By Michelle Sicignano, LMSW
SJS Staff Writer
I had an opportunity to interview The President and CEO of Children’s Village, Dr. Jeremy Kohomban, a noted expert in child welfare. He “most recently received the 2011 Samuel Gerson Nordlinger Child Welfare Leadership Award presented by the Alliance for Children and Families for his dedication and effectiveness in the child welfare field.”
Since being founded in 1851 as a philanthropic endeavor to address the problem of homeless immigrant children in New York City, the Children’s Village has grown through the years becoming a well-respected agency, upholding it’s mission and serving approximately 10,000 children and families annually in New York through diverse programs. Their mission is simple: “to work in partnership with families to help society’s most vulnerable children so that they become educationally proficient, economically productive, and socially responsible members of their communities.”
Generously providing time for an interview focused mainly on juvenile justice, his clear knowledge base, experience, and devotion to children and child welfare was apparent. Tempered with real world understanding of restrictions due to financial concerns, as well as individual readiness and wiliness to make positive changes, Dr. Kohomban minced no words in saying, “we’re not going to save everyone.” Undeniably this is a sad truth.
Owning this reality can be hard, but his point is that not every person wants or is ready to accept the assistance being offered. Also, we cannot force a program to fit everyone. Different programs are necessary to gain the best outcomes for the most people and program fit must be based on an encompassing view of the individual taking their entire environment in to consideration. Programs must be tailored to individuals, and must treat more than one aspect of a person’s life, such as drug use, or criminality. This holistic view of a helping relationship resonates deeply with me, and correlates perfectly with my understanding, world view, and social work education and practice.
I asked Dr. Kohomban what he thought of as the most important things people need to be aware of regarding juvenile justice.
His response was immediate and emphatic. “It’s a problem we can solve. We know what works, and what needs to be done, and if we are serious and address the issue it is something we can solve.” He added, “The best solutions come from within the child and family and community, and if no community or family exists—create one.”
This is what Children’s Village and programs like it often try to accomplish. It’s no easy task, yet such a simple and obvious solution. Without a sense of family or belonging or community or continuity, how does one find their way and embark on a meaningful, productive life path? It’s long been reported that all it takes is one “stable, appropriate, willing adult” in the life of a child to have a positive impact. It’s heartbreaking to realize how many people do not have such a seemingly simple thing which so many of us take for granted; a caring, trustworthy, connected adult.
One of things Dr. Kohomban is most proud of is creating a sense of “family even for a twenty year old just coming into the program.” A sense of belonging is primary to positive life path. Alone, it isn’t enough to turn someone’s life around, but without it, it’s near impossible.
I next asked Dr. Kohomban what should be part of the national conversation regarding juveniles. In addition to what was discussed above, he said we “need to come to terms with the fact that teenagers are where we were at one point.” We put too much emphasis on achievement and too many adult expectations on our teens. “There is not a clear cut trajectory through the teen years,” yet we never seem to account for that in terms of expectations. The isolation teens feel is on the rise, and our expectations are growing. Instead of fostering connectedness, we are ignoring growing problems and concerns.
He also stressed the need to address the issue of kids of color as part of a national conversation. “They spend too much time in systems that view them as somehow wrong or less” regularly. One question Mr. Kohomban asks of himself and his agency is, “How do we make kids who have been” alienated and “part of the juvenile justice system good enough to be my neighbor?” This is a valid point. One cannot expect to fully address the issue of youth and child welfare without recognizing and realizing the impact of institutional racism. It exists. Denying it and excluding the impact it has limits effectiveness of programmatic interventions.
This is especially obvious when discussing the long-standing over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system. Being aware of the “prison pipeline, and how it impact’s minority youth, I asked Dr. Kohomban if he saw a tie in to the large numbers in juvenile justice to privatization of prisons. “Privatization in and of self is not a problem” he said. “If the pipeline is unfair to begin with,” which it is, “than a justice or incarceration based solution will not address it.” Address the pipeline issues where they stem from. He has seen a rise in juvenile incarceration concurrent with privatization in prison system in some states, such as Pennsylvania, but feels it is more a matter of how we treat the issue of juvenile crime than one of strict capitalist impact on the business of prisons. He believes, “It is not cost effective in the long run to incarcerate kids.” I agree. Producing a residual prison population does nothing to benefit to our society long-term.
The Children’s Village approaches for dealing with children in the juvenile justice system often utilize evidence-based practices, among them, the MST and MST FIT approach. “MST is a nationally-recognized, evidence-based program that helps fragile families cope with out-of-control teenagers with the goal of keeping youth arrest free and out of residential care. The program provides three to four months of almost daily support by trained therapists using a highly structured system.” This intervention provides hands on tools and takes the youth’s whole system into account, providing a strong base for modeling the “stable, appropriate, willing adult” relationship which allows for those skills to be transferred to the family or caretaker. Along with this type of approach, I asked about other interventions Children’s Village uses to address individual and family patterns, especially generational patterns.
Dr. Kohomban is a strong supporter of evidence-based practices, as they offer the right balance of cost effectiveness with effectiveness of the actual program. As far as non-evidence based programs, for kids who have no one, he says, “a foster family better than the street. Children’s Village and other agencies are focused on finding care for teens. There is plenty of support out there, but few want to take on the challenge of being responsible for a teenager.” Families willing to support teens are always needed.
Respite care is also a needed and valuable resource. “The kids are typically black, brown and poor, from highly stressed and poverty environments, and sometimes all that is needed is a few days respite without getting the system involved.” Another simple and obvious solution that is underutilized, and underfunded. In situations where one additional stressor can tip the scale, a few days away in a safe, supportive environment can allow for the needed time to adjust. We all know the damage of ongoing stress. It can wreak havoc on our lives, our health, our judgment, and on our ability to perform. This understanding taken in conjunction with the growing knowledge base on PTSD and adverse impact of childhood stress on the developing child’s ability to cope should make a solution of this nature a given.
For long-term impact, Dr. Kohomban reports that aftercare for between 1-5 years after release from custody or ending program placement, simple after care, as a check-in, and a kind of an on-going support system shows amazing results. It goes back to the continuity of care and allowing for the child or teen to know and internalize the message of a trusted adult in his or her corner. Again, a stable, appropriate, willing adult and a sense of belonging are the keys to success with youth.
My final question addressed what communities can do to best support youth. Again, his answer was direct and simple. Schools and communities are outsourcing. Communities need to own this problem. Communities need to take responsibility and develop resources that truly support its youth and allow for that sense of belonging and community that offers an alternative to the lure of the street and to drugs and violence. Building positive supports within our communities, developing a sense of neighborhood pride, and having programs to support families within the community all foster that needed sense of belonging and can go a long way in helping youth become connected. Ignoring problems, letting solutions be outsourced and handled in other towns through outside agencies does nothing to diminish the conditions which fostered the growth of these types of problems to begin with. As Dr. Kohomban said at the start of our conversation, “The best solutions come from within the child and family and community, and if no community or family exists—create one.” The best solutions come from the inside out, not from passing the buck.
The conversation ended with Dr. Kohomban saying “I think it’s a two generation process. One generation to save a kid, and another to stop a cycle and change a pattern.” This is a solvable problem. Some kids will fall through the cracks, aren’t ready for help, or perhaps just haven’t found the right program to match their particular situation, needs, and stage, but on a grand scale this is a solvable problem.