In the United States, nearly 71,000 youth were confined to correctional facilities or programs each night in 2010. That’s more adolescents than live in Indianapolis.
In Indiana, 3 out of every 20 students leave school without a high school diploma. It’s a reality that has long-reaching effects on both the student and the community at-large. High school drop outs make about half as much each year as graduates. Lower earnings mean that these students won’t be as likely to own homes, begin new business and, in general, provide a meaningful contribution to the communities in which they live. These same students are more likely to place a heavier burden on human- and social-services, as they face much higher rates of teenage pregnancy, unemployment and incarceration than those who do graduate.
Even though Hamilton County, Indiana, has a lower than average number of incarcerated teens and a drop out rate of just over 10 percent, two communities in the county want to do more for their kids, and to expect more from them.
With the Hamilton County Youth Assistance Program, both Westfield and Noblesville are trying to prevent kids from entering the court system -- a dangerous first step that often leads to suspension and expulsion, and finally dropping out. Following the early success of the program roll-out in Westfield, Legacy Fund, an affiliate with CICF, is providing support for implementation in Noblesville.
Children and teens can interact with a number of government and youth-serving agencies, but in most communities, these individual systems are not well connected. As students, children interact with teachers, principals and guidance counselors daily. In scouting, dance classes, afterschool programs and other activities, children develop new skills and learn responsibility. Many kids connect with police, either because of their own missteps or family situations. Some of those children end up interacting with judges and attorneys.
Because these systems are not interconnected, when a young person becomes disruptive in class or starts missing a lot of school, school staff must work independently to address the problem. They may not know that the child’s homelife is disrupted by domestic violence or that the family may be facing eviction.
The Youth Assistance Program seeks to provide a critical connection between all the community’s assets – schools, programs, caring police - to address youth needs.
“If a teacher identifies that little Susie’s behavior is suddenly negative, we’ve got a whole mix of programs that we can offer,” says Tricia Akers, Director of the Hamilton County Youth Assistance Program. “If Susie wants to dance, we can provide support for classes. Then, when we get to know the family a little better, we might find out that they need rent assistance or some help with parenting skills. We help them navigate the system to find the supports they need.”
The Youth Assistance Program staff also work with law enforcement and courts to identify youth who need help. When children are facing challenging situations at home, the program not only seeks to help their family life become more stable, but also to provide developmental opportunities in and out of school time. The primary goal is to build a network of supports for children and families, supports that will help them remain on a positive track.
In addition to providing a pathway to fun classes, emergency supports and counseling services, the Youth Assistance Program pairs community volunteers with children in the program. Through a partnership with the Westfield and Noblesville schools, the program matches high-achieving older students who serve as tutors with their younger program participants. Additionally, adult volunteers serve as mentors in the program.
“I am blown away by the changes I’ve seen in the young boy I’m mentoring,” says Brad Ruggles, a local pastor and mentor in the program. “I talk about the program all the time and think it’s one of the best things that has happened to our community.”
The program is designed not only to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system through early intervention, but also to help them develop critical skills and supports that will lead to productive lives in their community.
“The Youth Assistance Program has the potential not only to keep Hamilton County’s kids out of trouble and in school,” says Terry Anker, President of the Legacy Fund, “but to connect the kids who most need help with the opportunity to build deeply positive futures.”