It’s cheaper, and it’s just more effective. So typically it’s state and local governments who found a way to fund it.
Redirecting money from correctional, out-of-home placement or residential placement, back to working with people in their homes, in their neighborhoods, is safer, cheaper and just more effective.
A lot of places we’ll go to and say, “How are you working with young people in your community? Are you using group homes? Are you using treatment facilities or correctional placements?” We will make a compelling case that we can work with them at home, in the community, utilizing community residents, cheaper safety with better outcomes, and we’ve seen that time and time again.
Peter: One, it’s stunning that anybody would ever say, “No,” to you. It’s amazing. I think, why isn’t this in every neighborhood? Part of it is, nobody considers this a news story. The news consumes itself with violence and all that, but it does not consider saving a life worthy of news unless a fireman does it at the top of a ladder. It reminds me of the whole restorative justice movement. Mike Butler is the police chief in Longmont, Colorado, and he’s got about 2,600 citizens that he’s kept out of the judicial systems through the restorative process. There’s a walking school bus movement in the country where neighbors walk children to school at any hour and keep them safe. This is truly radical. Beautiful. I’m just touched by the way you talk about it and the commitment of what you’re doing.
I’m interested, you said, “We train the wizards,” and I imagine you find the wizards by any means necessary, in the street and church and the coffee shop. You’re always never not looking for a wizard.
Gary: That’s right, always. Yes.
Peter: I’m interested in the structure of the training. What does it look like? It also reminds me of the sponsorship in AA. In a sense you could say that people who recover from alcoholism or drug addiction can’t do without what they call a sponsor.
Gary: Right, right. Very interesting.
Peter: I’m interested in how you train wizards.
Gary: Thank you for that, Peter. Just a couple of things about the training. I would say that we train, support, and coach which is a little bit different. I think we do more supporting than we do anything else. In Tarrant County, for example, when we started that program — Jeff Fleischer started but I later on came and was running that program — we would hire people, again based on those credentials which has nothing to do with education.
Peter: I love that.
Gary: And really getting people who cared, cared deeply about their neighborhood. What we found is that they themselves often may have a crisis going on in their lives, right? Sometimes those crises may have been related to their children or grandchildren or they themselves were in recovery or had a substance use issue.
I’ll give you an example. We hired some parents who really were saying, “We want to stop violence within our apartment complex,” and I’ll never forget hiring a woman. Her son was in a gang. He was a Blood gang member. She herself had substance abuse issues, but she was a great kind of organizer within their apartment. Everybody respected her. Everybody trusted her, so we just said to her, “So, what if every week, we gave you a little bit of money just to pay for food, and we help you to get with other parents and support them around their needs. You all come up with the agenda. You all come up with what your needs are, and we’ll support you.”
We supported her through that, but through that process she became an advocate. We paid her, and we believe in that: giving people a livable wage. We supported her … She had some substance use needs. We helped her to get into a place in-patient for a while. She came back out, did great for six or nine months. She went back into in-patient for a while. We supported her while she was in-patient. She came back. We supported her son to live with the grandparents. We did a wraparound plan for them to live with the grandparents. I would say that the support to the wizards is so important and vital.
There are some training components, but it’s not about the traditional thing about boundaries. A lot of traditional programs approach and say, “You can’t.”
Peter: I know. That’s the easiest thing in the world. Set boundaries, some are inviolate who hit bottom, consequences. Correct the line in a community world.
Gary: Yeah, and the way we look at that is like, the relationship between the advocate and that family, there are no boundaries. As long as there’s some basic ethical considerations we want them to consider, things like that, but we’re not saying, “Don’t get involved in the family matters.” If they’re having a dinner on a weekday and they want us to attend, we’re going to attend that. So often we were going to homes, and the windows had been shot out because of gangs … We had a direct line to the window installation company because all of their windows had been shot out almost in every home. I called them up and had the windows put in. I’d get the door fixed or some basic things while we’re sitting down at a table talking with them about what’s going on. It’s amazing what families will tell you.
We do some training, but it’s not the traditional training. Rutgers University certifies our advocates and things like that, but we do some of that so that sometimes government agencies want some of that, but we don’t do the traditional type thing, Peter, that you mentioned. It’s just relationship-based model based on attachment theory, which is, if we have a very positive relationship with these families, they’re much more likely to take ownership of whatever issues are going on with them. They’re willing to make the changes that they themselves want to make in the first place, but so often the system comes down with a hammer if you violate certain conditions, etc. We try to move those obstacles so that they can thrive.
