A young man who feared for his life on the streets knocked on the door of juvenile probation.
“Please detain me,” he begged.
The probation office found him a home in a shelter outside New Haven so he wouldn’t become the next victim of gun violence.
Mark White, regional manager for the judicial branch’s juvenile probation program, recounted that story Tuesday at the inaugural meeting of Youth Stat, a new city effort to share information about at-risk kids and figure out to help them. The anecdote gave a glimpse at the dangers kids face on a daily basis—and an example of a challenge that the new team of government agencies and not-for-profits will try to address.
The meeting, which mirrors the police’s weekly CompStat data-sharing confab, is based on a similar program in Baltimore. It drew over 65 people Tuesday to a fourth-floor conference room of Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School. The crowd included the mayor, superintendent, principals, cops, and officials from not-for-profits, the state Department of Children and Families, and the state judicial branch. The meeting was launched in the wake of two murders of teenagers.
Mayor Toni Harp said in tragedies like those, schools often see the warning signs ahead of time.
“Every time someone gets shot,” she said, “school officials could say, ‘We could have told you’” that student was heading for trouble.
But—in part due to student privacy laws—the school district isn’t sharing information about struggling kids with not-for-profits and other agencies that can help, Harp said. The new group has started sharing data on the aggregate level, and aims to get parental consent to start talking about individual kids.
Superintendent Garth Harries opened the meeting by sharing some statistics on 174 students about whom the school district is most worried. The district generated the list based on principals’ recommendations, as well as who got expelled or arrested. Those students were the targets of a canvassing effort two weeks ago.
Harries gave a profile of those 174 kids: The youngest three are 5th-graders, two of whom have already been expelled from school this year. Most (54 students) are in the 9th grade. Twenty-one have been locked up in juvenile detention.
In addition to those 174, another 219 New Haven students have been to juvenile detention, 66 of them more than once.
Schools also see a red flag when students start getting Ds and Fs in school, Harries added. One third of freshmen have failed at least one class. And 2,165 of about 20,000 students have missed at least 10 days of school; 731 have missed at least 20 days.
“What do we do, folks?” Harries asked the room.
White (pictured) said the juvenile probation office needs help placing kids who are afraid to go home because they fear for their lives in their neighborhood. Often, kids know a specific person or group is looking to hurt or shoot them. Kids come to juvenile probation for help.
When that happened recently in New Haven, White said, his staff scrambled to make phone calls to other agencies to find housing for a boy who feared for his safety. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) ended up finding the boy a bed in a shelter outside of the city, White said.
But that was just one kid. Many more ask for help finding a safe place to stay, he said.
“We don’t have the resources to keep kids safe,” White said.
Denise Kupstis, a juvenile probation supervisor in New Haven, said her office is currently handling requests from three other children who fear going home because of specific threats of violence in the streets. Other kids ask for help leaving gangs or the street life.
“Every other day, we have a child that wants to get out or that knows that they’re in danger,” she said.
Kathy Grega (pictured) of the not-for-profit Youth Continuum said she is too familiar with that situation.
“Daily, we have kids come in and say, ‘I want out,’” she said. Often, they say the reason they remain part of a gang is “to be safe.”
Harp said City Hall has grappled with that kind of request as well.
“We had a kid we had to find a place for, who wanted to get out,” she recalled.
Jason Bartlett, the city’s director of youth services, who handled that recent case, said finding help for the kid was difficult. He “had to convince the parent to say they were neglectful” of the child, “even though they weren’t,” so that the kid would qualify for help from DCF.
Harp said she is concerned about how hard it is to find kids a safe place: “If we can’t help the kids who want to get out not get killed, we’ve got a problem.”
Karen DuBois-Walton, executive director of the city housing authority, offered help. The housing authority can fast-track applications for Section 8 subsidized housing to income-eligible families that fear for their safety, she said. The authority recently was able to help a family that “needed to get out of the neighborhood” for just that reason. Once a family has a Section 8 voucher, she noted, “you can go anywhere in the U.S.,” even Puerto Rico.
The discussion gave a glimpse of the type of problem that members of Youth Stat may start solving together.
Kyisha Velazquez, program manager at New Haven Family Alliance, suggested the city set up a youth hotline that kids could call if they want to be whisked away from the threat of violence.
Police Chief Dean Esserman (pictured with Hillhouse High Principal Kermit Carolina) offered a suggestion: creating new task forces—teams of DCF, probation officers and cops—to prevent at-risk kids from becoming victims or perpetrators of crime. He said the goal would be to help them, not to arrest them.
“Our success is not [through] juvenile handcuffs,” he said. He suggested the city create 10 teams and base them in the schools. Each team would work with a caseload of individual kids. The team’s job would be “to save that kid.”
Youth services chief Bartlett said before Youth Stat goes saving kids from gangs, it has to understand what a “gang” is.
Assistant Police Chief Archie Generoso said the police department prefers not to use the word “gang,” but “groups.” Kids represent themselves as part of a certain group from a block or neighborhood, and stick together, he said. They may not be committing violent crimes, he said; they may be committing burglaries or breaking into cars. Or they may just be hanging out together. He said the “gang” label sensationalizes the phenomenon.
Harp offered her take from a psychologist’s point of view: From a developmental standpoint, it’s normal for teens to form groups, she said. In adolescence, kids naturally “break away from nuclear families so they can figure out who they are,” she said. They do that by joining groups. It’s a natural developmental evolution, just like the “terrible twos,” she said.
“If we don’t deal with the facts that adolescents join groups,” we won’t understand the problem, she said. The question isn’t whether teens should be part of groups, but whether a given group’s behavior is problematic, she argued.
The discussion wrapped up after two hours. The group vowed to meet again weekly on Tuesdays at 3 p.m. for the next three weeks. A committee is forming to handle an important question: How to address federal student privacy laws so that the agencies can start talking not just about groups, but also about individual kids.