Youth Development: It’s the Law

Print More

Hartford, Conn.—Officials here think they’ve found an answer to one of the common raps against state youth policies: that they are shallow, fragmented forays lacking a single, coherent method for assessing what works and what doesn’t.

In this capital city Mark Twain called home in the state with the nation’s highest per capita income ($41,973), a conservative Republican governor and a Democrat-controlled legislature have joined to create what they believe is the missing link: a law that emphasizes capacity building as a youth development tool and mandates cross-agency collaboration, accountability and outcomes assessments. This law, which appears to be the first of its kind in the country, will be carried out by a new State Prevention Council (SPC).

But for other states trying to incorporate positive youth development strategies into their programs, Connecticut’s experience shows how difficult and contentious that effort can be, even for a state hailed as a leader.

“The Connecticut law is amazing,” says John Calhoun, executive director of the National Crime Prevention Council. “It not only requires agencies to deliver services, but they must blend funds and report to the state and the public at regular intervals on program effectiveness. It is a wonderful vision.”

Some long-time youth work leaders, however, see little more than lip service for building the competencies necessary for poor young people to succeed in adolescence and adulthood.
“On paper these program solutions sound like the best thing since sliced bread,” says 30-year youth work veteran Carl Hardrick, executive director of the Hartford Youth Peace Initiative violence prevention program. “But in reality I’ve noticed over the years that these officials and program heads don’t talk the language of young people.”

Prevention Council Chairman Brian Mattiello cautions that “mobilizing prevention work will take time and achieving measurable results [will] take even longer.”

The “even longer” chills some veteran youth workers here, who wonder if new state policies can really turn around what they see as years of anti-youth practices.

Shift Toward Youth Development

Youth workers in many states would recognize how big a shift it is for Connecticut to fully instill youth development in state programs.

For starters, Bob Francis, president of the Bridgeport-based Regional Youth/Adult Substance Abuse Project, points out that Connecticut is one of only three states that automatically send 16-year-olds into the adult criminal system. That’s one reason that Connecticut’s juvenile incarceration rate ranks second only to Florida’s.

“The juvenile justice system here is not based on any youth development principles,” Francis says. “It’s punitive.”

Hardrick, a 60-year-old Hartford native, says that even the state’s youth development programs routinely “lock out a targeted youth population” by banning youths with prior arrests, testing for drug use and keeping an arm’s length from teens sporting certain styles of dress.

“Some time ago I sent 33 young people to what was then called the Youth Development Practitioners Academy, which got federal funds through the state,” he says. “But 32 of them were turned away for not meeting the criteria.”

With these and similar gripes coming from just about every state, three organizations have launched multi-state, multi-year initiatives to provide grants and technical assistance to create cross-agency, holistic state youth policies. Some 17 states are now being helped by at least one of these groups: the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Youth Policy Network within the National Governors Association, and the Embedding Prevention in State Policy and Practice Initiative of the National Crime Prevention Council. (See examples, sidebar below.)

Connecticut was one of nine states in 1998 to receive FYSB’s first five-year, $600,000 Youth Development State Collaboration Demonstration Project grant. For the past two years it has also qualified for a $100,000 annual crime prevention council grant, funded by private foundations such as Robert Wood Johnson, Packard, Annie E. Casey and California Wellness and by the
U.S. Department of Justice.

Then came the new law in 2000, spearheaded by State Rep. John Martinez (D-New Haven), who started by asking, “What practices do we put in place that assure that all our children become successful young adults?”

Defining Youth Development

Martinez, who was killed in a car crash last year, was one of the legislature’s prime youth advocates, pushing intervention and prevention programs over what he termed “managing a crisis” programs. He was an avid supporter of embedding prevention and youth development approaches into the state’s budget and policies.

After the bill (“An Act Concerning Crime Prevention and a State Prevention Council”) passed, Martinez told the media: “[It] will guide the state’s policy, budget and program practices toward proven outcomes and will seek to reduce the taxpayer burden of spending only on crises.”

The prevention council will be composed of eight agency heads: the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, the chief court administrator and the commissioners of social services, children and families, public health, mental health and addiction services, education and mental retardation. Their mandate:

• Establish a prevention framework for the state.

• Recommend a comprehensive state-wide prevention plan and prevention budget by 2004.

• Coordinate existing and future prevention expenditures across agencies.

• Increase fiscal responsibility.

