For the Children’s Home of Jefferson County, on New York’s mostly rural northern border with Canada, creating a rehabilitation program under the new statewide juvenile justice reform law known as “Raise the Age” was an obvious decision.
“We all kind of looked at each other and went, this is what we’ve always done,” said Karen Y. Richmond, executive director of Children’s Home. “This wasn’t even a why, it was a why not.”
Founded as an orphanage in 1859, the Children’s Home has evolved to provide a variety of services for youth, from interventions in the home, to foster care, to non-secure detention for youth. Now they are adding a new juvenile justice placement — a residential program for 16- and eventually 17-year-olds who have been found guilty of a crime — as an alternative to prison.
“We’ve never believed that 16- and 17-year-olds should be treated as adults,” Richmond said. “We really worked with that age group for our whole existence, I mean, we’ve always worked with juveniles. It really fit with our pattern.”
Under Raise the Age, most 16-year-olds started having their cases moved from adult criminal court to family court for adjudication starting last October. This coming October, the same rules will apply to 17-year-olds. Under old rules, 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of misdemeanors and low-level felonies had the same punishment options as adults – probation, jail, even state prison for more serious offenses.
Now, youth convicted in family court may instead find themselves spending several months at the Children’s Home in their newly renovated Raise the Age cottage, which still has the fresh look of new construction not yet lived in.
This cottage received the first of the two 16-year-old boys currently in the program on February 26. It is organized like an oversized college dorm suite, with the furniture to match, but the décor of generic watercolor prints adds the feel of a mid-range hotel. Doors to the outside and between the male and female wings are alarmed, but not locked.
“This is a community-based program, it was that from the beginning, so there are no locked doors,” Richmond said. “They attend public school, so they ride the school bus to school and come back … that was the whole crux behind the philosophy when we started it, is that it’s really hard to lock 16-year-olds up.”
The fact the teens are riding the bus to public high school every day, rather than learning on campus, is something unique to Children’s Home, and an extension of a relationship the Home has had for decades.
According to Watertown Superintendent Patricia LaBarr, the relationship between the Children’s Home and the school has been going since she joined the district more than 30 years ago. The school district and the Children’s Home have had two or three meetings about Raise the Age programming, but the conversations about the specifics are ongoing.
“I’m excited to have the opportunity,” LaBarr said.
The program is a change from prior juvenile justice programs at the Children’s Home, like its equivalent program for 13- to 15-year-old teens who have been convicted in family court.
In the past, youth convicted in family court typically spent 13-15 months in care. Under guidelines from the state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), the new Raise the Age program includes no more than eight months of residential care on the Children’s Home’s campus in Watertown and a full year of service, with a focus on re-integrating the youth to their community.
According to an OCFS spokesperson, the changes were based on research showing extensive stays are not in youth’s best interests. The Children’s Home is now changing its 13- to 15-year-old program to match the same timeline.
“Historically children would linger in residential programs, and we’re excited to have a concrete timeline, with real clear established goals and outcomes,” said Victoria Peck, director of child welfare services for Children’s Home. “We’re still looking at a year timeline for our youth, but if a youth were to come into care for eight months, then I have four months of aftercare services. If a child gets to go home in six months, then I have six months of aftercare services.”
Outside of the school day, the teens have access to a wide variety of services — including apprenticeships, internships and counseling — tailored to their needs. They may participate in sports, art therapy, cooking or a horticultural club.
For all of the program participants, the goal is getting them to be part of their communities again.
“The longer the children are separated from the family, the harder it is for the child and the family to re-integrate,” Richmond said. “So there’s a real focus on family from day one. And family could look different, we’re not saying family is Mom and Dad that they left. It could be an aunt it could be a cousin, it could be a neighbor.”
The program is open to most, but not all, teens in the Raise the Age designation. Some more serious crimes are still adjudicated in adult courts’ new “youth part” under the new designation of adolescent offenders (AOs). These adolescent offenders may then serve time in new youth prisons regulated under Raise the Age.
“There are children, there are young kids who are going to need a more intense treatment model,” Richmond said, referring to the AOs who have, for example, used guns or committed rape. “And I think I would have a hard time in my community, to keep my community support, if I was bringing in a 16-year-old that had committed a crime like that and then I want to send them to public school.”
Although the program has only been active for a few months, the rollout has included a large ramp up for the Children’s Home with 25 new staff being hired specifically for the Raise the Age program to cover the program’s 24/7 needs.
The program is focused on the north country — both teens currently in the program are from the Jefferson-Lewis-St. Lawrence County area, or close by — but Children’s Home has contracts with every county in the state, and youth could come from any of them. Counties pay for the services, and are reimbursed by New York state.
The spokesperson for OCFS did not know the exact compensation, but said a rate of about $1,000 per youth per day was close. The increased rate, which is higher than for foster care, is due to increased staffing needs and security concerns.
Despite the challenges of rolling out a program like this, everyone involved seems excited about offering an alternative to prison for teens.
“We think it’s pretty cool that we have a true, home-like environment, and they can make it their own,” said Peck of Children’s Home. “It’s exactly where we want to be with our youth, not having them sit behind bars.”
Abe Kenmore is a political reporter with the Watertown Daily Times in Jefferson County, New York. This story was produced as part of his Raise the Age reporting fellowship with The Imprint, and was co-published with the Watertown Daily Times.