The following testimony was given by Assistant Vice President David Collins, LMSW, to the New York City Council Committee on Youth Service on November 22, 2016.
My name is David Collins, and I am an Assistant Vice President at The Children’s Village. Founded in 1851, we work with some of New York City’s most vulnerable children and families through a wide range of programs, including community prevention, foster care, affordable housing, and mentoring. We also provide one of the nation’s only long-term, privately funded aftercare programs for teens leaving foster care, the WAY Home program, which can stay with youth up to the age of 25.
I want to share four brief recommendations with you today, each grounded in our front-line experience, and also supported by relevant research.
First, we must reckon with the widespread disproportionality by race and by place that we see in this population. A 2012 report1 by the Social Science Research Council found that “the New York Metro area has the widest gap by neighborhood in terms of youth disconnection of America’s largest cities.” The same communities that experience the highest rates of youth disconnection also produce the highest rates of child welfare and justice system contact. Perhaps the most direct way to address the challenge of disconnected youth is to increase the level of economic opportunity in the communities where they reside.
Second, we must focus on high-need and vulnerable youth, including LGBTQ youth, immigrants, homeless youth, foster children, and others with complex needs or cross-system involvement. A 2014 report2 by the Center for an Urban Future highlighted the urgent need for the city to place more emphasis on reaching this population, including the ability to meet their developmental and social service needs as a precursor to successful and sustained employment. Reaching out to the most high-need youth requires more coordination and more resources, but it also provides the greatest opportunity for impact.
Third, we must accept that the path to success for disconnected youth is usually neither short nor direct. I say this not because we want to create permanent entanglement with social services, but based on an understanding of the normal developmental path of young adults. In 2013, MDRC3 noted that youth disconnection is a dynamic phenomenon -– most do not simply give up, but rather make numerous attempts to re-engage with school or work, with varying degrees of success. In our own programs, we have begun to incorporate more youth-driven approaches, including peer advocacy and peer mentoring, and we increasingly focus on building sustainable personal networks for youth, and helping them develop the resilience and soft skills needed to navigate relationships.
Finally, we also recommend that you focus on ease of access and coordination among city agencies. Many people have called for increased resources on this issue, and we agree. However, we also note that the process of navigating existing service systems can be a stressor in and of itself, in which one missed appointment or paperwork error can have a cascading effect that may destabilize a youth’s entire life.
So, in short, we must reckon with disproportionality, meet the complex needs of our most vulnerable youth, understand that success takes time, and focus on simplifying access to needed services.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this important topic.
1 “Youth Disconnection in New York City,” Measure of America/Social Science Research Council (2012), retrieved from http://www.measureofamerica.org/one-in-seven.
2 “Bridging the Disconnect,” Christian González-Rivera/Center for an Urban Future (September 2014), retrieved from https://nycfuture.org/research/bridging-the-disconnect.
3 “Building Better Programs for Disconnected Youth,” MDRC (February 2013), retrieved from http://www.mdrc.org/publication/building-better-programs-disconnected-youth.