Mentors Build Meaningful Connections With Youth in Washington, D.C.

Posted July 15, 2019
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Credible Messengers with the Washington, D.C., Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services

Clin­ton Lacey has a mantra: The answer is in the community.”

These words appear on T‑shirts and writ­ten mate­ri­als for the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Depart­ment of Youth Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Ser­vices (DYRS). As direc­tor of DYRS, which par­tic­i­pates in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tive Ini­tia­tive®, Lacey inte­grates this mantra into his every­day work — includ­ing the department’s Cred­i­ble Mes­sen­ger Initiative.

The pro­gram pairs every youth under its super­vi­sion with spe­cial­ly trained adult men­tors from the com­mu­ni­ty. These paid men­tors — called cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers — have lived through sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences and under­stand the sup­port and ser­vices that youth in jus­tice sys­tems need.

The pres­ence of a con­sis­tent, car­ing adult with shared expe­ri­ences can make the dif­fer­ence in help­ing a young per­son get on the path toward a pos­i­tive future,” says Nate Balis, direc­tor of the Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. If jus­tice sys­tems are to pro­mote youth well-being and com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty, build­ing com­mu­ni­ty con­nec­tions is essential.”

Since launch­ing the pro­gram in 2015, DYRS has con­nect­ed 474 youth and fam­i­lies with cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers. Twice a week, the men­tors host youth for a hot meal and a group out­ing, such as a paint­ball ses­sion or go-kart rac­ing. Cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers also employ their knowl­edge of com­mu­ni­ty dynam­ics and resources to help young peo­ple achieve goals, like find­ing a job, advanc­ing their edu­ca­tion or man­ag­ing every­day chal­lenges, such as con­flicts with parents.

Cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers went to the same high schools, are liv­ing in the same [hous­ing] project, the same neigh­bor­hood, may have grown up with a sin­gle par­ent. They were able to nav­i­gate those cir­cum­stances,” says pro­gram man­ag­er Charles Dot­son. When a young per­son says, You just don’t under­stand,’ cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers can say, Yes, I do.’”

Lever­ag­ing com­mu­ni­ty con­nec­tions is not a new con­cept, Dot­son points out. In every field, there are peo­ple who have shared life expe­ri­ence,” he explains. If you’re going through surgery, you talk to some­one else who’s had surgery; wound­ed vet­er­ans talk to [troops] com­ing back home. We are just hav­ing peo­ple who have had sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences advis­ing youth.”

A young person’s men­tor is often the first per­son he or she calls when in need, accord­ing to Dot­son. Acces­si­bil­i­ty is key. We don’t turn our phones off at 5 p.m.,” he says.

After they are hired, cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers must com­plete an inten­sive five-day train­ing on cog­ni­tive behav­ioral ther­a­py, bound­aries, work­ing as a team, trau­ma, self-care and safe­ty in the com­mu­ni­ty. As active men­tors, they can attend sup­port group ses­sions or com­plete month­ly train­ings on top­ics such as sex traf­fick­ing, emo­tion­al intel­li­gence and youth development.

The City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York’s John Jay Col­lege of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice is cur­rent­ly eval­u­at­ing the pro­gram, which is mod­eled after pro­grams such as Home­boy Indus­tries in Los Ange­les, The Men­tor­ing Cen­ter in Oak­land and Arch­es Trans­for­ma­tive Men­tor­ing in New York City.

Learn more about the cred­i­ble mes­sen­ger program

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