Youth Advocate Program Never Gives Up On Kids

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MIDDLESEX COUNTY – For 35 years, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. has provided non-residential, community-based programming for youth and families with the most complex needs, with a key strategy of “Never Giving Up.”

The Middlesex County Youth Advocate Program serves approximately 100 youths and families at any given time, according to Director Melissa Ortiz. The Middlesex County program focuses on youths referred by the juvenile justice system, but also spends time working with New Jersey’s children’s behavioral health system and the Division of Youth and Family Services.

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Last February, YAP started a program called Pathways for youth involved in gangs or at high risk for gang involvement. It meets on Thursdays at the teen center in New Brunswick and has been very successful, according to Ortiz.

“We don’t treat the kids like scary gang members,” Ortiz said. “We treat them like kids and we find out what made them decide to join a gang so we can address those issues.”

The Middlesex County program director talked about two of Pathways’ biggest successes. Michael (not his real name) came to YAP with an extensive juvenile record that included violent offenses. A member of the Bloods street gang, he worked with an advocate and attended weekly group meetings. He has since completed probation and was employed as part of a summer program.

According to Ortiz, Michael is finishing up his senior year of high school and has ceased all criminal activity. He also still comes to the group meetings, serving as an informal peer mentor and providing a positive example for the other kids.

Perhaps more remarkable is the story of Jose (again, not his real name), a member of the MS-13 street gang. Jose’s whole family is involved in the gang culture, according to Oritz. He, too, has a long juvenile record that includes violence and drugs.

Jose worked with an advocate, took part in the group meeting and was part of the summer employment program. He decided that he wants to leave the gang. As a condition of doing so, the gang leaders told him that he had to convince a number of other kids to leave the gang as well.

Jose managed to convince 15 other kids to work with YAP and cease gang activities, even though most of them were not required to be part of the program by a court order, Ortiz said.

While most of the children in the Middlesex County YAP are referred by the juvenile justice system or another agency, the program draws in other youth from the community as well. One thing that makes YAP different from other programs is that the staff is recruited directly from the community being served, so that the kids have an easier time relating. Another reason for the program’s success is that YAP works not just with youth, but entire families.

Youth Advocate Programs, Inc was formed as a result of a 1975 ruling that prevented young people from being jailed with adult inmates at a Pennsylvania state prison facility. In the years since, YAP has expanded into 16 states and has affiliate programs in Ireland.

Since the 1990s, YAP also provides services to young people dealing with clinical disorders as well as those facing delinquency or dependency issues. The non-profit has programs in 25 major cities, including Newark and Camden in New Jersey, as well as dozens of other urban, suburban and rural communities. For more information, visit http://www.yapinc.org


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