Sunday, November 3, 2013

'It's the Love'

With assistance from a detention-alternative program and support from his aunt, a young man formerly involved with Georgia's juvenile justice system was able to write his way to rehabilitation.

By: James Swift


Tymere Dwight, an 18-year old high school senior living in Snellville, Ga., reads from a mildly worn and tattered composition book. His eyes transfixed on the pages, he recites a poem titled “A Mother’s Curse.”

In the lyrics, he says that he’s fighting for “God, my goal in life and my brothers and sisters.” That goal, he expounds upon, entails going to college and ultimately becoming a police officer. More than anything, he says, he wants to be a role model for his siblings. Dwight lives with his aunt, 43-year-old Bernadette Booker-Benitez, in a large, lakeside foster home. When he talks about his “brothers and sisters,” he seems to be referring to the young children in his aunt’s care.

Dwight moved in with his aunt five years ago. He was removed from his mother and father’s custody when he was very young; his father is now deceased and he often wonders about the whereabouts of his mother. Not having his parents there for him, he said, goaded him into getting into fights and neglecting his class work when he was younger.

He was placed in a specialized education program, attending classes at a school for children with disabilities. Dwight said that he never felt as if he belonged in such an environment.

“There were kids, sitting there, drooling out of their mouths,” he recalled. Benitez believes that because her nephew was placed in a “special ed school,” he was compelled to get into trouble.

“He never acted out at home,” she said. “But everyday, I would get a phone call from school.”

She recalls a perennial cycle of school suspensions. Dwight would flip over desks, throw books and curse in class; his first arrest, at age 14, stemmed from a school-related incident.

When he was 10, Dwight was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In school, he had an individualized educational plan (IEP) and routinely met with a Community Services Intervention specialist. Among other drugs, he was placed on both Ritalin and Abilify.

Since turning 14, Dwight said he had been arrested half a dozen times. The last time he was arrested occurred when he was 16.

“I came to school angry because I didn’t take my medication,” he said. He hit another student, and was sent to Gwinnett Regional Youth Detention Center (GRYDC). He was detained there for 30 days after the incident. Over a two-year period, he said he spent about six months at the facility.

At GRYDC, Dwight said he was placed in isolation every single time he was detained. “I couldn’t be with everybody else, because I’d end up fighting someone,” he recalled. Once, he even got into a physical altercation with a staffer. “I was going back and forth, arguing with them, and not wanting to do what they say,” he said. “And I guess I got into it with one of them.”

Dwight said he never liked being in a juvenile courtroom. “It’s kind of awkward, and kind of scary at the same time,” he said. “You don’t know [what is] to happen…is this your last chance?”

Two years ago, Dwight was given an ultimatum by a judge, in what has since been his last appearance in a courtroom. Either Dwight could return to the detention facility, or he could enroll in a diversion program called “Youth Villages” -- a prospect initially regarded skeptically by both he and his aunt.

A Different Kind of Diversion Programming

Youth Villages, a nonprofit providing both residential and in-home services for young people involved in the juvenile justice system, stems from an unlikely inception -- the merger of two Memphis, Tenn. area residential facilities in 1986.

Over the last quarter-century, the organization has not only expanded services in its home state of Tennessee -- offering both statewide adoptions and mobile crisis programs, alongside some psychiatric, group home and therapeutic foster care programs  -- but branched out into 10 additional states and the District of Columbia.

“We operate from a very structured, analytical model that allows us to get the results that we get,” said Kate Cantrell, director of programs for Youth Villages’ Georgia and Alabama services. “We really hold ourselves accountable to be a part of change with families, and we also operate with a lot of intensity.”

Cantrell said that Youth Villages keeps their caseloads very low, with its specialists generally working with just four or five families at a time. The counselors, she continued, generally see their clients three times a week, in addition to providing around-the-clock crisis intervention and support if needed.

