It’s been more than a year since Mayor Bloomberg announced that he wanted to pull New York City kids out of state-run juvenile justice facilities, sending them instead to a new system of programs and lockups controlled by the city.
Until recently, details of the city’s plan have been scarce: What would the city’s system look like? Who would operate it? And how would it be better than the state-run system, with its decades of scandal and notoriously high rates of recidivism?
The details are now public, spelled out in a 100-page draft plan released earlier this month by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). For larger context on the city’s reform agenda, see our previous story here. What follows is a summary of critical details from the draft plan, which is open to public comment.
Under the existing system, the city has jurisdiction over children who’ve been arrested, while their court cases are pending. But after a child is sentenced to serve time, he or she is sent to the custody of the state government, which runs its own juvenile lockups and also oversees a network of residential campuses operated by nonprofit organizations, including some in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island that have historically cared for New York City foster children.
This year’s state budget includes funding for the new approach, which will allow New York City to open its own facilities for kids who are sent by judges to so-called nonsecure, and limited secure, lockups. Those titles are misleading: The facilities are, in fact, secured by both staff and hardware, and kids are not allowed to leave on their own. Nonetheless, they generally house children who’ve committed less serious or fewer offenses than those placed in so-called secure, facilities, which are more restrictive and will continue to be operated by the state, at least for now.
The city wants to have new nonsecure residential centers up and running by September of this year. They will be run by nonprofit organizations, including those who have long experience with foster care residential treatment centers and others that have worked with juvenile delinquents sent to them by Family Court judges.
The city’s first step is to submit a plan to the state’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). The plan must incorporate public feedback; ACS will hold two public hearings in May, and is accepting comments on its plan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Following is a summary of key elements of the city’s draft plan:
In January, ACS invited nonprofit organizations to apply for contracts to operate new facilities, which will essentially look like locked group homes. The administration is now in the process of scoring proposals from several nonprofit groups, and officials say they will announce awards by or in May.
Some organizations seeking to participate already own residential campuses in suburban counties surrounding the city. Initially, the nonprofits ACS selects will be allowed to operate their programs as far as 25 miles outside of city lines. Within two years, however, they will have to relocate to sites within the five boroughs, so that kids can have closer contact with their families.
While the Close to Home plan says the city will work to avoid over-reliance on out-of-home placements,, there is no built-in assumption that the number of kids sent to nonsecure facilities will decline. ACS says it will contract for 300 beds, the same number as are now filled by New York City youth in the state’s nonsecure lockups.
This number reflects a significant drop from six years ago, however, thanks to several city initiatives designed to divert young teens from lockups altogether: Since 2005, the total number of New York City young people sent to state-run and state-contracted facilities has gone down by close to two-thirds, from nearly 1,500 to 544 last year.
If the plan is approved, facilities will open on September 1, 2012. All city youth given new, nonsecure placements by Family Court judges will go directly to the city lockups. Between September and December, ACS caseworkers will work with the state to transfer youth already in state custody, either into the new city facilities or into city-run aftercare, programs, which provide support services to young people and their families after they return home.
What happens when they don’t work
Under the current state system, a large number of young people fail, out of private, nonprofit-run facilities and are transferred into state-run lockups. Last year, nearly one-third of children placed in state-run, nonsecure lockups had arrived there from private programs. Since the city will not directly operate its own nonsecure facilities, the only option for kids who don’t succeed in private programs in the new system will be a transfer to a more restrictive level of lockup.
In its draft Close to Home plan, the city says it hopes to minimize such failed placements, by creating specialized program slots for children with particular needs or behaviors, such as kids with severe emotional disturbances or fire-setting histories. The plan stipulates that ACS social workers will meet with young people and their families before they assign kids to a particular program. Program providers will be able to appeal decisions if the provider thinks an inappropriate match, was made by ACS.
Young people who are deemed to be in imminent danger of leaving without permission,, or who present as a threat to themselves or others, will be transferred immediately to one of the city’s secure detention facilities (which currently hold children whose trials are in progress) until a longer-term decision is made.
Restraints and physical force
The city’s nonsecure facility operators will be trained in a system called Safe Crisis Management,, which stipulates that program staff must attempt to de-escalate crisis situations without using force whenever possible, and always use the least intrusive or restrictive intervention necessary. Physical restraints are permitted only as a last resort.