If we have a very positive relationship with these families, they’re much more likely to take ownership of whatever issues are going on with them. They’re willing to make the changes that they themselves want to make in the first place.
John: I read an article in which you were talking about how you have approached, in the neighborhood, the gangs themselves. Can you say a few words about that?
Gary: I didn’t have any experience, by the way, when I moved into Tarrant County in 1992. Gangs were very pervasive there, and so one of the things was that I started talking to young people. I worked with the young people on the weekends, and I was just talking to them. We started seeing that they were primarily African-American, Latino gangs involved young people: Bloods, Cripps, Latin Kings, all kind of gangs. I said, “Why don’t we do a retreat where we sit down with you all over a weekend and talk about what do you all need to stop some of this violence?”
Then I started meeting with some of the leaders of the gangs, and they, themselves, most of them were on probation or parole. They were 25, 30, 40 years old, and I sat down with them and said, “Would you give us permission to work with — and some people thought this was controversial. I didn’t — would you give us permission to work with these young people because you all are calling the shots, and we don’t want them to be incarcerated long term.”
They gave us permission, and we worked with them. We talked to them. We met with the judges who were the ones who had power over them, in a sense, the leader of the gangs. We did several retreats with them. Then we took them to all these places around the country. We took them to Memphis because most of them were African-American, Latino. We took some of them to Memphis and to the King Center for Non-Violent Social Change because we wanted them to understand the cultural reasons that you shouldn’t use violence as a means to achieve your goals. We did a number of things like that.
We always involved residents of the community. Whenever we did the tour to Atlanta and all those other places, we had about 15 community members. They were just community members who cared about their kids. They went along with us because they were the ones, when we came back to Tarrant County after these trips, they were there. They had a stake. They weren’t outsiders. They were just simply community residents who cared about the young people in their communities.
Our thing was not to say, “Let’s remove these gang members from the neighborhoods. Let’s talk with them. Let’s ask them what they need.” And then we started saying, “We need jobs.” We started getting them, one by one, jobs when we could. A lot of people stepped up to the plate, but it’s the same philosophy. What do you need? How can we help you? What can we work on together? Then once you’re stable, how can you give back to the community?
We asked those kinds of questions to people. It’s very empowering because we’re not simply saying to you, “If you don’t do this, then here’s a consequence.” It’s more, “How can we help you?” Whether you’re a gang member or whether you … We’re starting to work now with a lot of young people that have been trafficked — sex trafficked, that is — so it’s the same questions that we ask. We find it very empowering.
Peter: Is addiction within the realm of what you deal with now in these neighborhoods?
Gary: A huge part of what we deal with is around addiction, and in other places as well. One of the primary things that we do … We use a lot of peer support. We hire people that themselves are in recovery or who have had a family member who’s in recovery. We hire them to be that peer support to a person who may have a substance-use need. It’s very, very powerful to be able to do that. We’re finding success with that.
Peter: Do you have a way of thinking about why the opioid and the addiction has exploded on us on the last five or eight or 10 years? How do you think about that?
Gary: A couple of ways we think about it, we have an expert, her name’s Virginia Hoff, who’s really worked with us a lot on this. We are just seeing just, of course, the lack of jobs in many of the areas, a sense of hopelessness as a result of that, and so that has a lot to do with it. We’ve also seen that a lot of young people who oftentimes experiment with drugs themselves oftentimes find themselves addicted. We find that a lot of the young people who’ve been trafficked, it caused a trauma. So, we’re addressing it through a trauma lens because with the trauma and addiction, there’s a direct correlation there.
We know that a lot of it has to do with employment, so a big part of what we do is we subsidize a lot of employment because we know that you need to have wages. We subsidize those wages. That has a big impact. Then we use some other strategies that we know have been very helpful in helping us to look at the stages of change which is to help to know where people are in the recovery process. We utilize that, but the key thing is that we utilize people themselves from the residents themselves [who] have walked the walk and talked the talk that can engage them.
To me, engagement is so critical. There’s a lot out there about how you engage residents. How do you engage people who maybe need assistance? Our thing is it’s a relationship-based approach, and once you have that relationship, it’s amazing the change that can occur.
