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When the Disconnections Run Deep, Youth Need Deeply Connected Systems


For my first post on the BOOST Breakfast Club Blog, I had planned to play it safe.

Stick to a topic like youth program quality or youth outcomes measurement that I know well and have already written about, and pose a provocative, though largely, intellectual question or two about it.  But this week, I’ve been distracted by the most devastating, and difficult to process, news I’ve heard about a young person I’ve known personally in my twenty years in the field.

I was shaking when I received the phone call from his mother a little over a week ago: “L is in jail on murder charges. The trial starts next Tuesday.” Though I haven’t seen L in more than five years and haven’t been directly involved in the community programs he was part of in at least ten, I’m still connected enough to his family that his mother knew how to reach me.  I am devastated. His mother is nearly destroyed by this turn of events – it took her months to talk to anyone publicly.

I don’t know how to talk about it – it’s emotionally incomprehensible for me to think about.

You see L was not supposed to land in this place. At 15, he was on a path that most of us would mentally put in the “doing well” category – he was very involved in sports and, along with his cousins, was a regular in a summer youth program.  While there were some challenging influences in his neighborhood, he had a strong parent who encouraged him to persist in school, and had decent grades. He graduated from high school, and after high school found employment with a delivery company.

But somewhere between the ages of 18 and 22, things began to unravel for L.  I don’t know why. But I do know that, unlike in his teen years, there was no youth program available to support him.  He was too old for most programs and not (yet) in enough trouble to be directed to those developed for older teens and young adults who have visibly gotten off track and in trouble.

L was an active participant in the school system and the OST system and was able to leverage those experiences to get a job.  But what systems were there for him as he continued the journey to adulthood?  I don’t know the circumstances that pulled L off track.  But I am left wondering why this gap in supports exists.  If there were better “hand-offs” – and a more complete system of supports for young people, especially in the transition out of OST programs and into young adulthood – might any of this have been different?

I wonder whether he faltered at work, lost his job, couldn’t find housing, got into debt or started to use drugs.

Perhaps he got frustrated because he wasn’t able to further his education or lost a friend to violence.  I do know that there are few places young people can go to get good advice, gracious support, and a second chance if needed. We talk about disconnected youth in our professional circles (sometimes reframed as opportunity youth), but the focus on the “youth” part is misplaced when what we really mean are disconnected systems.

While L’s story is still unfolding, it clearly shows that what remains, by and large, is a disconnected system that is failing to fully “start early, and sustain support” for all youth. And L’s story isn’t singular – as a news story on Gary, another young person that wasn’t supposed to land in prison, confirms. Gary, too, was headed in a good direction as a younger youth and was a star high school athlete known for his sensitive nature. Coaches, counselors and teachers were invested in Gary, and Gary seemed invested in himself.

But Gary was also pulled by forces in his larger environment – the untimely passing of his guardian grandparents and a peer group that seemed to embrace him while also steering him off track. These forces converged, finding Gary in the role of the triggerman in an armed robbery attempt with his friends, and later, in a gunfight with a rival group. The latter landed him in prison. Being just shy of 18, he was tried as a juvenile rather than an adult. Seven years later, Gary is back in the community – but the terrain he must navigate is much changed from the community he left.

Both Gary and L’s stories are prime examples of single programs that do engage youth, while the larger system fails them.

As youth work professionals, we bear witness to the lives of thousands of Garys and Ls. Perhaps their narratives might challenge us all to think more deeply about not merely the importance of good programs, but why deeply connected systems – those that might shore up the leaks in the pipeline of supports for youth – are critically important.

The lack of a strong system to shore up good programs does not absolve L of any responsibility, but having sat face-to-face with this young person numerous time makes me think that the outcome for him, for Gary and for many, many young people might have been different if the leaks in the pipeline weren’t so big, more out-of-school time systems expanded beyond 18 (just as expanded learning programs are giving at least some youth more time and support beyond the arbitrary “school-aged” cutoff of 18 to obtain a high school diploma), and there were more early warning signals embedded within a community-based system of supports to divert kids that are heading way off course.

Recently, Patrick McCarthy, CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in a plenary session at the 2014 Ready by 21 National Meeting suggested this very thing – that while those who work with young people typically focus on providing effective programs (in place for L), we need to pay more attention to building effective systems (not in place for L) (You can watch it here). “A bad system will trump a good program every time,” he cautioned.

Regretfully, I deeply agree with this statement — L’s trial started this week.

A note on the blog’s theme: Though my appetite in the last few days has been dampened, I did eat cereal and an apple – and am reminded that, for me, eating a good breakfast is an act of self-care I committed myself to years ago, especially on days like today when, in youth work and in life, the questions are many and the answers are thin.

Author Profile: @aliciaw

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