Every day in New York City’s Family Courts, young people are sentenced to placement—a delicate euphemism for incarceration. Historically, this meant certain exile to remote upstate facilities, isolating city youth, limiting family access and—as a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice investigation proved—placing volatile, vulnerable, high-need youth at risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Bringing city youth downstate was a goal of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who three years ago challenged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to create programs that would bring city youth back down to New York City—and funnel moneys for their care out of state coffers and into city agencies.

“The current system isn’t helping kids, it isn’t helping taxpayers and it isn’t helping safety,” Bloomberg said in December 2010, at a time when the city’s overall dropping crime stats mirrored trends for young “offenders” in placement, who numbered 1,300 in 2002 and fewer than 500 a decade later.

In response, Cuomo in 2012 funded Close to Home (C2H), an ambitious collaboration of the state’s Office of Children’s and Family Services (OCFS) and New York City’s Departments of Probation and Education and Administration for Children’s Services.

C2H would move hundreds of young “delinquents and offenders” from upstate to the five boroughs—back into their home communities—to help kids, better use taxpayers’ money and preserve public safety, as the mayor outlined.

Above and beyond geography or economics, C2H represented a profound change in approach: Instead of sending youth out of reach (out of sight and out of mind), the city would house troubled young people in residential facilities—at home with family members or in group-home style settings—and keep them connected to community supports and services, including therapy and school, rather than isolated and apart.

Interviews with advocates and records from agencies indicate the reforms have not delivered real change to detained children and their families. For hundreds of kids in the system, the place has changed, but the paradigm hasn't.

An ambitious agenda

Close to Home promised robust, community-based rehabilitative programs, rigorous aftercare (once a child was released or probation completed) and family-oriented approaches rooted in the community, rather than state bureaucracy.

A paramount goal was moving youth from jail-like institutional settings to residential, home-like facilities for fewer than a dozen youth—with strong adult oversight and guidance.
In a second vital goal, planners promised, “all academic credits earned in placement [will] count towards a high school diploma”—in contrast to the frequent frustration of students whose studies upstate did not accrue to actual credit when they returned home.

The proposed changes would, officials promised and advocates believed, lead to better outcomes for youth. It would be hard to imagine outcomes that could be worse than the 81 percent recidivism rate linked with OCFS youth facilities—which came at a tab of roughly $266,000 per youth per year.

Crucially, moving youth out of institutions and back home, whenever possible, meant more than keeping kids connected to important relationships with family, school, and church, for example. It also meant enormous savings. Most estimates budget about $20,000 to $30,000 a year per child for programs in the community—roughly 10 percent of the cost of incarceration. Various projections, by ACS, the city and OCFS, showed the state saving tens of millions a year, with close to $50 million in savings projected for fiscal 2013-14.

Closer, but far from goals

None of the major C2H goals have yet been attained in full.

The first goal—to move youth out of institutions and into robust, cost-effective community programs—has not been met.

“We don’t want a bed-for-bed placement,” then-Probation Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi told The New York Times in May 2013, six months after the first C2H placements. But all too often, that’s exactly what’s happens: Youth confined upstate are confined downstate as well. Over 500 youth have been transferred from "nonsecure" OCFS facilities upstate to 31 ACS/C2H “nonsecure” facilities in New York City, in what one advocate bitterly characterizes as a “bed swap,” because youth are still placed in facilities, rather than returning to their families with supportive services. (Schiraldi on Tuesday was named senior adviser to the mayor's office of criminal justice.)

Nonsecure facilities are group residences with few hard-core security measures, although access and egress is controlled by adult staff and cameras and other surveillance monitor the facilities. City youth in "limited-secure" facilities, which feature locked doors and fences, and "secure" (i.e., jail-like) facilities remain upstate. According to year-end statistics for 2012—the most recent available—118 New York kids were in the state's secure centers and 94 in its limited-secure facilities. ACS plans to open limited-secure facilities in 2014 to house city youth, but children in secure placements will not be relocated to New York City under C2H’s present plan.

Advocates say that misses a key goal of C2H. “The essential promise and spirit of Close to Home is about more than shifting jurisdictions,” Gabrielle Prisco of the Correctional Association says. “The real essence was shifting to community-based services, as much as possible,” over formal placement.

It’s true that residential facilities in New York City are more home-like than the giant, mega-facilities upstate, but moving young people away from institutions and into true community-based care has not happened. Instead of being assigned to OCFS residential facilities, city youth are sent to live in ACS facilities—a different ZIP code, but the same placement model they would have had upstate.

Accordingly, none of the C2H savings that were projected to accrue have been achieved—although the money is flowing to the city, as envisioned. ACS says that startup costs and other expenses have eroded anticipated savings. “At this time, ACS has not identified cost savings related to Close to Home as startup costs have proven to be significant,” ACS spokesperson Christopher McKniff says.

Explaining the shortcomings

Opinions differ on what the obstacles have been, and on the degree to which they have sidetracked C2H.