Kevin Finnigan is the youngest of his siblings, and as his mother Mary puts it, “fell in with the wrong crowd.” After multiple interactions with the Bucks County (Pennsylvania, USA) Juvenile Probation Office, Kevin was facing residential placement for repeated non-violent probation violations. In most communities, this would require Kevin to leave his family and school for the duration of his placement. When that placement ended, he would then have to deal with the upheaval of reintegration into his home community. Instead, Kevin was referred to a groundbreaking new program, the Community Service Foundation (CSF) Restorative Reporting Center (RRC), a model program of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) Graduate School.
CSF, which has operated a network of schools and other programs for at-risk youth since 1977, developed the RRC program so that young people like Kevin can stay home with their families and attend their home schools for the duration of their placements.
Other programs, known as evening reporting centers, also allow adjudicated youth to remain home with their families. What’s different about the RRC program is that it immerses young people in an intensive environment of restorative practices.
RRC staff work with youth to help them take responsibility for their actions and make lasting changes in their lives, directly involving the youths’ family members in this process.
Youth are referred to the RRC Program for a 30-, 60- or 90-day term on the recommendation of the youth’s probation officer, with the final decision made by the presiding judge. The program accepts juveniles — males and females — from urban and rural settings covering the large geographic area of Bucks County.
On a typical weekday late afternoon and evening at one of CSF’s Restorative Reporting Centers, teens can be seen huddled over books or working together on homework problems. Adolescent girls and boys work side-by-side, representing diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and varying degrees of criminal histories. Besides receiving intensive academic support, these teens spend their evenings engaged in restorative practices, including “talking circles,” groups and family group decision-making conferences. The program helps students develop positive learning, communication and coping skills and provides drug and alcohol treatment when necessary. On Saturdays the teens perform meaningful community service at such settings as parks, nature centers and nursing homes. At the end of each day they return to their own homes. Both at home and during the hours they spend in the RRC program, the teens wear electronic ankle bracelets so that their county juvenile probation department can monitor their whereabouts.
At first glance, an outsider might be surprised to learn that these teenagers are all on “indefinite probation” within the juvenile legal system: Each has engaged in repeated violations of probation after committing an initial crime. Most young people in this position would be removed from their homes and schools and for long periods of time. Guided by the principles of restorative practices, Community Service Foundation and Bucks County Juvenile Probation worked together to develop a different approach, a community-based model that aims to reduce recidivism by holding youth accountable for their behavior and enabling them to make positive changes in their lives, while also addressing the need for community safety.
Craig Adamson, executive director of Community Service Foundation, talked about the importance of collaborating with the Bucks County Juvenile Probation Department on this program: “The RRC program is a great example of two groups working together to develop a vision for a program that responds to the needs of the community while creating restorative programming that impacts offending youth and their families.”
Bob Stanzione, Bucks County chief juvenile probation officer, and Nick Caramenico, a Bucks County probation officer, were critical to the development of the RRC program.
Stanzione discussed the intention behind the program: “Generally these are kids who haven’t been able to keep on the right track. The idea was to break the string of noncompliance with a program that gets their attention with a lot of interaction, regimen, structure and family engagement.” Added Caramenico, “Other reporting centers across the country focus mainly on community protection, which is an important goal or objective; however, that doesn’t assist the referred juvenile with the repair of issues that might have gotten them into the program in the first place.”
CSF and Bucks County Juvenile Probation worked together to secure grant funding for the RRC program from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. Caramenico said he thought Community Service Foundation was the best agency for his department to collaborate with on the program because of its focus on community resources and family and parental empowerment. “In order for the RRC Program to be successful, both of these components needed to be present.”
Mary Lynn LaSalvia-Keyte, assistant director of the RRC Program, explained that the philosophy of restorative practices at the heart of CSF’s mission is what sets the program apart from other reporting centers. “Restorative practices enhances the experience of youth and families in the RRC, especially those processes involving family engagement.” An important example of such a process is the family group decision making (FGDM) conference, in which a young person’s extended family meets together to help make a plan for his or her future.
While the program is just completing its first year, the Restorative Reporting Centers are seeing excellent results. Mary Finnigan, who saw how successful the program was for her son Kevin, believes that it worked because it taught him life lessons while keeping him in the situations where he would have to immediately use his new skills. “Had they put him away, I think he would have been more sheltered. [With the RRC program] he still had to deal with pressures by staying in the same school and coming home to the same family. He learned to deal with his life.”
Kevin agrees that restorative practices, as he experienced them in the RRC program, were essential to his success. “They taught me to deal with situations that I see in real life, like peer pressure.” Kevin also said that he really appreciated the RRC counselors and that he “could talk to them about anything.” He is now on track to graduate high school and has plans to attend a local community college to study counseling, with hopes of helping other young people. Both Kevin and his mother cite this unique program as the reason Kevin is doing so well, and there are many other success stories like his among the clients that the RRC program serves.
The evidence based on program outcome measures of the Restorative Reporting Centers shows great potential, but Stanzione’s office will next focus on tracking probationers’ recidivism rates to see the long-term effects of the program. He notes, “We know in the short term that two thirds of the clients have completed the program. That may not seem like a lot, but we kept all of those clients without arrests, probation violations or endangering the community during the time of their placement.”
Caramenico adds, “The Community Service Foundation RRC Program costs about half of the average daily rate for a juvenile to be placed out of their community in a residential program… and has the potential, as time moves on, to be a large cost saver for the County of Bucks.”
Stanzione believes it is too early to make definitive statements about the success of the RRC program but says, “I think it is very promising.”
While in-depth statistical analysis is yet to come regarding the effects of the Restorative Reporting Centers on probationers, the community and their families, early informal indications of success are strong.
LaSalvia-Keyte notes, “We’ve had some youth enter the program with complex issues and make a transformation in a short period of time. Some former RRC clients are still getting A’s and B’s in school because they came here and learned to take the time to do their homework. I’ve had probation officers call us and provide updates, telling us that a particular kid is on the honor roll and going to graduate.”
Outcome measures collected by CSF in the first year of the RRC program show that a total of 104 clients entered the program between August 1, 2010 and July 31, 2011. Of 85 clients discharged in this year, 81 said they were satisfied with their experience; 59 were discharged and successfully completed the program; 26 were discharged early and did not complete the program. The 104 clients completed 4,305 hours of community service and achieved 98% attendance; 99% of the drug screens were negative for controlled substances.
The attention to restorative practices sets Community Service Foundation apart: the emphasis on keeping juvenile offenders in their home and teaching them — and their families — coping mechanisms for the various challenges they will face in their schools and communities. While still new, the RRC program appears to be very promising, both for Bucks County and as a model for other programs around the country.