Thursday, December 19, 2013

Understand a Parent’s Journey . . .

The following blog post was written by a DC parent of a disconnected young person.

When my chocolate baby was born, I had nothing but big dreams in mind for him and was ready, as a single mother, to overcome any challenge. I did not realize the heart-wrenching journey before me. At age five, I proudly enrolled my son in a private Catholic School only for him to be expelled in 1st grade before the year concluded. The school cited “unruly behavior” as the reason. Two years later the cause of my son’s behavior was diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He was placed in a special education program in a public school. I was not prepared for the additional diagnoses of Learning Disabled, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Bipolar II by the time he became a teenager. His diagnoses required him to participate in a school offering behavioral modification through medication and therapeutic counseling. He was hospitalized seven times starting at age 12 and placed on a host of medications ranging from Ritalin to Depakote. 

Upon entering 12th grade, my son had participated in four special education schools for behavioral and emotional problems across three states. Each program trying to design the right treatment for him but without success. By age 16 he started using drugs, skipping school and staying away from home for weeks at time. At age 19, my son was incarcerated for alleged armed robbery. He had become one of the many African American males that entered the school to prison pipeline without a means to reconnect to the school to career pipeline.

Where did I go wrong? Where did the system fail him? I continuously sought help through psychiatrists and psychologists, mentors, and school personnel. Every suggestion came with financial challenges. One suggestion was to send my son away to school in Colorado where he could participate in therapeutic horseback rides and have round the clock counseling for a mere $50,000 per year. Another came from high school staff that recommended I apply for Social Security Benefits to underwrite program costs only to be denied. Through demanding reevaluation of my son’s case, he was approved for Social Security Benefits. He was incarcerated when we received the good news! As a result of his incarceration, he had to re-apply for benefits.

My story is unfortunately not unique. It is one of the many stories of parents who sadly must navigate a public and private system designed to challenge not support parents in their efforts to care for their child. Most regrettably our education system is not designed to provide adequate mental health services and supports to children and youth struggling to succeed in school and life. It most certainly is not designed to support my 25 year old with a criminal record and mental disabilities to obtain a GED and obtain a “good job”.

To reflect on his journey and mine, brings new tears to my eyes. I know if I could have gotten help a lot sooner things would not have turned out the way they did for my son. The help he received in high school was too late. My wish is that my story helps another parent before my son’s present is your child’s future.

This past fall DCAYA, in conjunction with the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region and the United Way of the National Capital Area released the report "Connecting Youth to Opportunity." The report used insight from hundreds of disconnected and reconnecting youth across the District of Columbia through surveys and focus groups, to better understand the reasons and possible solutions to disconnection. To hear a youth's story about her journey from disconnection to reconnection watch YOUTH VOICES: Charmia Carolina.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Jump On the Bus

Last spring, Councilmember Muriel Bowser, along with colleagues Anita Bonds and Mary Cheh, proposed legislation to provide all District students with access to free transportation. The DC Kids Ride Free Program was implemented this school year with wide-spread popularity. While the program is proving successful with youth currently in traditional public and charter schools, there is a large subset of youth trying to reconnect through alternative education programs (STAY) and workforce development options (SYEP) who are lacking access to such a valuable resource.

The demand is clear. Earlier this year, DCAYA executed an in-depth study of disconnected and recently reconnected youth in the District. Using a dual methodology that combined surveys (we interviewed nearly 500 youth aged 16-24) and focus groups, we captured significant insight into the realities of disconnection here in the District. What we found is heartening: the vast majority of students, who have disconnected, actively want to reconnect. These young people reach a level of maturity and understanding that success in the workforce is predicated on a high school diploma, post secondary education, and guided job training; yet they also face tremendous barriers. One of which is transportation.

Over 33% of our respondents reported spending over $30 a week, or $120 a month, on transportation. Based on reported income data, this suggests youth are spending between 15-30% of their monthly income on transportation alone.

Many young people seeking to reconnect are over-age and under-credited to the point that enrollment in a traditional alternative program would not provide them with enough time to earn a diploma, and once out of school, internship options are nearly non-existent. Others face very real pressure to work in addition to pursuing an education, thus needing a more flexible educational program. These youth are often more appropriately served in alternative credentialing programs (STAY Programs) or intensive GED programs. However, due to the designation of their educational program and their age, the majority are unable to access the transportation supports afforded to younger students.

