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Report: Maine Needs To Improve Support For At-Risk Teens

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The John T. Gorman Foundation says Maine should do a better job of helping at-risk teens complete the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

In a report released Tuesday, the foundation recommends creating a “comprehensive, coordinated, flexible and youth-centered continuing of care,” for teens at risk due to poverty, homelessness, or who have already done something to place them in the juvenile justice system.

Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz spoke with Sara Gagne-Holmes, senior program associate with the foundation, about the report’s conclusions.

Gratz: Who are we talking about here?

Gagne-Holmes: We’re talking about vulnerable older youth, so youth who are growing up in poverty, youth who have been experiencing homelessness or youth involved in the criminal justice or foster care system.

Gratz: Overall, how big a problem is this? Do we have any sense of how many teens in Maine fall into these categories and need better services?

Gagne-Holmes: We know that there are about 14,000 “opportunity youth,” who are disconnected from school or education. Some of the youth in the juvenile justice system and in the foster care system, those experiencing homelessness, are counted in opportunity youth. But we don’t have a distinct count because of the different systems and their ability to be in more than one.

Gratz: The report points out that helping kids like this could make them more productive economically and neglecting them can impose costs on taxpayers for things like prisons, homeless shelters and government assistance. But the benefits are long term. Some of the costs are immediate. How do you get over those hurdles in dealing with politicians and others, some of whom say the state doesn’t have a lot of resources?

Gagne-Holmes: If you look at our juvenile justice system, it costs about $250,000 per young person to be incarcerated at Long Creek. It costs about $34,000 for a homeless youth to be sheltered per year. Those are substantial costs per person. If we took those costs and reinvested them in community-based services that provided greater positive youth outcomes, we would be definitely earning a positive return on investment from those dollars.

Gratz: In creating what the report calls a comprehensive and coordinated youth-centered service network, what are some of the qualities that would have to go into that?

Gagne-Holmes: How to be youth centered might be different for each youth, but it would be providing services within the community. What happens right now is there’s limited access to services, and so youth are often taken outside of their community, outside of their support systems and that disconnects them from a community that cares for them. So this is about reinvesting dollars within our community, keeping our kids engaged and helping to mentor them for a successful transition to adulthood.

Gratz: This is also, is it not, about stretching out services a little bit? A lot of times there is a lot of support available to kids through the high school years. But then at age 18 that sort of stops, and really we know that children don’t achieve really full independent adulthood sometimes well into their 20s.

Gagne-Holmes: Absolutely. Sometimes 25, sometimes 30 depending on the most recent research. And this is about making sure that youth between 16 and 24 have some continuity in services so that they can successfully transition to adulthood.

Gratz: There are four recommendations that the report makes, one of which is for a statewide coordinating body for youth. Who serves on that?

Gagne-Holmes: We used to have something called a “children’s cabinet,” and it was interdepartmental, and what we want to see is the older youth cabinet that has the Department of Labor, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Corrections — all of the different systems where a youth might have interactions — MaineHousing — as well as some of the frontline service providers and some youth around a table figuring out what services really are impactful and then creating the systems to deliver those services.

Gratz: The report also recommends increasing community-based programs. We talked a little bit about that, but also community-based housing. I wonder if that’s the kind of thing that can sometimes generate pushback from neighborhoods where this kind of housing would be located.

Gagne-Holmes: I think you’re right that the initial reaction would be some concern, but we need to stop and think, ‘These aren’t just youth. These are our youth. They could be any one of ours. They could be our children.’ Really we have a moral and financial duty to make sure that we provide them with the services they need. I think if people stop and understand what the research says and understand what we’re trying to do and that it really is for the better of all Maine people, I think we could make a lot more traction.

Gratz: The last recommendation is to prevent systems’ involvement in the first place. This requires more explanation.

Gagne-Holmes: We need to invest in services for families that are struggling instead of taking a child outside of a family. We need to really start to focus on the family. At the Foundation, we are supporting some two-generation initiatives that focus on both the child and the adult in the family simultaneously to ensure better outcomes for both. We need to make investments in that regard or we need to increase access to public, community-based services. If we had sufficient access to mental health services for youth or substance abuse services for youth or parents we would be able to prevent a lot of systems’ involvement.

Gratz: These are not new issues for the state of Maine and I guess my last question is how confident are you that this report will lead to the kind of changes that make a significant difference?

Gagne-Holmes: If it was just “one and done” I would say not much, but we’re not “one and done.” We’re going to issue this report. We’re going to host a number of conversations around the state. We’re going to reach out to policymakers and we’re going to share what we’ve learned both in the grants that we’ve made and in the research that has come out in the last decade that really shows what needs to be done in order to have positive outcomes.

This interview has been edited for clarity.