Close To Home Initiative Is Helping Young People

In an article about a recent Family Court ruling, Tamara Stecker, the Attorney-in-Charge of The Legal Aid Society's Juvenile Rights Practice, told the New York Law Journal that the City-State Close to Home initiative to keep New York City children in their communities rather than placing them in deplorable and expensive upstate detention facilities has been successful for most of the young people who are going through the program. "It's accomplishing a lot of good," Steckler said. The Close to Home reforms are less than one year old and "glitches" and "growing pains" could be expected, she added.

The question raised in the court ruling of whether some children have left their facilities is one small issue, Ms. Steckler said, and things are improving.

Prior to the Close to Home Initiative, The Legal Aid Society had commenced federal court litigation to challenge the placement of children in the upstate juvenile detention facilities where they were subjected to the excessive use of force by facility staff and denied necessary mental health services. The Close To Home initiative is based on national initiatives showing that children have the best opportunity to move forward with their lives when they receive the support and assistance they need in their communities.

New York Law Journal
Citing Escapes, Judge Says More Aid Needed for 'Close to Home'
By Andrew Keshner
August 9, 2013

The increasing number of runaway youths from facilities where they have been placed through the "Close to Home" initiative are creating a potential to harm themselves and others, a Queens Family Court judge claimed in a recent ruling.

"Common sense would seem to dictate that additional resources be allocated to locate and apprehend these youth. However, since September of 2012 there appears to have been no additional law enforcement or social services resources committed to locating juvenile delinquents who go AWOL, nor any effective solution to stop the torrent of juvenile delinquents who escape from Close to Home Initiative placements," Judge John Hunt (See Profile) wrote on Tuesday in Matter of Tilar M., D-26104/12.

The Close to Home Initiative was signed into law last year by Governor Andrew Cuomo in order to bring New York City youths adjudicated as juvenile delinquents to facilities near their families and communities, as opposed to upstate facilities.

The New York City Administration for Children's Services began receiving youths for placement in nonsecure facilities in September 2012 and is scheduled to start offering placements for youths in "limited-secure placements" this fall.

Tamara Steckler, attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society's Juvenile Rights Practice, which represents two of the youths in this case, said in an interview the AWOL issue "is just one small issue related to Close to Home" and that the situation had actually improved. She stressed the Close to Home reforms were less than one year old and "glitches" and "growing pains" could be expected. But on the whole, she said, most youths were successfully going through the program, adding, "It's accomplishing a lot of good."

Hunt's decision focused on three youths whose cases were unrelated except for their runaway status.

"Although warrants have been issued for these three juvenile delinquents, their whereabouts are unknown, they are at large in the community, and thus far have evaded apprehension," he said. Warrants for their apprehension would remain in effect "and their cases are continued pending their involuntary return upon the warrant or their voluntary appearance before the court," he said.

In one case, Tilar M. had been adjudicated as a juvenile delinquent for possessing a toy or imitation firearm. He had already been deemed a juvenile delinquent for criminal trespass. Prior to the trespass offense, Tilar was deemed a person in need of supervision. Hunt said the "least restrictive available alternative" for Tilar was 12 months of placement in a nonsecure facility.

In another case, Christopher L. was found to have committed an act that would have been third-degree attempted robbery if he was an adult. Though first put on probation, Hunt revoked the probation order and sent Christopher to a nonsecure facility for 18 months.

In the last case, Tenzin G. was adjudicated as a juvenile delinquent for second-degree attempted assault and second-degree robbery. Though initially ordered to probation, Hunt ultimately ordered an 18-month nonsecure placement.

When the three ran away, ACS issued warrants for their apprehension. Hunt also issued bench warrants for the trio.

During July 16 court appearances for both Tilar and Christopher, neither youth appeared. But Hunt inquired on the circumstances of their escape, efforts to locate the youths and whether additional action had to be taken.

For instance, one social worker at Children's Village in Westchester spoke of Christopher leaving 10 days after arrival and returning six days later only to say he did not want to be there before leaving again. Another worker from the same facility said Tilar made three escapes between May and July.

Detective Dennis Seger of the New York City Police Department's Queens Juvenile Warrant Squad spoke to the court about his responsibilities as one of five detectives tasked with investigating and executing juvenile warrants throughout the city. Seger said he is in regular contact with Christopher's mother and has "never seen" Tilar, but is trying to find him. Seger said he has not put much time into tracking Tenzin, who he believed has moved to Utica with his family.

Before the Close to Home Initiative, Seger said he was responsible for investigating "numerous" Family Court bench warrants.

"Since the inception of the Close to Home Initiative, Detective Seger and his fellow detectives now have the additional responsibility to locate and apprehend adjudicated juvenile delinquents who have run away from ACS Close to Home Initiative placements," Hunt wrote, saying Seger estimated that at any one time he was "searching for 15 to 20" escapees who have cases in Queens.

The volume of youths escaping from ACS custody since Close to Home began had "significantly increased" his workload, Seger said, adding that no other officers had been added to the staff.

Michael Fagan, an ACS spokesman, stood by the program, which he said has placed more than 450 youths in nonsecure residences in the past year.

"We have continually strengthened our policy on AWOLs and worked diligently with our providers to address young people leaving the nonsecure residences without permission, including heightened monitoring and the closure of two providers from the program," Fagan said. "Even as New York City implements unprecedented juvenile justice reforms, juvenile crime is 30 percent lower this year compared to the same period last year, and is down 18 percent since 2006."

According to the ACS, at least two staffers at each nonsecure placement site, along with 19 staffers at ACS, are tasked with working with police to find AWOL youths.

Agency data shows that for the month of June, 38 youths had left a residence for more than two days; during that month, there were 365 youths placed under Close to Home. Overall, about 130 youths have successfully completed the Close to Home program, the ACS said. Ronna Gordon-Galchus of Bayside represented Christopher L.

Tenzin G. was represented by Steckler and Lisa Tuntigian of the Legal Aid Society

Tilar M. was represented by Steckler and Lynda Augente.

Assistant corporation counsel Jessica LaTour appeared for the city. Angela Albertus, chief of the office's Family Court Division, said "Close to Home is an important tool in balancing juvenile rehabilitation and public safety, and we support increased efforts to address AWOLs."

Alan Sputz and Charles Lawson appeared for ACS.