The loss of economic productivity and social costs associated with disconnected youth are profound. The roughly 12,000 currently disconnected students here in DC cost taxpayers (in lost earnings) roughly $13,900 per youth, or a total of $167,000,000. When you add in the per-student annual social cost of $37,450 associated with disconnection that’s an additional $449,000,000 a year (subsidized health care, income assistance, higher rates of criminal justice involvement) . A modest investment in transportation subsidies would remove a major barrier to successful reconnection and reap significant economic and social rewards for years to come.

With this in mind, I urged Councilmember Bowser and Councilmember Cheh at the Joint Roundtable on the DC Kids Ride Free Program to expand the program to:
  • Serve youth up to age 24 who have reconnected to alternative credentialing programs.
  • Extend operational hours until 10pm, accommodating those students who are taking evening classes.
  • Include summer months for students attending year round or are enrolled in summer school programs.
  • Incorporate SYEP youth, continuing the city’s efforts to grow a local, proficient youth workforce.
My suggestions were well-received and I look forward to working with Councilmembers Bowser and Cheh to make them a reality.

Many of our city’s young people face a barrage of obstacles on their path to adulthood that require intensive services and interventions. When it comes to the obstacle of transportation, however, the DC Kids Ride Free Program has proven an effective method for breaking down a known barrier. By expanding the program to youth participating in alternative education, GED programs, and SYEP, youth are more likely to stick with and complete programs intended to better their lives and ultimately, the community as a whole. It’s time to jump on the metrobus and support those youth who one day, will be able to support themselves.

Maggie Riden is the Executive Director of DC Alliance of Youth Advocates. She encourages youth and community advocates to attend Roundtables and Committee Hearings to provide the council with honest insight on neighborhood issues. You can stay up-to-date on these hearings by checking out the DCAYA calendar of events

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Thursday, December 05, 2013

Behind the Brain: Understanding Youth Homelessness

Letter from Dan Brannen, the former Executive Director of Covenant House DC.

Covenant House Youth
Puberty, adolescence and young adulthood are, indeed, three of the most life transforming times of our lives. These developmental stages mark the beginning of our sexual maturation, the final transformation of our brains (and associated hormonal and neurotransmitting systems) and the beginning of a new social and biological construct – adulthood. The amygdala (emotions), the hippocampus (memories) and the corpus callosum (mental perception) are three integral parts of the brain that assist in adolescent development: affecting the way adolescents/young adults feel about themselves and their relationships, how they view and feel about past experiences and how they then translate these feelings in order to act in and experience their own world.

So, what does this brief description of human development have to do with homeless and struggling young people? Everything.

Both genetic and environmental factors impact the development of our brain and associated physiological systems. Research has borne out that trauma (whether from physical abuse, neglect (health, educational, or relational), sexual abuse, bullying, community violence, teen pregnancy and/or the stigma attached to poverty) clearly impacts our biological, psychological and social development: three extremely important developmental areas for teens and young adults. These developmental areas, or maybe better-termed “trajectories,” are further impacted by life situations such as poverty and family (and/or housing) instability.

Homeless older teens and young adults have all certainly faced traumatic experiences in their lives. Their lives are unstable at best and in crisis for most. Even if housing is made available to them, they suffer the ills created during their tumultuous young lives: ills that cannot be cured by a housing only mindset and that will ultimately come back to “haunt them” later in life – again creating periods of or even chronic homelessness.

Graphic from Covenant House Tumblr:
Researchers, providers and community leaders know all of this. Yet, little is done (relatively speaking at least) to do anything about it. Creating and/or bolstering known, successful prevention and early intervention strategies takes courage – because it takes a reconsideration on how we feel about teens and young adults: especially those who struggle the most amongst us. We need the deep and complete understanding that a comprehensive set of solutions must be made available (now) to them in order for their healing and “redevelopment” to occur. We know it will work and we owe it to them.

Heavy investment into a 20 year-old (for example) will reap major rewards as compared to waiting until that same 20 year-old is 50. When at 50, not only will our interventions have been less successful, but also that individual will have spent 30 more years of suffering and pain.

