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Teenage boy holding wired fence at correctional institute.

Breaking Barriers for Youth

For youth who have been involved with the justice system, re-entry into the community can present a host of challenges.

However, these challenges aren’t the same for every person, and justice-involved youth with disabilities face systemic and unique barriers to successful re-entry, according to Extension Associate LaWanda Cook of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability.

“They come into a system that’s not equipped to address these differences, whether it’s a learning difference, a social skills difference or a physical accommodation that’s necessary, but not well understood,” she said.

This has far-reaching consequences for the more than 2 million youth who are arrested each year. The U.S. Office of Special Education estimates that between 30 percent and 60 percent of the youth have disabilities; the National Council on Disability estimates the number could be as high as 85 percent.

Since April 1, the Yang-Tan Institute has been working to build support for reentry of justice-involved youth with disabilities who are ages 14 to 24. The work is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Youth Reentering the Community through Opportunity, Networking, Navigation, Education, Collaboration and Transition Support, known as YReCONNECTS, is slated to launch in three years.  

Central to the project strategy is the development of a “sustainable community of practice.” This includes building bridges across community organizations, developing best practice guidelines and providing training and information to non-profit and governmental organizations to ensure quality and consistency of service to justice-involved youth with disabilities.

Cook, principal investigator for the project, sees breaking down organizational barriers as a key part of creating better outcomes for youth with disabilities. Youth incarcerated for even minor offenses have high dropout rates, she said. For instance, more than a quarter of youth who return to the community after confinement drop out of school within six months. Additionally, they may experience “systems avoidance,” in which involvement in the justice system can lead to distrust of education, health care and employment providers.

“There are some good model programs in New York state and throughout the country, but they’re not necessarily in touch with each another,” Cook said. “One of our goals is to bring together groups and individuals already involved in this work and facilitate information sharing.” At least four community of practice teams will be established through the project.

“A large percentage of people involved in the justice system have disabilities, but that’s not always considered when figuring out how to bring people back into communities,” she said. “This grant will help create a climate and resources that are conducive to successful re-entry.”

Successful reentry includes consideration of outcomes such as return to school, reengagement with other systems, development of supportive social networks, engagement in positive leisure activities, employment and improved self-advocacy skills. It’s essential to link agencies that may be operating in silos, not only those in the area of law enforcement and corrections, but also agencies involved in education, vocational rehabilitation, independent living, health care and others, Cook said.  The first step in linking agencies that service justice-involved you with disabilities will be a “landscape analysis” that maps existing providers offering services to justice-involved youth.

Cook said the project will help determine the number of justice-involved youth in New York state. “We hope to get a sense of the numbers in over the course of the project. As you will note from the range in estimates, nationally, it’s tough to get accurate numbers for several reasons, including that the possibility of disability – often non-obvious – is not always explored in these situations. Often, behaviors are associated with a disability are mistaken for deliberate disrespect for authority. This is one reason why the project is important.”

The project team includes Yang-Tan Research Associate Matthew Saleh, co-principal investigator, and Extension Associate Carol Blessing, who will coordinate the peer support component. The team will create a technical assistance website that houses toolkits, online training modules and a unified set of forms for organizations to use in their work with youth.

The Yang-Tan Institute will use metrics to measure project success. Development of social networks between the organizations identified in the landscape analysis, as well as the social networks individuals have available to them to access community resources and organizations, will be tracked.

One way of measuring success, Saleh said, is to trace networks of providers, educators, government agencies and other organizations that might not have necessarily served people with disabilities in the past.

 “We want to see the ripple effects of putting stakeholders, including youth ambassadors with disabilities and members of different agencies, into a room together to work through the challenges and opportunities,” Saleh said. “This is a way for us to look at communities and the way that people interact within a network – to see if these networks are becoming more cohesive over time.”

When thinking of youth outcomes, Saleh said, it is important to consider return to school, reengagement with systems like health care, development of supportive social networks, engagement in positive leisure, employment, improved self-advocacy skills, and more. This is why it’s so important to link agencies that may have silos, not only those in the area of law enforcement and corrections, but also agencies involved in health care, education, vocational rehabilitation, independent living and a host of others.

The grant also calls on the Yang-Tan Institute to identify county-level resource teams that would implement the recommendations from the community of practice. To build buy-in at the local level, teams will include professionals, community leaders, and individuals and families personally affected by the justice system.

The teams will also work to increase representation of individuals with disabilities, including youth who have been involved with the justice system, Cook said. “One of our goals when we talk about sustainability is to ensure that there is disability representation on existing teams, and certainly on the teams we’re hoping to create and support.”

Cook and Saleh stress that recognizing that every individual has multiple identities is necessary to create systems that work for everyone, given that factors such as race, gender and socioeconomic status, in conjunction with disability, influence how individuals experience different systems.

“Nobody is just living with a disability. We all have other identities,” Cook said.

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