Yesterday, DCAYA attended a hearing in the Wilson building called by Tommy Wells, the Chair of the Committee on Human Services on the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS). This was the first time that members of the DC advocacy community were be able to interact with Interim Director Rob Hildum since he took the reins from former DYRS Director Marc Shindler this July. Until yesterday, there had been no official public interaction between the oversight committee and Mr. Hildum. As advocates, this was an important opportunity to educate Council members on the importance of continuing to move the local juvenile justice system in the direction of reform.
DCAYA Boardmembers Daniel Okonkwo (DC Lawyers for Youth) and Debby Shore (Sasha Bruce) testified at the hearing along with representatives from national advocacy organizations such as the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, the Justice Policy Institute, the National Juvenile Justice Network and the Campaign for Youth Justice. Many of the hearing witnesses testified about various issues surrounding the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, opened by DYRS in 2009, that signified a switch from punitive youth justice to a more rehabilitative approach. Various concerns over Mr. Hildum's approach to juevenile justice in the city versus that of Mr. Shindler have surfaced in recent months prompting the advocacy community to respond at the round table called by Mr. Wells.
New Beginnings serves the most serious and chronic young offenders from the District. After a spike in violence committed by youth this year the facility is now overcrowded and many issues about the quality of services being provided there have come into question. The idea behind the Missouri approach provided by New Beginnings is that by providing a myriad of services and programs to youth offenders during their nine to twelve months stays, youth can be rehabilitated and eventually reintegrated into their communities rather than forced into a cycle of criminal activity. Recent concerns over the amount of youth housed at the facility, as well as, some of the tactics used by DYRS head Mr. Hildum have called the effectiveness of New Beginnings into question.
In his testimony, Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth emphasized that “High standards for DYRS mean we move from get tough policies like the increased use of isolation and forward to smart reforms such as implementing treatment based on principles of positive youth development. These policy decisions have real world consequences for our youth.”
New Beginnings was meant to embody the idea of positive youth development. Though DYRS may not be a perfect agency and may take missteps in achieving this mission it is still refreshing to see a youth-serving government agency with a solid intent to serve its constituents well. Furthermore DYRS scrutiny in the form of Committee Chair Wells' calling of the hearing proves that city officials can and will take the best interests of youth into account when advocates like DC Lawyers for Youth, Sasha Bruce and DCAYA show the benefits to taking such an action.
As DCAYA embarks on its 2010-2011 Advocacy season we find that it is of the utmost importance that we ensure ALL of the DC government agencies that serve children and youth and NOT JUST DYRS have the best interests of their constituents at heart. This concept is the very core of the work DCAYA, its membership and its allies seek to accomplish and we clearly have our work cut out for us as we come into FY 2011 and the start of a new administration in the coming months.