Note: This story was updated on March 11
This winter, an intriguing development in national juvenile justice advocacy was made known in Harrisburg, Penn. The board of Youth Advocate Program (YAP), a national provider of alternatives to incarceration since 1976, officially launched its Policy & Advocacy Center, a top-down shop that will be headquartered in Washington, D.C.
“Our presence in D.C. is really to advocate for redirection of dollars away from costly and ineffective institutions, and toward communities,” said YAP Chief Executive Officer Jeff Fleischer.
YAP has, for decades, kept a modest appearance that belies its $70 million in annual revenue for services each year, all of it coming from community-based, non-residential programs.
The headquarters is a roomy townhouse in Harrisburg. The advocacy center’s announcement celebration was held in a flourescent-lit backroom of the Harrisburg Best Western, which did have “Welcome YAP” written in big letters on its marquee.
But the organization now provides its brand of juvenile justice and child welfare services in 126 programs located in 18 states, and the decision has been made by YAP leader Jeffrey Fleischer and the board to raise YAP’s national profile.
YAP deploys youth workers are tasked with forging a developmental relationship with young offenders, and helping connect them to positive choices and outcomes.
The approach includes certain traits of Friends of the Children, which pays full-time mentors to foster relationships over a long period of time with youth, and Court Appointed Special Advocates, a get-things-done-for-youth model of service.
Its core principles include pairing young people with workers from their own neighborhood, and never ejecting youth from the program.
In truth, the YAP policy center’s Washington hub has been operating quietly for more than a year now. Shaena Fazal, a former jack-of-all trades for the organization’s sizable Chicago program, will lead the center from Washington.
She’ll be assisted by VOICES, a group of current and former YAP participants available to share their experiences in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, and their time with YAP. The organization has also established an advisory board to help generate some of the standard policy shop fare: white papers, blogs, the occasional forum or briefing.
As mentioned, YAP has had a presence in D.C. for decades, but only as a direct services provider for the city’s juvenile justice agency. The office was just a Metro ride away from the White House and Capitol Hill, but was not used as a hub to voice any national policy agenda or, even in the go-go era of pork appropriations, lobby for federal earmarks to support YAP expansion.
YAP has no present role in the city’s juvenile justice system, which is split between the court’s probation services and the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services.
There appear to be two central goals for the center, as far as its presence in Washington:
Offer YAP up as the “what instead?” part of juvenile justice reform discussions.
Fazal, who has spent most of her first year developing contacts in the city, recently sat in on a Congressional briefing about girls in the juvenile justice system.
There was a lot of data and experience shared about the problem girls being placed in secure options designed for men. When an audience member asked a question about what other options should be or are available for girls, Fazal noted, there was little response.
“As service providers who work directly with the highest risk youth, it really is up to us to help other juvenile justice advocates define what an intensive community-based alternative looks like,” Fazal said. “Juvenile justice advocates have done a good job of persuading policymakers that locking kids up is not a smart investment; now we need to define what is. YAP is in a unique position to help do that.”
More federal policymakers have accepted the premise that juvenile services provided in residential and secure placements are costly and not productive for many juveniles, as evidenced by the close ties between the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and major foundations pushing de-incarceration (Annie E. Casey Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation).
The discussion has turned toward: What to do instead? The Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University has taken the macro-level lead on this with its Juvenile Justice System Improvement Project, which is working with four states to develop juvenile interventions based on the Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol (SPEP).
YAP will try to demonstrate that its brand of community-based intervention works based on the organization’s own experience and track record.
Get direct federal buy-in for YAP
While YAP has achieved remarkable growth, it operates on the same financial razor’s edge as many other juvenile justice and child welfare contractors. The loss of a major contract with the city of Chicago over the summer, combined with Sequester-wary state agencies, has created a scenario that only layoffs or deficit spending could allay without new support.
Federal funding for the organization would offer an injection of breathing room and capacity building for the organization. It is, of course, a long shot at the moment.
Unless you’ve been vacationing in the Gobi Desert for the last two fiscal years, you know that domestic spending has been level-funded and is now on the precipice of being leveled, period. So the proposition of picking up federal funding is dubious, at best.
That said, two nonprofits currently dominate the federal appropriations for OJJDP: the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA).
It is no coincidence that both have a strong Washington contingency that work to keep the OJJDP appropriations for missing children and mentoring, the accounts from which NCMEC and BGCA draw large annual sums from OJJDP.
And, as mentioned, Casey and MacArthur got OJJDP buy-in to expand on their respective reform projects. An important distinction there is that both of them are foundations that can match or exceed federal funding on a project, an attractive offer for a federal agency with an ever-declining amount of discretionary funding to play with.
Not so easy for YAP, a service provider without free cash to pony up on an expansion project. Still, it is possible for YAP (with the right shepherds among appropriators) to pump up the appropriations for the Community-Based Violence Prevention funds coming to OJJDP. Or, it could simply compete with BGCA and others for the mentoring funds.
Either way, YAP’s presence in Washington is noteworthy. It may be the first post-adjudication services provider with a government affairs office in Washington, so it will be interesting to see if YAP can benefit the same way BGCA and NCMEC have over the years.