What is youth development? SPC Chairman Mattiello, also undersecretary of the state’s Office of Policy and Management, says Connecticut accepts what FYSB says in its publication, Understanding Youth Development: “Each community must create a vision of what it wants for all young people. Only then can communities create environments in which young people can achieve their greatest potential, through supports, services and opportunities.”

FYSB says community resources should include educators, businesses, civic organizations and government. The goal is to provide young people with a design for living based on a sense of competence, usefulness, belonging and control over
their futures.

That’s what Connecticut now does, says Deborah Stewart, executive director of the New Haven-based Youth Development Training & Resource Center. She says that “holistic youth development practices are incorporated in prevention work” in state-run and state-funded programs.

State supporters offer several examples.

Youth Lead the Way

Connecticut “has the toughest school anti-bullying law in the country,” boasts Elaine Zimmerman, executive director of the state’s Commission on Children (the fiduciary for the crime prevention council funds). Among other things, the law calls for student- and teacher-created classroom rules against bullying behaviors and “ongoing interventions” with students defined as bullies. The measure is tough, she says, “because we held forums in schools for two years where we talked to students to get their ideas on what should be in the law.”

This is an example of capacity building, she says, where “youth leadership becomes an integral part of youth health and safety issues.”

Federal funders see that procedure as crucial. “We want our grantees to take the lead in changing the mindset of government agencies,” observes FYSB Director Harry Wilson, “and we require that our kids be at the table” during policy formulation.

Other examples of the state’s role in pushing youth development:

• Connecticut for Community Youth Development (which parcels out the FYSB money to community-based organizations) and the Governor’s Prevention Initiative for Youth, funded by a $2.5 million federal grant from the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention at HHS.

• Organizations such as the Darien-based Center for Youth Leadership, which operates with local funders to initiate after-school programs for high schoolers. Scores of other independent neighborhood agencies around the state tap into youth development conferences and events sponsored by the center and the Office of Policy and Management.

• Some 98 Youth Service Bureaus, a legislatively created partnership between the state and its local municipalities, serving 122 towns and cities and charged with research and program development, needs assessment and youth guidance and advocacy.
At least 50 percent of the bureaus’ operating budgets come from local municipalities, with the rest cobbled from federal monies channeled through state agencies and workforce development boards.

“Every bureau has a youth advisory board,” observes Alan Slobodien, director of the Vernon Youth Services Bureau in the eastern part of the state. Slobodien cited the Peers Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) program as an example of a collaboration “that works.” Focusing on peer counseling, advocacy and mediation, PAWS conference workshops have featured youth-suggested topics such as stress reduction, sexuality and eating disorders.

“The key to the success of the PAWS program,” he says, “is the partnership between the adult advisory group and the youth leadership group.”

The Other Connecticut

But there are two Connecticuts. As Stewart of the training and resource center puts it, “There are pockets of have-nots among unbelievable haves.”

Hartford has a lot of have-nots. And even though Dianne Harnad, the state’s director of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ Prevention Division, says “there are lots and lots of youth programs” there, Hardrick says many kids are left out.

Over his three decades in youth work, Hardrick has worked in counseling, mentoring, job-training/employment and gang mediation, among other areas. Born into a family of 11 children, he remembers sometimes eating oatmeal or Cream of Wheat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“But I never felt poor, left out or rejected because we had a two-parent household with a working father, an economy that kept him working, a caring mother and neighbors who looked out for all of us,” Hardrick says.

“Things are different in this city today. Connecticut has the highest paid teachers in the country” – its $52,693 average is now second to New Jersey, according to the National Education Association – “yet Hartford test scores are among the lowest in the country.”

One of his biggest complaints: An arrest for drugs, weapons or assault “will automatically knock these kids out of a program. These are felonies, but there are degrees of felonies,” he says, noting that courts treat kids differently for selling marijuana and for selling crack.

Many Hartford youth also don’t participate in youth programs, Hardrick says, because some programs require drug tests, and “if they test positive, that goes on their record and will follow them wherever they seek a job.”

“If you’re serious about connecting with these youngsters, allow some flexibility to get them into the programs, and then establish a dialogue,” Hardrick says. He says planners, administrators and line workers “simply don’t understand their target population, the people they say they wish to help.”

In another pocket of poverty, youth workers think they have found a way.

‘Simple’ Lesson

New London can be a depressing place to live. “The population has dwindled to 25,700 [from 34,000 in 1960] and the per capita income is under $20,000” – less than half the state average – laments Laura Berry, director of the
New London Development Corp.’s Community Development Initiative.

