The recent series of articles by The Buffalo News exposing the abuses within the State Division for Youth group homes in Buffalo has a rather familiar ring to me. As I recall, similar accusations were leveled at the Masten Park Program (another DFY facility) over the past years. It is ironic that with a shortage of bed space in other DFY facilities, Buffalo is in the process of closing its group homes because they are not receiving sufficient referrals. Is this an admission to the allegations or is delinquency on a decline in Buffalo? Current data do not support the latter.
A reasonable question to ask is why can such gross incompetence be so pervasive? Where are the checks and balances? Are these problems more endemic and Buffalo only a symptom?
From my experience, based on considerable research at the state and national level, I suggest it is not only a local problem but also systemic one. The system of juvenile justice in New York State is unquestionably in a state of disarray. This system, ideally predicated on the notion of supporting the family, restoring youth and, to a lesser degree, protecting the community, is on the brink of disaster.
This same agency (DFY) on the one hand is closing facilities (Buffalo), and on the other cannot find enough beds to handle the large number of court placements that it receives. It deals with the latter on a "revolving door" basis. That is, family court judges place delinquent youth in state (DFY) institutions for care and custody and within a brief (4-5 month) period these same delinquents are back revictimizing the community. The brevity of the placement is not a function of rehabilitation but rather a need for bed space. Consequently, one can begin to understand how family court and DFY are failing miserably with this population.
The problems of the Buffalo facilities will not be squarely addressed if concommitantly they are not dealt with on a system-wide basis. For example, if Family Court judges circumvent these group homes due to their reputation for mismanagement, abuse, etc., the courts then become part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. Furthermore, if the state (DFY) director, office of court administration, probation, social services, etc., adopt the same posture as Family Court, then we shouldn't be surprised with the current state of affairs in Buffalo. What is needed is a serious overhaul of the entire juvenile justice system in this state.
A cursory examination of the issues that emerged from The News series suggests a strong degree of apathy. After the Masten Park fiasco, one might expect awareness of a "smoking gun" syndrome. Apparently not so. It's more of a business-as-usual response. Why hasn't family court been more demanding from its service providers? Generally, child care programs cannot exist without court-placed youth. Perhaps it is about time that judges who sign the placement orders and thereby release the funds to pay (in part) for these programs, and the administrators of the programs, be held accountable for their decisions.
Additionally, confidentiality is touted as necessary to protect problem youth and their families from a public stigma. Since this same confidentiality shrouds the juvenile justice system, it is imperative that the decision makers be more involved throughout the entire process rather than the present piecemeal approach. More importantly, however, is the implied trust in this process. That is, trust that the court and programs are operating in the best interest of youth, and trust by the public that their tax dollars are being spent wisely. That certainly does not appear to be the picture here.
What about the public? Should we be incensed with such reports? If we look at the problems from a dollars-and-cents perspective, what is the cost for maintaining such a process? A reasonable estimate is approximately $200 per youth per day, or $75,000 per youth per year; And what is the yield on this investment? More delinquency, more crime, more victimization -- and more waste.
The majority of today's prison population were once youth being "treated" in youth caring programs such as those in Buffalo. Is this an inevitable process, or can the course of events be changed?
Obviously no single answer exists. However, if accountability were part of the juvenile justice system, then, minimally, we might stop spending large sums of money on a process that yields nothing more than waste. As a beginning, I strongly propose that to introduce the notion of accountability:
1. The state director of DFY take immediate action to rectify and insure that what has been going on in Buffalo (i.e. Masten Park, group homes, etc.) will cease and develop policy to avoid such mismanagement for the future;
2. That DFY central office officials meet on a regular basis with local officials for the purpose of ongoing quality control;
3. That Family Courts be provided with some degree of detail from service providers relative to cost and progress;
4. That Family Court judges become more visible and vocal with respect to their concerns with juvenile justice;
5. That Family Court become more open to public scrutiny;
6. That a statewide task force on juvenile justice be created to study and make recommendations to the governor and Legislature for the purpose of improvement and accountability to the taxpayers; and,
7. That local departments of social service or comparable agencies monitor the placement order process to ensure that child care is suitable to quality care.
Although these recommendations are not exhaustive, they may serve as a beginning to address some serious issues not only at the local level, but issues that may be more endemic to juvenile justice.
ROGER B. McNALLY is associate professor of criminal justice at SUNY Brockport.