Peter: It’s kind of the work of a church, isn’t it? Their suffering is a spiritual question also.
Gary: That’s right. No doubt about it.
John: I think we ought to open it up to the people who are joining us, but Gary, you talked about intentionally want to engage in ways that don’t create dependence. Could you say a few words, because that seems to me in the service and health world, one of the biggest problems. “I’m helping you, but in the end, you’re a dependency of me.” How do you handle?
Gary: There are a few different ways that we handle that. First of all, from day one, we tell the families and the young people that, “We are going to only be here a short period of time in your life to support you. We want to begin the discharge process, the graduation, whatever, from day one. We want to plan for that.” We talk about that from day one. We think that’s very important to have that conversation from day one.
Secondly, in the plan that we develop with them, we don’t develop the plan. They co-develop the plan. We say they’re coauthors of the plan. The plan has a date that we say that we’re not going to be involved in a formal way. We’ll always support. Years later, we stay engaged with young [people] that we worked with 20 something years ago. That occurs on an informal basis. But formally, it’s only going to be four to six months. “Here’s a plan. You coauthor a plan.” That’s the second way we approach it. They coauthor the plan. It has a date that we say that services are going to formally end, and they’re aware of that. We’re not fostering dependency.
I think the third thing is that we want to build in to our planning process, and throughout what we call the length of stay, is that there with us [is] that we want to link them with as many [supports as possible]. We always say there are formal resources, or things you pay for. We want to get those informal resources, both people and institutions, that we can link them to that can help to support them once our formal services have ended because if not, John as you well know, we call it the cliff effect. They kind of will go off the cliff because they’ve been so dependent on us for resources, so we begin that conversation from day one.
John: That’s wonderful. Becky, did you have some people who are wanting to talk to Gary?
Becky: Mac in Cincinnati wants to join us
Mac: I really appreciate your work. I’m thinking also of another program that’s gotten a lot of publicity, Homeboy Industries, Homegirl Industries, Boyle Heights in LA, Greg Boyle and so on [for more on Homeboy Industries and Father Greg Boyle see https://www.homeboyindustries.org/]. I’m inspired by this conversation. I’m in Cincinnati. We’re thinking about our economy and the need to develop in an asset-based way more economic activity for people to get access to in a training business kind of way. Homeboy is also related trauma care –– very relational trauma care work being done. I’m just wondering if you had anything from your experience to comment further on.
Gary: Yes. First of all, I admire Father Greg Boyle and the work of Homeboy and Homegirl Industries and what they’re doing. Every time I’m in the LAX airport, I go by the store there and buy food intentionally to support what they do. I was there a year ago again making another visit. I love and admire the work that they do. To me, their work is very principle-driven as well, much like ours. We have a very shared philosophy about being relationship-based and practicing unconditional caring and those kind of things.
I think some of the things that they’ve done in addition to what we’ve done … It’s a very entrepreneurial model so they create a lot of economic opportunities and a lot of businesses that have employed people. We use a lot of subsidized employment. They, in turn, create businesses that themselves have created jobs but have also helped to deal and address some trauma and those types of issues. I think their work is admirable. Their work is kind of facility-based where people come to them, and they do groups and things like that.
We do some of those similar approaches. We’re not as facility-based. We’re much more home-based. We always tell the advocates that, “We want you to be where the young people are, and going out and mediating when needed, gang conflict, to prevent it from happening.” If you have a relationship with a young person who’s engaged in a gang, we always used to say, “We don’t want you to focus on extrication, getting them out of the gang. They may have that identity as far as being in a gang.” The key thing we don’t want them doing is doing violent things and doing things that are anti-social and doing things that are going to hurt them and hurt their employment prospects, etc.
Now we don’t want them associated with gangs. I need to be clear about that, but I think that’s not the first conversation we have. The first thing we do is develop a plan with them that will address their unique needs and circumstances. I love the model, the approach. Theirs is more facility-based than ours is. They create economic opportunities. What we’re finding is, we’re starting to do this in the Baltimore/DC area where we’re trying to create … We’re doing a matched savings account and things like that to where when they leave us, they have a financial asset.