Ultimately, we know that bettering the life situations of homeless and struggling young people, altering their current life trajectories, will have a much more profound impact on preventing a lifetime of tragedy. And to borrow from the sentiment of Ben Franklin, we must invest in “preventive and early interventive solutions.” Solutions that we know will result in much better outcomes than many “pounds of cure” and years of engagement could ever bring.

Tell your Councilmembers you support a data driven, holistic solution to "Ending Youth Homelessness in Washington, DC" by adding your name to the E-Sign On Letter.  

DCAYA would like to express our most sincere thanks to Dan Brannen, not only for this thoughtful blog post, but for his years of dedicated service to DC youth as the Executive Director of Covenant House DC. For those who may not know, after many years of commuting between DC and Pennsylvania (where his family resides) Dan recently made the difficult decision to depart Covenant House, finishing his tenure there in mid November. 
To say he will be missed is an understatement. His voice is a powerful one and his expertise and thoughtfulness about youth is, in a word, profound. We wish Dan the very best as he starts his next endeavor and hope to see him back in DC very, very soon. ~ Maggie Riden, Executive Director of DCAYA

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook, SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Escuchame! Searching for the Latino Youth Voice

All youth deserve to be heard.  They provide valuable information about their thoughts, their needs, their struggles, and their dreams.  If we listen carefully enough, we can incorporate their ideas into improving our schools, programs, and communities.  But what happens when that voice is hidden or comes in another language?  Do we stop listening?  Do we ignore it altogether? 
Recent census numbers show that the Latino population in Washington DC is growing consistently and significantly, currently representing 9.1% of the population.  This reflects an increase of nearly 22% from 2000, and is expected to continue growing at a rapid pace.  While some of this is due to immigration trends, many of these new Latinos are US born-youth and children, who are growing up to face the same economic and social challenges that other urban communities of color face.   Yet, when it comes to Latino youth, there is often a huge information gap, and as a result, their voice is stifled.

Despite this growth, Latino youth are often seen as an elusive population, prone to under-counting and not widely represented in studies and reports.  Over the last 9 years as I have worked as a social worker serving these youth and families in DC, I have stopped to ask myself "why?"  Why are Latino youth living in the community not being counted?  Why are their voices not heard?  What can we do to seek out and listen to the Latino youth voice?
Released in October, the DCAYA report Connecting Youth to Opportunity:  Better Understanding Disconnected Young People in Washington, DC, made an interesting breakthrough.  Approximately 26% of the youth participants in the DCAYA study identified as being Hispanic or Latino.  Why is this significant?  It demonstrates that this is not an issue that only impacts the communities “east of the river” but that neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Petworth also contain high numbers of disconnected youth.  But quite simply, it reveals how Latino youth have been consistently underrepresented in previous studies leaving them without the advocacy needed to support them.   Young people in Washington DC continue to battle poverty, homelessness, violence, unplanned pregnancy, trauma, and lack of educational and employment opportunities.  Latino youth are not immune to these problems, yet we often don’t hear about their experiences, their stories of struggle and triumph.     

There are numerous possible factors that contribute to this missing voice and under-counting, including fear of interaction with government or those perceived to be linked to government.  Although they are US-born, Latino youth may have family members who are undocumented, and that is enough to silence them.  Community based organizations like the Latin AmericanYouth Center, Mary’s Center, La Clinica del Pueblo, and Carecen have worked hard to establish trust with Latino families and youth.  At the Latin American Youth Center, we make every effort to amplify that youth voice, and have tasked ourselves with the challenge to better serve their needs, but this issue is so much bigger than us.  By reaching out the community as DCAYA did, valuable information from Latino youth was included in their results and recommendations.  All across the 8 wards of the District, organizations are working with Latino youth, and we need them all to listen carefully and contribute to the conversation.  It is incumbent upon us as service providers, youth advocates, and government entities, to seek out the Latino youth voice, partner with community organizations, and make sure that all residents of the District are counted and heard.  We need to listen carefully, because Latino youth have a lot to say.  

Susana Martinez is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who has worked with Latino communities in Texas and Washington, DC, and has expertise in providing clinical and case management services to immigrant families, victims of domestic violence, and youth and families within the child abuse and neglect system.