Palm Beach County program helps juvenile offenders stay out of jail

Jerome Burdi (Sun Sentinel) | October 25, 2010

Florida Community Alliance is showing troubled teens that there’s more to life than gangs, drugs and city streets.

And it sure beats serving time in the Juvenile Assessment Center.

Many of the teens now taking part in Florida Community Alliance, a law-enforcement mentoring group, passed through that jail for minors before the court ordered them into its programs.

The nonprofit organization recently took a group of teens canoeing in Riverbend Park west of Jupiter, a first for many of them.

The group tailors its trips to specific lessons. This one was perseverance. The teens piled in, two to three per canoe, to navigate the winding river with only each other to depend on. Mentors guided the way.

Some of the group’s teens have violent backgrounds, but when they get out into nature — with the sun pouring down over towering cypress and oak trees — they are humbled and mystified, and even scared at some of the river’s big spiders.

“It’s amazing. You can attack an individual your size or even bigger, but then see an insect and be terrified of that,” said Wilfredo Gonzalez, a former New York City gang member who’s now on Florida Community Alliance board of directors. “When you don’t understand something, you fear it.”

The lessons the program instills, he said, will help the youths get in control of what they do in life and understand why they do it.

The alliance, based in North Palm Beach, started in February 2009 and is serving youths in Palm Beach and Martin Counties. It plans to spread into Broward and Miami-Dade counties by next year, executive director Minerva King said.

A psychotherapist and chairwoman of the re-entry and rehabilitation committee for the Martin County Gang Task Force, King and her husband, Boynton Beach police Sgt. Chuck King, started the organization after discussing the problems they both face in their line of work.

The decided a collaborative approach was best.

“The idea is not foreign. It goes back to community policing,” Chuck King said. “A lot of officers say, ‘Oh you’re playing kiddy cop,’ but when these kids get it, it’s like a light bulb goes off.”

The program has had 120 juveniles referred since it started, with a 15 percent recidivism, or repeat crime, rate in Palm Beach County and a 22 percent recidivism rate in Martin County, Minerva King said.

Out of those who completed program, 30 percent were connected to employment or job training, she said.

The alliance was organized, she said, as a response to the Attorney General’s 2007 Gang Reduction Strategy report, that encourages law enforcement to collaborate with community service agencies.

“It is important that a variety of different stakeholders join in the effort to eliminate gangs from Florida,” said Samadhi Jones, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, that participated in the Gang Reduction Strategy. “We agree that reduction of delinquency is most effective when intervention and prevention strategies and services are available to youth.”

The 12-week program couples group-therapy sessions with helping the teens develop their talents and develop career paths. Police officers from several agencies volunteer as mentors alongside therapists.

“If we can hook a kid up and show him what’s important to him is important to us, he’s going to want to finish the group because somebody cares,” Minerva King said.

Fees for the program are on a sliding scale and teens who can’t afford to pay can work in the office.

Article continues at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/topic/fl-florida-community-alliance-20101025,0,2291538.story

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