The models utilized by Youth Villages programs varies from state to state. In Tennessee, Cantrell said that Multisystemic Therapy (MST) is the primary model used for in-home treatment, while in Georgia, the Intercept model is the most commonly used.

In 1994, the organization introduced an in-home program to supplement its residential treatment model.

“We realized a lot of kids needed additional help,”  stated Sonja Luecke, Youth Villages Public Relations Manager. “A lot of times, the changes the child would make at the residential facility weren’t so easy to translate at home.”

The two programs generally work in tandem, Luecke said, serving different sets of needs for children depending on the levels of service they may require. 

By entering the homes of its clients, Youth Villages is able to work with a young person’s entire family, she continued, stating that doing so allows behavioral changes to be sustained more easily and for longer periods of time. 

“Our counselors are not just there to provide pure mental health or pure mental health counseling, but also to work on any other issues that may cause potential or real instability," Luecke added. If a father needs to be dropped off to turn in a job application, or a mother needs assistance signing up for additional social services, she said Youth Villages representatives are there to provide assistance.

The overall outcomes for youth in the program indicate generally low levels of re-offending. According to six month-follow up reports issued after discharges, almost 75 percent of recent program graduates are still in-home, with about 80 percent of recently discharged youth reporting no encounters with the law since leaving the program. Additionally, Youth Villages reports that 85 percent of young people that graduate from the program remain in school, graduate from high school or are enrolled in GED classes half a year removed from their counseling experiences. Since Youth Villages’ Georgia program began, the organization has served more than 600 young people, with the average youth involved in services for a little under six months. Nine-out-of-10 parents, the organization states, reported high levels of satisfaction with the services provided to them by Youth Villages.

As Youth Villages does not continue working with young people after the Intercept program concludes, Cantrell said that the organization takes great strides to ensure that individuals that graduate from the program have access to services and treatments once they are discharged. Youth with psychiatric, medication-management, mentoring or tutoring needs are linked with other providers in the community, she said, with the organization making great efforts to connect juveniles and their families with “natural supports.” These supports, she stated, include extended family members, neighbors, church members and members of their school staff. This emphasis on family and community, Cantrell said, remains a top priority, both during Youth Villages interventions and after.

“When needed, we will pull in formal supports,” she concluded. “But we really want to wrap that family with as many natural supports as possible.”

A Drastic Turnaround

“I didn’t like it,” Dwight said. “I want to be home, and to spend time with my family. I didn’t feel like going to no program.”

His aunt postulates a secondary reason for his reluctance to partake of the residential program; he was transferred to the Youth Villages campus the day of his 17th birthday.

“At first it was a lot to absorb, because they were saying ‘this can happen, that can happen,’” Benitez said. “He can either be there a month, two months, three months, six months, it will all depend on him.”

Eventually, Dwight was transferred out of Youth Villages residential program and placed in the organization’s in-home program. After a few weeks, Benitez said she began to see changes in her nephew’s disposition.

In the program, Dwight met with a Youth Villages counselor multiple times a week. At first, Dwight said he was reluctant to speak about his emotions. “I felt uncomfortable, because I was told that I had to share my feelings and tell them [about] my life and what I’ve been through,” he recalled. Over time, however, he said he “matured” to what the program was offering. “I took their help, and I wanted to do better.”

“Tymere wanted to change, and that’s a very important factor,” said Leenessa Landor, the Youth Villages Intervention Specialist that worked with Dwight and Benitez. She met with the two as often as three times a week, not only for home visits, but to accompany them to school hearings, as well. The sessions generally lasted about an hour and 15 minutes, she recalled; occasionally, the IEP meetings she sat in on lasted two-to-three hours.

The initial reactions from Dwight and Benitez, she said, was fairly common for a family enrolled in the Youth Villages program. Sometimes, she said, families are guarded because the comprehensive program involved every “aspect of the family.” That apprehension, she said, usually fades away as the program continues; many times, she said that the families she works with don’t want her to leave once youths “graduate,” with some considering her an honorary member of the family itself once the services conclude.

