End nears for a city youth program

Funding runs out in June for initiative pairing social workers, at-risk children

February 23, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Roxanna Cornish was at her wit's end. Her son, Eric Williams, 15, was skipping school, getting high and hanging with a bad crowd. She feared he would die on Baltimore's rough streets.

So one day Cornish approached a police officer and pleaded for help with Eric. That's when she learned about Intervention Services for At-risk Youth, or ISAY, a program that puts social workers in the city's nine police districts so they can work with youths 12 to 17 who are cutting classes, having conflicts with their parents or siblings, doing drugs and getting arrested.

Eric is among 150 city youth who are involved in the two-year program, but it ends June 30, when funding runs out. Although the original agreement between the state Department of Human Resources and the Baltimore Police Department specified that it would cease in June, many had hoped more money would become available to continue it.

Recently, several programs from the state-run Department of Social Services have been cut. On Jan. 12, the state issued a six-month freeze on new approvals to the Transitional Emergency Medical and Housing Assistance program, or TEMHA, which aids poor and homeless people by giving them $185 a month. Freezing the program for a half-year is expected to save about $5 million. In December, interim social services Director Floyd Blair unveiled a proposal to close nine of the city's 20 social services offices, which could save about $3 million in rent annually.

But Cornish and others say there shouldn't be a price tag on saving a child's life.

"I think that's a shame," Cornish said recently. "That's really going to hurt kids. I thought the program was going fine, and now they're going to cut it. They need to try to keep this program. They really do."

In a letter to Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark dated Jan. 16, Blair suggested that city leaders consider funding from federal sources to keep the program afloat. "Even though we would like for this worthwhile program to continue, budget constraints prevent us from continuing our contract after that date," the letter said.

Clark, who became Baltimore's top police officer a year ago, often speaks of the need to reach youths early - before they are arrested or killed. He hopes to find money to sustain the program, which he labels invaluable.

"What you have to understand is, a lot of times in law enforcement, one of your best partners can be a person who is acting in a civilian capacity," Clark said. "That wall of trust that a police officer has to gain ... the civilians remove that barrier. They're looked at differently than police, even though we try to do the same things."

Clark said the social service workers - or family service workers as they're called in the ISAY program - deal with domestic violence, help secure money and other assistance for needy people, assist in relocating families and maintain a database of complaint calls in different communities. All those efforts are geared toward improving the lives of children ages 12 to 17.

"They do a lot of follow-up with juvenile complaints," Clark said. "And this is a critical component. Rather than always relying on enforcement, this is more like a social arm that's actually being cut away from us."

Family service workers meet with youths and their parents in their homes or at the police stations, and develop plans for improving their lives. For example, because Eric wouldn't stop smoking marijuana on his own, his family service worker, Karol Harmon, helped secure him a spot at Mountain Manor, a residential drug treatment facility on the city/county line.

"The workers find out the family history, family dynamics and behavior issues that may have arisen during development of the child," said Katherine Gee, who supervises the family service workers on the east side. Derrick Bullock supervises those on the west side.

Harmon met Eric after his mother received a flier from Officer Nicole Hill. "I think I came home and called that evening and made an appointment for the next day," Cornish recalled while sitting in the kitchen of her Northwest Baltimore home. "I told her I could have come that evening."

Harmon said she could tell after meeting with Cornish that she was serious about getting help for her son.

"My son needed help," Cornish said. "I didn't want to find my son out here dead or something like that. I wanted help for my son."

Maj. Marcus Brown, commander of the city's Northwest District, said he supports ISAY, which has youth counseling and employment programs.

"I think ending this program would hurt the progress we've made in terms of providing alternatives to just using law enforcement to solve the problem," Brown said. "We have a huge problem with juveniles - drug dealing, loitering, doing all kinds of stuff. We do a lot of locking up, but then the revolving door just turns and they are out on the street again, without much accomplished."

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