Nevertheless, she says, “Youth development-driven programs are making a difference.”

She cites a recent $850,000, five-year 21st Century Community Learning Center grant from the federal government, plus a $3 million state grant that channels a variety of money, including sums from the U.S. departments of Justice and Education. The development initiative, operating through its YouthNet offshoot, brings together local nonprofits, city agencies and the public schools to identify after-school activities that not only benefit young people, but appeal to them.

“We asked the youngsters in New London what they wanted and threw in some ideas of our own,” Berry recalls. The programs are “popular because they [youth] have their say in matters that pertain directly to their concerns.”

Another program applauded by Berry receives “minimal” 21st Century grant money and came about primarily because of young people “asking for it.” It is the Institute for Creativity operated by the Garde Art Center, which focuses on theater – writing, dramatic performance and all its cultural facets.

“The lesson learned is simple,” Berry says. “When kids don’t show up for a program, it doesn’t mean it’s their problem. It probably means they haven’t been consulted or invited into the policy process.”

Programs at Risk

SPC Chairman Mattiello hears the hosannas and hoots. “We’re only eight agencies,” he says, “which doesn’t capture the local [youth field] infrastructure. The state government funding stream will only represent a fraction of what is needed. We will have to involve federal funds, volunteers, mentoring, nonprofits and local funders. This is not just a state initiative; it must involve the local level as well.”

In his Washington office, FYSB Director Wilson readily reacts to questions about Hardrick’s concerns. “Problems such as that don’t reach us at this level, but we do meet with the states once a year and require evaluation reports.”

“They lie on those outcomes evaluations,” Hardwick counters. “Case studies have happy endings, problems get solved miraculously. When they say, ‘We need more funds to recruit a hard-to-reach population,’ they actually want more money to keep their salaries coming in, while their practices keep the young people out of reach.”

Mattiello says the council will focus on the “greatest problems we may face in achieving our goal. … What successes have we had with our present programming? What can we do to make them better?

“We need new data. We have to set priorities. Institutional change takes time.”

Time is running out. The prevention plan and budget for the State Prevention Council are due next year.

At the same time, Connecticut is among the states facing severe budget shortfalls and cutbacks. It remains to be seen what difference a state youth development initiative makes under such hard economic circumstances.

“Connecticut is experiencing a major budget crisis,” warns Stewart at the training and resource center. “Many, many valuable youth programs are at risk.”


Kim Dalfries, Director
Embedding Initiative
National Crime Prevention Council
1000 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20036-5302
(202) 261-4173

Carl Hardrick, Executive Director
Hartford Youth Peace Initiative
Church of the Good Shepherd
15 Dutch Point
Hartford, CT 06106
(860) 524 8290

Brian Mattiello, Undersecretary
State Office of Policy and Management
450 Capitol Ave.
Hartford, CT 06106-1308
(860) 418-6316

Alan Slobodien, Director
Vernon Youth Services Bureau
9 Elm St.
Vernon, CT 06066
(860) 870-3555

Deborah Stewart, Executive Director
Youth Development Training &
Resource Center
389 Whitney Ave.
New Haven, CT 06517
(203) 789-7645

Harry Wilson, Associate Commissioner
U.S. Family and Youth Services Bureau
330 C St. SW
Washington, DC 20447
(202) 205-8102

States That Strive To Embed Youth Development

State governments have done the following to instill youth development across-the-board, with help from the Family and Youth Services Bureau in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Youth Policy Network within the National Governors Association, and the Embedding Prevention in State Policy and Practice Initiative of the National Crime Prevention Council:

• Missouri: A 45-member Governor’s Youth Cabinet (the highest-level youth advisory council in any state) has been appointed by Gov. Bob Holden (D), who said, “Opening up state government and letting [young people] know that we care about their thoughts and ideas is a must.”

• Oregon: Passed Senate Bill 555, signed into law by Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), which calls for “locally driven planning for youth policies, replacing fragmented activities with a single comprehensive strategy.”

• Kentucky: The Kentucky Youth Development Partnership brings together 18 national, state and local youth-serving organizations to create a collaborative approach to youth services and to promote youth development policies.

• Iowa: The Iowa Collabo- ration for Youth Development, made up of more than 40 state agencies, community-based organizations and research institutions, has helped align state program policies and involved youth in state and local planning.