… We work with this group called Cash [Campaign] of Maryland, and what they do it’s like an individual development account where when they come to us, we will put money in a savings account for them [see http://cashmd.org/]. When they leave, they may have $1,000 that they can use to buy a car, go to a vocational school, and then we’ll match that through a scholarship. All they have to do is write a couple of pages of an essay, not write a thesis, but do a couple pages of an essay. We’ll give them $1,000, and those kinds of things, we find, are very, very powerful to young people that they’re willing to make very different decisions about their future just simply based upon that, “I have a stake. I have a future. I have some opportunities,” beyond the limitations of their own neighborhood.
Peter: That’s just amazing. So many parallels, the Financial Independence Initiatives, families logging what they spend, and they spend it better [see https://www.fii.org/]. There’s Renter Equity where if you take care of the place you’re staying, at the end of five years you have $5,000 in maintenance and upkeep [see, e.g., https://www.planetizen.com/node/81653/renter-equity-programs-gain-traction-cincinnati-cleveland]. It’s such a beautiful family of thinking, and it all begins with your principles, which is, “We’ll stay with you forever.” The solution lies within the residents, and we’re only going to use residents as advocates for residents. I just think that’s so powerful. The idea that you would ask permission of a gang member. “Will you give us permission to work with some of your gang people, and we’re not going to talk them out of it, but we just want to help them stay out of jail.”
Gary: Right, and the reason we use that terminology is sometimes some people, law enforcement, will say to me that why are we asking a gang member for permission? Well, we also don’t want the young people to be unsafe, and we don’t want our advocates to be unsafe. If they’re on the block selling drugs or doing whatever they’re doing, what we’ve found is that we’ll see them, and they’re going to be back there. They’ll go to detention, come back on the block, go back to detention, come back on the block, and that kind of thing and doing whatever they’re doing. We’re saying, “If we ask permission and we can really begin to work with them, that gives us an opportunity to have the advocates really go in there and help these young people.
Also, when we get permission, it kind of gives us the authority to go in and not put people’s lives in jeopardy, their safety in jeopardy, because that is real. We work with, again, some young people who’ve been trafficked, and there have been articles written about how a lot of people that used to be in the drug distribution business now are getting into human trafficking and sex trafficking because they say it’s more profitable. When we work with these young men and young women, sometimes our advocates will get threatened by their pimps because they’re saying, “They made $3,000 a day for us, and you’re going to take them off the streets.” We do that partly for safety reasons and partly just to buy in so we can get in there and do the kind of work that we need to do.
Peter: Let’s take another question, but you’re also creating an alternative to reform. John said that Jerry Miller tried reform for several years and found out that it was a false promise. You cannot reform institutions based on other principles.
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.
John: I would add that 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.
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. — John McKnight
Gary: What I found so often is that judges involved in this process are very open — most judges (whether on the civil or criminal family court side) — to this approach, to these principles because they understand that what they’re doing often doesn’t work. Their primary interest is community safety at the end of the day. When I talked a lot to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and all these judges, they’re very interested … because they know that the people that keep reappearing before their bench and not being successful that what is happening oftentimes is not working. They’re interested in these types of alternatives.
As long as you can ensure them some semblance of safety, and what I always say to people is that people have hidden behind this notion of safety to be able to invest billions in the prison industrial complex because they say, “We can’t keep communities safe, and so we need to do something different. We need to incapacitate our way out of the problem.” We say, “Let’s take safety off the table, because we know how to keep kids safe, and we know how to keep neighborhoods safe. Let’s talk about how do we help them to address the other needs. Let’s take safety off the table.”
Peter: You’re right that safety is a beautiful smokescreen.
Gary: Yes, that’s right. That’s right. It is a smokescreen.
Peter: It can justify anything. Just like jobs can justify the most cruel developments you can imagine, scraping the land, scraping the neighborhood while we’re creating jobs. I love the thought of getting people out from behind the mask of job creation and safety.
Gary: In many places, what we’ve heard is –– and again, I’m not critical of correctional officers –– but it’s all about who has a stronger voice. Is it the correctional officers or the community residents … That kind of thing. There’s this tug between that. People said to me in many states, “I want to do what you’re talking about, but the elected officials are getting, not paid, but getting supported. The people that donated in their campaigns are the correctional folks sometimes rather than the residents.” It’s that kind of politics we deal with.
Peter: I think those two things, jobs and safety, are always the argument for authoritarian leadership.
