At-Risk Youth Diversion Program Rolls Out, But Funds Already in Jeopardy | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

At-Risk Youth Diversion Program Rolls Out, But Funds Already in Jeopardy

Hinds County Sheriff Victor Mason voiced his department's support of the at-risk diversion program announced this morning that will cover 14 counties, including Hinds, Madison and Rankin.

Hinds County Sheriff Victor Mason voiced his department's support of the at-risk diversion program announced this morning that will cover 14 counties, including Hinds, Madison and Rankin. Photo by Tim Summers Jr..

— At-risk youth have a new alternative in counties across Mississippi called the Community Youth Career Development Center.

Hinds County Sheriff Victor Mason and representatives from the Jackson Police Department came to the downtown YMCA this morning to voice their support for the new program to focus on individual children's needs, with tailored plans for each child who qualifies for the program.

"We are always the first to say, the children don't have anything to do," Mason said. "And now the door is open and we would be more than happy to assist with our Community Services division any way we can."

The program will be in 14 counties in a partnership between local law enforcement agencies, the Mississippi Department of Human Services and the Metropolitan YMCA's of Mississippi, the grant-funded program "is designed to help improve the lives and futures of our youth," a pamphlet distributed during a Thursday morning press conference states.

Janet Reihle, director of development for the Metropolitan YMCA's of Mississippi, said the program will acccept children, ages 12-18, who are at-risk for involvement in the juvenile-justice system. Studies show that minors who come in contact with the juvenile-justice system or police are at greater risk of committing worse crime. It is one of the two strongest indicators of future criminal activity; the other is a child who drops out or who has low school attendance.

One of the conditions for the program is consistent school attendance. The youth court, law enforcement or school officials or parents themselves refer the children through the YMCA, which administers the program.

"An assessment of the home, family and community environment as well as supplemental assessments measuring the number of developmental assets and personality traits of each youth provides a clear picture of services needed to manages the youth's risk and reduce or eliminate areas of need," the program pamphlet states.

"By providing comprehensive, wrap-around services tailored to specific needs of each child, we are able to improve educational, social and vocational outcomes for youth needing additional support to be successful."

The examples of interventions for these at-risk youth include GED preparation, vocational education training and substance-abuse awareness training.

"Right now, the program is beginning," Reihle said. "We've hired staff for the sites. We are waiting for the kids to come into the program as we get the computers and the programming ready."

The program will include Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties locally, as well as Adams, Copiah, DeSoto, Lauderdale, Lee, Lincoln, Lowndes, Panola, Pike, Warren and Washington counties.

"Sometimes these kids may not have the parent support that they need to say, 'my child needs to be in this program,'" Reihle said. "So we are really going to be working closely with the schools, with all the resources we have here (at YMCA) to help identify those candidates and show real progress for them."

Deputy Executive Director of MDHS Garrig Shields explained that the program had a solid foundation to launch the program, comprised of state federal funds. That allowed the YMCAs to purchase computers and hire staff in preparation for the program in the proceeding months.

However, last week, the governor cut $50 million from the current fiscal-year budget, and MDHS was not exempt from the about 1.5-percent cut. Shields said today that MDHS switched last week to federal funds only.

That means the program can no longer accept youth who have been adjudicated in youth court, the youth-court version of a conviction. The total cost for the program is $233,000 annually, Shields said.

Timothy Stallworth, the coordinator for the youth court and Hinds County Youth Court Judge Bill Skinner's representative for the press conference, said children who score in a certain sweet spot for at-risk behavior can enter the program. That is, they qualify under the risk-based assessment that law enforcement, schools and youth court use to gauge the services that the youth needs.

"This is still a good option because there are a good number of kids that do not make it into the court that we get referred," Stallworth said. "The kids in this particular program will be those kids that score on our risk-assessment tool that we have through our intake department, as well as our counselors, as well as our drop-out-prevention specialists from Jackson Public Schools ... so we will work very closely with the school district and our counselors and our intake to make sure that as opposed to a child being in our facility they will be referred to this particular program."

For more information, call the Metropolitan YMCA's of Mississippi at (601) 926-YMCA, ext. 6092.

Email city reporter Tim Summers Jr. at tim@jacksonfreepress.com. Read the JFP's ongoing series on violence prevention at jfp.ms/preventingviolence.

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