What One YO Achieved, and How It (Sort of) Continues

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Not long after Phoenix Youth and Family Services in the Arkansas Delta started providing services to young people under the Youth Opportunity (YO) grants of 2000, the local juvenile detention center was closed – for lack of occupants.

“The juvenile crime rate decreased to the extent that there were not enough young people being referred to the juvenile justice center,” said Toyce Newton, executive program director of Phoenix Youth and Family Services, in the rural community of Crossett, Ark. (For a 2002 story about the program’s impact there, see “Youth Jobs Program Gets Pink Slip.”)

But as federal funding for the YO program in rural Arkansas declined and ultimately ended, juvenile incarcerations in the area served by Phoenix Youth and Family Services inched up, then skyrocketed.

For example, in fiscal 2004 and 2005, only nine juveniles were committed each year in the 10th Judicial District, the area served by the nonprofit agency. In fiscal 2006, there were 12. However, in 2007 – the first year Youth and Family Services had no federal money for YO – there were 59 juvenile commitments. The number dropped to 49 in fiscal 2008, but then jumped to 82 in fiscal 2009.

While it’s difficult to link the end of YO in rural Arkansas directly to the increase in juvenile commitments, the numbers, coupled with the small-town nature of the program site, make it difficult to dismiss such a notion.

Asked to explain the rise in juvenile commitments, Elbert Grimes, assistant director of the Division of Youth Services in the Arkansas Department of Human Services said, “I’m not sure what’s going on with that.”

“I do know,” Grimes continued, “that across the state, providers are hurting for funding, period, because the cost of employees, the cost of equipment, supplies, the cost of everything is going up. …

“Basically, it is a result of not enough resources being made available to the growing population, and that may not only be dollars, but also resources in terms of humans.”

That is true at Youth and Family Services, which has taken steps to cope with the losses.

Keeping YO elements

The nonprofit describes itself as a “social, economic and community development organization,” with services in such areas as fathering, violence and rape prevention, substance abuse recovery and anti-tobacco.

Newton said the limited nature of the YO grants – it was a five-year demonstration program – forced her to think early on about using the money to put things in place that would outlive federal funding. “We went into it with the mindset that even though we were beneficiaries, maybe we should use [the funding] to make sure there’s a strong infrastructure after the funding was gone,” she said.

She said her organization invested in building programs, purchasing equipment and training staff, so there would be a physical infrastructure and employee knowledge base to keep up the practices established under the YO grants.

Nevertheless, the size of her YO program shrank as federal funding, which totaled $18.75 million, declined. Newton said that at the peak of the YO grants, her organization had 50 to 55 workers in YO programs in a two-county area. Over a period of seven years (YO ran for two additional years in Arkansas, because Phoenix didn’t spend all of its federal YO funding during the first five years), the program served 3,000 youths.

The agency said grades improved, and 600 of the youths enrolled in college. Participants got YO-subsidized internships at banks, insurance companies and the like, often in the fields they were interested in for jobs and careers.

But by 2007, Newton said, Youth and Family Services had no staff members dedicated exclusively to the YO approach. “What we tried to do was take those critical elements and supports that we had left from Youth Opportunity and plug them into the staff we have now,” she said.

Newton said her organization struggles to maintain a “semblance of Youth Opportunity” in the services it provides, such as tutoring, remediation, job readiness and counseling. “We just don’t do it at the level or intensity that we did before, because we don’t have the funding,” she said.

Contact: Phoenix Youth and Family Services (870) 364-1676, http://phoenixyouthservices.org/index.htm?refreshed.