Gary: Well said, very well said. Yeah, I agree.
John: Gary, you mentioned judges. My memory, which is not as good as it used to be, is that initially, a lot of the work of the Youth Advocates Program was financed through the judicial circuits. Actually, the judges themselves had money that they invested in your work. Is that right?
Gary: That is correct. In fact, in Tarrant County, Judge Scott Moore, who has since passed away but he was a great judge, was one of the biggest champions for this type of approach. Same thing in Toledo, Ohio, and several other places around the country: judges have oftentimes been the biggest champions of this philosophy.
John: And that’s a good place for people who are interested in this kind of approach to touch down. Within the criminal justice system, it may be that judges are the most useful contacts of all because they see they’re administering failure every day. You give them a little chance and hope for success.
Gary: Yeah, I have a lot of hope in success, and in fact, district attorneys or prosecuting attorneys in many places … I was in Oakland and a lot of other people around … a lot of places around the country, Houston, Texas, the prosecutors are beginning to look at these types of approaches. They have units that deal with community prosecution and a lot of things that kind of adhere to some of the principles that we’re talking about.
Peter: Let me ask, Gary, it seems like it’s a function for the church. How do you work with churches? So many people in the church now are looking for ways to leave the building, make a difference. I’d like to hear a little about how you connect, what’s it doing for the churches in these neighborhoods, because they are probably the most powerful institution.
Gary: Yes, they are. Great question. [There are] a few ways we interface and interact and engage churches. In fact, I was on a call last week with people in St. Louis, and the gentleman I was talking to is a faith-based leader. He actually is a pastor of a Congregationalist church there, so we oftentimes have conversations with the faith community. I really understand that. I’m a clergy myself.
A few ways we engage churches: One, we recruit advocates from the faith community because that’s one of the best recruiting grounds to recruit the wizards. There are a lot of wizards in pews, and so we recruit wizards from the pews.
The second way is that if there are needs that need to get met, what we find is that if you partialize the problem, it becomes much more digestible and people are willing to help. When we do this planning process with families, whether they are in recovery or sex trafficked or gang involved or whatever, we will say, “What are the go-to people that you can go to in a crisis, right? What are the places that you like to go to?” In a trauma informed way we asked not, “What’s wrong with you?” “What happened to you?” And those kinds of questions. A lot of that leads us to the church. It’s who you go to in a crisis, a lot of people: faith family friends.
For a lot of people, not everybody, but a lot of people, and so we will have that as part of the plan. Then the third way we do that is in some ways we have more of a formal connection. In Tarrant County, we have a church that both gives us money every year and some of their people, some of their deacons and elders, work with us as advocates. They’re employees as well as people who participate in faith life, in the church life. We engage very, very closely with church organizations. YAP is not a faith-based institution, but we engage very, very closely with churches because that’s where the resources are, that’s where the people are, and there’s also just tremendous resource in communities.
Peter: It’s also a place where the principles already reside. If they only acted on them. This is wonderful. I think we’re near the end, aren’t we, Becky?
Becky: We are, although I have someone who wanted to come on. We have a few more minutes, so I’m inviting a couple of folks to join us. We did have a question from Michelle who was hoping that Gary could share more specific information about the work that you do with kids who are willing to go back to detention and back to the street. Those ones that seem to be just back in and out all the time.
Gary: We do a lot of work. We call it detention alternatives where a young person’s arrested, apprehended. They go to detention, secure detention. A judge or the detention staff release them, and they release them oftentimes to us and say, “Come pick them up at detention,” and then we’ll begin the planning process that I shared with you. We’ll match them with an advocate, see them several times a week, that kind of thing. They’ll reappear before the court, but what we’re looking at doing is we don’t really get caught up in … We make sure, first of all, that those court-order conditions are being addressed because if you don’t address that, courts have a lot of power. So, we’re not interested in kids getting removed or violated because they violated something that the judge told not to do.
For example, don’t associate with other peers in your neighborhood who have criminal histories. Well, sometimes that’s pretty hard to do because a lot of their peers may themselves have had background issues. We find that once we engage them, build that relationship, see them several times a week, develop a plan, they have a voice and choice in the plan, it tends to address those issues, and we don’t see that revolving door through the system. Very little do we see that.