She said it was not her efforts that resulted in Dwight’s turnaround in behavior; rather, it was a group effort between him and his aunt, whom Landor said gave her nephew “awesome support.”

“A lot of times, when there are issues in the home or at school, there isn’t a person there to say ‘I’m pulling for you,’ or someone that is tough enough to say “I’m doing this because I love you,” Landor stated.

“These two, they did the work,” she continued. “They were the ones that rolled up their sleeves, and put in the work to say ‘all right, change needs to happen, we’re going to make change.’”

In addition to the family intervention services, Youth Villages also linked up Dwight with a psychologist, with medication managements provided by a therapist from outside the program. Within the program, he received several psychosocial and sexual health assessments. After receiving a psychological evaluation while in Youth Villages care, his earlier schizophrenia diagnosis was ultimately discarded.

The program, Dwight said, helped him work on numerous issues, primarily verbal and physical aggression. Landor also said that she helped him work on his school problems, specifically some of his truancy and delinquent behaviors. “Naturally, when you’re coming into someone’s home, on a consistent basis like that, there’s always questions,“ Landor said. “But the family was very receptive to services and worked really well with us and was more than comfortable and very cooperative.”

Had Dwight not entered the Youth Villages program and remained in Georgia’s juvenile justice system, she believes his outcomes would have been very different. “For one thing, I don’t think the ongoing support, in-home, would’ve been there,” she said. “I think it was very important for this youth to still be with his family, in his school setting, around his appropriate peers, at the same time, receiving the services that he needed, but still being in a comfortable environment to be able to do so.”

Placing him in a different type of environment, she said, would have sent him a completely different message about the “support he was receiving.”

Had he not been placed in the Youth Villages program, Dwight similarly believes his life would’ve turned out drastically different. “I would’ve been incarcerated,” he said. “There wouldn’t have been no change in my behavior. I would have kept on fighting, I would have kept on not listening.” He believes he would’ve continued doing poorly in school, and he most certainly would not have been on track to graduate from high school.

While in the program, Dwight began thinking about college. Youth Villages staff would print off college application materials for him, which he said helped him “think about doing a lot more than just what I was doing before, such as getting in trouble.” It was during his stay in Youth Villages’ residential program, he said, that he also began writing poetry.

“It’s been a long haul for us,” Benitez said. “Since he’s been here, between being back and forth in the courts, IEP meetings, it’s been hard. But I knew he had it in him the whole time.” She said that her nephew has grown into “a fine young man,” able to surmount his previous difficulties with the assistance of the Youth Villages program. “He’s gotten past that hump,” she stated. “That mountain, I should say.”

After being discharged from the in-home program, Dwight was able to transition out of a special-education school and enroll in a “regular” high school.

“His father would be very proud of him, and his mother’s very proud of him,” Benitez said. “It was hard, but I knew that at the end of the road, there was light.” Benitez said that she promised her brother that she would take care of his son before he died. “It comes from the heart,” she continued. “You have to feel it, and I felt it, because [Tymere] is family. He is our future.”

She said that difficulties arise for both intact families and single-parent homes, stating that while each family’s circumstances may be different, there is a common, yet frequently overlooked, remedy.

“It’s the love, and that’s what we’re lacking nowadays,” she said. “It’s not there anymore.”

Dwight’s advice for youth in similar predicaments is concise. “No matter how hard things get, don’t give up, and try harder,” he believes.

He picks up his weathered composition book, and flips to a poem titled “Because of You,” which he wrote as an ode to his aunt while in the Youth Villages program.

“Because of you, I’m strong, because of you, I’m wise,” he reads from his journal. “Because of you, I belong, because of you, there’s a reason to rise.”

With Landor as an onlooker, Benitez tearfully embraces her nephew.

As the towering high school senior hugs his aunt, all she can say in response is “I love you.”

Uncommon Journalism, 2013.

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