ELIZABETH – In Linden the Union County Youth Detention Center is home to up to 80 young people who have made mistakes and committed crimes and have been deemed by the courts to require incarceration. Architecturally, the center is classified as a corrections facility or a prison.
On any given night there are hundreds of homeless on the streets of Union County, an unknown number of them youth. National statistics reveal that one in eight youth under the age of 18 will leave home and become homeless in need of services and that 12- to 17-year-olds are at more risk of homelessness than are adults. In addition, 47 percent of runaway and homeless youth indicated that conflict with a parent or guardian was a major problem.
In Elizabeth the Union County Youth Shelter offers respite to youth heading down the wrong road toward detention and young people facing a crisis at home. The shelter looks like any other home on that street but could not be further away from the county detention center and the streets.
The Union County Youth Shelter is operated for the county by Community Access Unlimited (CAU), which serves people with disabilities and at-risk youth, providing housing support and life-skills training to enable them to live independently in the community.
CAU has been running the Union County Youth Shelter since 2006. The facility serves as transitional housing for youths aged 13-17, up to four at a time. After their stay at the shelter the youths are directed by the county Family Crisis unit or the courts into residential housing, treatment if there is a substance abuse issue, home or, if deemed necessary by the court, the Union County Juvenile Detention Center.
Detention is the avoided goal.
In 1992 the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) was launched by the Annie. E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization advocating for disadvantaged children. The JDAI is predicated on the belief that collaboration among juvenile justice agencies, community organizations and other government agencies can “decrease the number of youth unnecessarily or inappropriately detained; reduce the number of youth who fail to appear in court or re-offend pending adjudication; and redirect public funds towards effective juvenile justice processes and public safety strategies.”
Jurisdictions that have employed JDAI practices have reduced their daily youth detention population by up to 65 percent. Several years ago JDAI named New Jersey its first Model State Program and Union County has been a JDAI site since 2006. In its first two years under the program the county experienced an 18.9 percent reduction in youth admissions to detention and an 18.4 percent reduction in daily detention population.
In a press release announcing the success of the JDAI program and its own efforts in Union County, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office stated, “These changes helped create alternatives to detention through support and use of community-based programs and developed partnerships with child welfare agencies that resulted in a dramatic decrease in the average daily detention census at the detention center.”
Facilities such as the Union County Youth Shelter play an important role in this effort to redirect young people away from a continued downward spiral, according to Tanya Johnson, senior assistant executive director of youth services at the agency.
“We provide individual support that is extremely important at a critical juncture in the lives of these young people,” Johnson said. “Detention is in large groups. It is in a more institutionalized setting, which is not a normal setting. We do more goal-setting, trying to get them to think about their future. Here they still have the ability to make choices and we help them see those decisions will impact their future. In detention, they have no choices.”
While at the shelter a staff of 13 plus a teacher provide the youths with independent living skills, counseling, on-site schooling by a state-certified teacher or at the youth’s home school, family counseling and, if necessary, intervention.
The shelter is making a difference, according to Union County Superior Court Judge Robert Kirsch, who recently stated, “Routinely, I refer at-risk youths to the facility in an effort to avoid the constraints of the far more restrictive detention facility…(T)he work of the Youth Shelter contributes greatly to enabling the otherwise vulnerable juveniles in (the court’s) care to lead independent lives and be productive members of society.”
Youth who are not entangled in the juvenile justice system but face a crisis at home are no less vulnerable and CAU is able to help these young people, as well, through both the youth shelter and the Union County Runaway Shelter, which it also operates in the same building. Taking over operation of the youth shelter for the county enabled CAU to open the runaway shelter, according to Johnson.
“Without these facilities, most of the youth we serve in the youth shelter would be in detention and most of the homeless youth would still be homeless,” she said.
Tomorrow: A look at how the Union County Youth Shelter made a difference in the lives of one young man and his family.
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