Now what we have found is, and research supports this, that about 84 percent of young people once they get involved in this type of model … and to me it’s not just a program because these principles can be implemented anywhere, anyplace. There are other people that can do this philosophy and this approach … but we found that we know how to keep people out of institutions, out of the four walls of a detention center or correctional facility, etc. But sometimes the arrest rates are a little bit high simply because once you have been arrested in a certain neighborhood and there’s zero tolerance in that neighborhood, your likelihood of being re-arrested is very high.
So sometimes arrest, I always say, is not the best indicator of progress for some of these young people. That there are other measures about their well-being that may not get reflected just in arrest statistic, but we do find that once we engage them, whether it’s detention alternative or they already been adjudicated delinquent or whether they’re coming out of a correctional institution, this philosophy, those questions and matching them with residents who’ve been trained in supporting those residents really does work. It really works.
Norm: Great conversation. I wanted to draw a connection between disability and race. For many disabled people, they can understand interpersonal discrimination and how to deal with that and there are a number of strategies. Try this, try that. The real battle for disabled people, they instigate a lot of hopelessness. It’s not interpersonal discrimination but systemic discrimination. No matter what you do, the bureaucracies in there don’t give you a way out. I’m wondering when you’re working with the kids and the young adults that you work with, how do you keep them hopeful in the face of dealing with the day-to-day systemic discrimination, especially in this current political climate that seems to be going backwards rather than forwards?
Gary: Thank you for that. That’s a great question. First, this is a very difficult time. It’s just very difficult many if not most if not all … but let me say a couple of things that at least my experience has been. We do a lot of work in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and other places with young people, young adults, or their parents … that have developmental/intellectual … I would say, first, that what I found that the young adults we work with, and even families, are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever seen. Now resilient and resiliency and hopefulness are not the same thing, but they’re very resilient, and I think a lot of times come out more hopeful. We oftentimes ask about, “What happened to you? What are things that you’ve overcome in your life?” –– things like that –– and I’m amazed at how they remain hopeful in spite of those circumstances.
When we develop these plans, though, what we find is that people are looking for not just hope but they’re looking for commitment, people that have consistency in their lives and that do what they say they’re going to do. One of the first things they do on a training is saying, “You have to be consistent, regardless of your own personal challenges or whatever. That whoever you’re supporting –– whether it’s a person with intellectual disability, developmental disability whatever the need may be –– you have to be consistent. We find that once you’re consistent and there’s a plan and they know you’re willing to address that, and I always say, “The reason we call them advocates, and that Tom Jeffers referred to them as advocates many years ago, is that because much of what we do is advocate with the people that we’re supporting.”
Sometimes that means we’re challenging systems whether it’s around housing issues or whether it’s around discrimination. I met with quite a few police chiefs in different places based upon sometimes police conduct or misconduct. We’re constantly pushing the envelope on issues, and that gives people a sense of hope when they know that they have somebody advocating for and with them on their behalf. That gives them a spirit of hope.
Becky: We are pretty much out of time today, but that was a really helpful and impactful question, so I’m glad that we had the chance to explore it and, Gary, that you had the chance to give some input about hope and resilience. We’re so grateful that all of you have joined us for today’s conversation. We will be sending out follow up including the recording of today’s event, and we want to make sure that you mark your calendars for our upcoming event on Tuesday, March 12th at 1:00 PM Eastern with special guest Jonathan Massimi along with Peter and John. We will be sending out notices.
Peter: When are you running for office?
Gary: Well you know, that’s off the table … policy. Politics and policy, more so the policy side of it. I spent a lot of time working for a congressman in east Texas. I grew up in a small town, and I worked for him in DC. I worked for him in the district. I would go there and get out the vote in and so I did a lot of that work in my teens and 20s and still have a deep commitment to it.
John: Gary, I’ll go a last question. If somebody wants to get in touch with YAP or with you, tell us how to do it.
Gary: Thank you, John, and thank you, Peter, for that question. The number you could reach would be 214-417-7614 or visit our website at www.yapinc.org. YAP Inc .org. There’s a lot of data. You could contact several of us on that website.
Peter: Thank you so much. Your generosity and way you think about things is stunning. It’s just breathtaking.
John: And your clarity is just superb.
Gary: Well, thank you all, and thank you for your work because your all’s work helps us a lot. This is not like I came up with this, I’m reading people like you all who’ve really pioneered this work. So, thank you all.
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