This represents a departure from practices in the city’s detention facilities, where staff used physical or mechanical restraints more than 1,000 times in the last three months of 2011, according to ACS’s quarterly incident report, which it is required to publish under city law. Children in custody were injured as a result of these restraints 78 times during that period.
When providers at the new nonsecure lockups use restraints, they will be required to notify ACS within an hour of the incident, according to the Close to Home plan. ACS will factor the use of restraints into evaluations of provider agencies. ACS case managers will meet with children who’ve been restrained soon after the incident, and will report restraints to children’s families.
In the draft plan, the city describes a newly expanded continuum of services, for young people in the juvenile justice system, with new programs designed to keep kids out of placement facilities. Historically, New York City’s rates of juvenile incarceration stayed high, in part, because Family Court judges didn’t have alternative programs to send kids to when they got in trouble. Over the past several years, ACS and the city’s Department of Probation have established several alternative to placement, programs, where kids get supervision and services while living at home.
Under Close to Home, the probation department will open three new alternative programs, adding 65 new slots. It will also run a tiered system of probation, so that judges can assign kids to varying levels of scrutiny, including daily check-ins, without removing them from their homes.
According to the Close to Home plan, ACS is currently soliciting more slots for a short-term foster care program designed to keep kids with violent offenses out of lockups. And it is gearing up to expand its system of aftercare programs, which aim to keep kids from committing new offenses.
One of the Bloomberg administration’s signature juvenile justice reforms was the development of a risk assessment instrument,, or RAI, which gauges a young person’s likelihood of either re-offending or disappearing while his or her case is pending. After an arrest, based on certain characteristics, young people are scored low-, medium- or high-risk. For those on the low end, the Department of Probation recommends that judges let them stay home, rather than sending them to detention. In part as a result of this assessment tool, detention admissions went down by 18 percent between 2006 and 2011.
The probation department is now working with the Vera Institute of Justice to develop similar tools to take bias out of placement recommendations,which help judges decide whether a child will be sent to a diversion program or to a lockup, and what level of security that lockup should be. Standardizing the process assures that recommendations of placement are not based on the youth’s treatment needs, attitudes or behavior while in court or with the probation officer, all of which are factors that can sometimes cause low-risk youth to receive more intensive services than are warranted,, according to the plan. Assessment tools also aim to minimize racial disparities in sentencing.
In the process of arguing for this local system, officials have repeatedly said that keeping children close to their families and lawyers, and to the elected officials who represent them, will allow for greater oversight of juvenile lockups.
According to the Close to Home plan, ACS will monitor the nonprofits running facilities, both through its annual scoring process and through its team of case workers working directly with program providers to track kids’ progress through the system.
ACS is in turn regulated by the state, which holds the power to grant licenses to the service-providing agencies that will run the lockups. ACS will be obliged to report serious incidents to the state, such as severe injuries to children or suspected child abuse, and the state has the ultimate authority to shut the city’s placement system down.
The city publishes certain data tracking the outcomes of its current juvenile justice programs, such as re-arrest rates and average lengths of stay, in the annual Mayor’s Management Report and ACS’s monthly Flash indicators. Under a law passed by the City Council, ACS is also required to post a quarterly incident report documenting restraints and injuries to youth in detention centers, an annual demographic report and an annual report of child abuse allegations.
The Close to Home plan does not explain what data will be publicly available about its new lockups, though it does say that [t]he city expects that throughout implementation and execution of Close to Home, we will be called upon to update the City Council, as well as key members of the State Assembly and Senate, including the Committees on Children and Family Services.,
The plan also anticipates regular and formal input from stakeholders and consumers of non-secure placement services (judges, lawyers, families, etc.), but does not explain how that input will be institutionalized.
The annual cost of the city’s nonsecure lockups is expected to be $56.8 million, with half to come from the city, and half to be paid for by the state. Of the state money, more than $12 million will come from the Foster Care Block Grant, which currently funds services for children and families in the foster care system.
Providers will receive an initial base rate of $400 per child day, based on the assumption that 90 percent of their slots will remain occupied, plus add-on rates for extra services like paying staff to accompany children to school.