Saving SF’s Juvy Delinquents

“The city is radically reorganizing the way it reaches out to at-risk and troubled youth. …making it work is going to require a level or interagency cooperation that they have yet to come within miles of pulling off. …”
By Benjamin Wachs

As a journalist, I’m not supposed to feel sorry for anyone: I’m supposed to stand above all human emotions except alcoholism. Still, I admit that I felt really sorry for the mother whose kid hadn’t done anything wrong.

Two weeks ago, while observing a “services fair” for the residents of a San Francisco public housing complex, I saw a woman approach a government worker who had information about summer jobs for kids.

She wanted to know how she could enroll her son.

“Well,” said the recruiter, “is he on parole?”

“Oh no,” she said. “He’s not like that.”

“Well then,” he said, “he can’t get into this program. This program is only for kids on parole.”

They tried to interest her in other programs, but none fit her needs, and so she left -- possibly taking her son’s future with her.

I asked the service fair’s manager about that. And -- come to think of it -- about the timing of the fair. It was held from 3 - 5 p.m. … working hours. That meant people living in the complex who had jobs wouldn’t be able to attend and find out what government services they’re eligible for.

“This,” she replied, “is not for people with jobs.” Or their kids.

Well, I thought later, taking a swig of gin, that stinks. People who live in one of the city’s most dangerous housing complexes but still don’t get in trouble deserve our help as much as -- more than -- anybody else.

After sobering up and talking with city officials, I still think it stinks, but I don’t see it as a complete FUBAR anymore -- I see it as the accidental result of a big, brave, and clever plan to help kids.

One that might fall flat on its face because there are too many mothers of too many kids not getting connected to the right people.

The city is radically reorganizing the way it reaches out to at-risk and troubled youth. It used to be that every agency tried to run some programs to help every kind of kid. Not anymore.

Most city agencies, like the Mayors Office of Criminal Justice (who ran the fair) and the and the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council, have stopped running programs that try to prevent at-risk kids from becoming delinquents, according to William Sifferman, the city’s chief probation officer. Instead, they’re focusing on rehabilitating kids who are already in the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, the city’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families is picking up the slack: from now on, it will be the one-stop-shopping center for programs designed to keep kids out of trouble in the first place.

“We’ve made a sort of city wide decision that the MOCJ (and other agencies) can make a better impact focusing on the kids who are in the system, while DCYF can work with kids not in the system,” said DCYF Director Margaret Brodkin.

Now there’s more money going into prevention of juvenile delinquency than ever before -- over $10 million in the last three years, by Brodkin’s estimate -- and it’s much more centralized.

The advantages are obvious: city agencies that specialize can get better at their task, and with clear lines of authority drawn kids won’t get caught between multiple agencies with multiple expectations and demands.

It’s also a good time for a renewed focus on rehabilitating kids already in the system, according to John Klofus, a professor of Criminal Justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology who specializes in urban crime.

“There has been a fair amount of research over the past couple of years that has really begun to highlight the successes of interventions with kids already identified in the system,” he said. “Just a few years ago, there was a great deal of doubt about the efficacy of such programs. There isn’t now.” Armed with tools like Multi-Systemic Therapy and Cognitive Therapy interventions, there’s simply more we can do for these kids.

With greater specialization, a greater emphasis on effective techniques for kids in the system, and more money going in to DCYF for prevention, everybody wins, right?

Well, not the mother who showed up at the wrong service fair. Or her son.

It takes a village to raise a child, but San Francisco’s a metropolis. The city’s plan would almost certainly work for a small government where people in one agency know what their neighbor agencies are doing. San Francisco city government, however, is a sprawling behemoth with more agencies that anyone can possible keep track of, overlapping jurisdiction in many areas, and arcane bureaucracy.

Want help for an aging parent? Who do you go to: the Department of Aging & Adult Services, the Aging & Adult Services Commission, or the Office on the Aging?

(Here’s a hint: one “is specifically charged with planning, coordinating, providing and advocating for community-based services for older adults and adults with disabilities” while another “is specifically charged with planning, coordinating and providing community-based services for the elderly.”)

Or you could just call the Human Services Agency. Your parents are human, right?

Of course, there’s also a Department of Human Services …

Too many chefs spoil the soup and San Francisco is a city of gourmets. The success of San Francisco’s new approach to kids will depend on whether or not all the agencies involved -- government and non-profit -- can talk to each other and cooperate to make sure kids end up with the agency that has the services they need. But even getting all the relevant agencies in on a conference call is damn near impossible.

How many agencies have representatives on the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council? 12. Now, 12 people can agree on “innocent” or “guilty” if they’re forced by law to sit in a room together, but they have a much harder planning a picnic. How many agencies or offices are represented on the city’s “Summer Street Violence Prevention Council?” 18. How many are represented on the “Mayor’s Transitional Youth Task Force?” Over 50.

With these kinds of numbers, most city employees don’t even know what agency is one floor up, let alone who has a program they need to know about. And so kids who aren’t at the right agency at the right time fall through the cracks.

The city has a good idea in this reorganization, there’s no doubt about it: but making it work is going to require a level or interagency cooperation that they have yet to come within miles of pulling off.

I sound cynical, I know -- but that’s the booze talking. I’m rooting for them. The city is absolutely right to want to reorganize, and it’s absolutely right that new tools available to help kids require more specialized agencies.

But having the right plan isn’t enough. You need a system that’s organized enough that anyone – from the organizers to the kids and especially their parents – can understand who they need to talk to.

Can you understand city government?


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