Helping Savannah Youth Connect to Work, Avoid Confinement

Posted May 9, 2018
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Young people at a community center in Savannah.

Many Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive® (JDAI™) sites grap­ple with how to serve youth who are on a down­ward spi­ral toward con­fine­ment, for whom tra­di­tion­al alter­na­tive pro­gram­ming just doesn’t work. The juve­nile court in Chatham Coun­ty, Geor­gia, home to Savan­nah, ini­ti­at­ed a new pro­gram for these young peo­ple — a pro­gram made pos­si­ble by com­mu­ni­ty invest­ment and partnership.

Two Casey Foun­da­tion-sup­port­ed com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty forums held a few years ago in Savan­nah, high­light­ed the need for inno­v­a­tive pro­gram­ming that could suc­cess­ful­ly serve youth at high risk of con­fine­ment. Acknowl­edg­ing the ben­e­fits of keep­ing these young peo­ple at home, the juve­nile court, in part­ner­ship with an array of local orga­ni­za­tions, launched the Work Readi­ness Enrich­ment Pro­gram in the fall of 2017.

Savannah’s pro­gram was inspired by Home­boy Indus­tries in Los Ange­les, a reen­try pro­gram for for­mer­ly gang-involved and pre­vi­ous­ly incar­cer­at­ed men and women, many of whom share the same chal­lenges as high-risk youth in Savannah’s juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem: pain from past trau­ma, lack of life skills, social dis­con­nect­ed­ness. Savan­nah embraced some of Homeboy’s key attrib­ut­es — staff mem­bers from par­tic­i­pants’ own com­mu­ni­ties who have found suc­cess after fac­ing sim­i­lar chal­lenges, a non­judg­men­tal desire to help indi­vid­u­als for whom oth­er efforts have failed and pro­gram­ming that gives par­tic­i­pants con­crete skills.

Now in the midst of its sec­ond cohort, the full-day Work Readi­ness Enrich­ment Pro­gram works with boys ages 14 to 16 who are strug­gling in mul­ti­ple areas. Eli­gi­ble youth have been charged with felony-lev­el or mul­ti­ple prop­er­ty crimes and are dis­en­gaged or sig­nif­i­cant­ly behind grade lev­el at school. They are dis­con­nect­ed social­ly and haven’t respond­ed to tra­di­tion­al pro­gram­ming. So far, 22 boys out of the 59 pro­gram-eli­gi­ble youth have vol­un­tar­i­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in the eight- to 10-week program.

The program’s cur­ricu­lum address­es a vari­ety of skills and needs, made pos­si­ble through a note­wor­thy col­lab­o­ra­tive effort among local gov­ern­ment and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions. Each orga­ni­za­tion con­tributes its par­tic­u­lar exper­tise and, in many cas­es, tan­gi­ble assets:

  • Chatham Coun­ty Juve­nile Court pro­vides a pro­gram-ded­i­cat­ed pro­ba­tion offi­cer, an edu­ca­tion­al advo­cate who helps youth tran­si­tion back to school, meet­ing space — includ­ing a bas­ket­ball court — and stipends for the youth.
  • The Savan­nah-Chatham Coun­ty Pub­lic School Sys­tem pro­vides a full-time teacher, a part-time spe­cial edu­ca­tion expert, its online cred­it recov­ery pro­gram, lap­tops and bus passes.
  • Good­will South­east Geor­gia teach­es work readi­ness skills, includ­ing how to cre­ate a resume and fill out a job appli­ca­tion, and con­nects old­er youth to poten­tial job opportunities.
  • Frank Callen Boys and Girls Club pro­vides gang inter­ven­tion­ists to lead father­hood and par­ent­ing classes.
  • Heads Up Guid­ance Ser­vices hosts group behav­ioral health cir­cles” where boys dis­cuss top­ics such as anger man­age­ment and cop­ing mechanisms.
  • YMCA of Coastal Geor­gia teach­es finan­cial lit­er­a­cy fun­da­men­tals for teens, includ­ing bud­get­ing and how to avoid com­mon finan­cial mistakes.
  • America’s Sec­ond Har­vest of Coastal Geor­gia, a local food bank, pro­vides free lunches.

I’ve nev­er seen this type of col­lab­o­ra­tion,” says Deputy Court Admin­is­tra­tor Alisha Markle. There is a gen­uine inter­est in help­ing these youth, a strong desire to make the com­mu­ni­ty bet­ter.” This inter­est is not lost on the young peo­ple in the pro­gram, who say they feel loved and treat­ed with respect by staff mem­bers who lis­ten to us for real.”

Ulti­mate­ly, the coun­ty aims to extend the pro­gram to 18 weeks, hope­ful­ly help­ing youth to sus­tain improve­ments seen after the short eight-week pilot pro­gram last fall. Improve­ments include achiev­ing edu­ca­tion­al gains; increas­ing lead­er­ship skills; recov­er­ing suf­fi­cient cred­its to return to school on or clos­er to grade lev­el; and tak­ing advan­tage of more heal­ing support.

These kids are thirsty for con­nec­tion, for skills,” says Casey Foun­da­tion Senior Asso­ciate Tanya Wash­ing­ton. At the begin­ning of the pilot, they wouldn’t look you in the eye. At the end, we had boys eager to remain in the pro­gram this spring. Five did remain, return­ing to school and hold­ing onto jobs. They felt a new sense of self-worth and had hope for their futures.”

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