On Friday, Jan. 29, just about the time a nine-year-old girl was arrested, handcuffed and pepper sprayed, the Rochester Police Department got another call involving a child.
A 14-year-old boy had gotten into a physical altercation with security guards at a human services agency building in the city. In addition to calling police, a supervisor called Rochester County Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc.’s Jerome Ward. Monroe County Child and Family Services began partnering with YAP in September 2020 to provide community-based re-entry services to youths ages 13-18 transitioning home from detention, secure facilities and group foster care. Ward had become the boy’s YAP Advocate just a couple of weeks prior to the incident.
“I rushed there; because at his age, I’m sure he [the boy] didn’t realize how serious the situation was. He was in a room with two security officers, and he was riled up. I asked everyone to leave; I brought Justin [initially assigned to be the boy’s Advocate until sick leave sidelined him]. I spoke to him and had an opportunity to calm him down.”
After the talk, the boy apologized to the security guards. When three Rochester police officers showed up minutes later and began questioning him, Ward stepped in. He immediately wanted them to understand that the boy, who is Black and big for his age, is a 14-year-old child. Ward introduced himself and told them what had happened, and after a conversation, the officers agreed not to make an arrest.
Later that day, the boy heard about the incident with the nine-year-old girl. He said he easily related to what he’d heard on the news about possible mental health and other family struggles. In fact, a volatile domestic situation when he was 13 is how he ended up in a youth facility before transitioning to the foster home where he receives services from YAP.
YAP uses an evidence-based, service delivery model based on cultural competence where neighborhood-based Advocates receive specialized “wraparound” care training.
The Advocates empower program participants to see their strengths and connect them with resources to help them achieve their goals. YAP also works with the young people’s parents and guardians to connect them to basic needs resources and other tools they need to firm their family foundation.
For Ward, getting the 14-year-old to identify his strengths was not easy at first. But once the boy warmed up to him, he told Ward he’s funny, has a big heart and is good at math. He expressed anxiety about how he couldn’t wait to get back to school. In the meantime, because his foster mom works, he’d been spending his days with workers, at times, at the human services building, doing pretty much nothing, bored, which on the day of the incident, led to boiled over frustrations that he took out on office staff.
A week later, Ward has been successful in working with the boy’s social worker to get him enrolled in virtual school. He has already been thinking more seriously about his goals, saying he definitely wants to go to college. More immediately, he wants a YAP Supported Work job, where the nonprofit pays program participants’ wages while local businesses provide on-the-job training. He’s even thinking about giving some of the money to one of the security guards he got into it with. “I feel bad because I didn’t mean to break his glasses,” he said. Another goal — regaining his grandmother’s trust so that he can go back to living with her. In the meantime, he still speaks with her when he can; and the YAP team, does too.
Prior to his involvement with YAP, the boy had been in several foster settings, all in 2020. He vividly remembers his first meeting with Ward and how hopeful he felt. “We went to Altitude – a trampoline park. Then we went to Red Robin. I had a burger, a real spicy burger, a milkshake, Sprite, and fries,” he said, smiling through a mask. “Jerome was like, ‘We’re going to be together, but every day won’t be like this; we’re going to have structure,’ and stuff like that. He was going to teach me discipline and self-control.”
The boy has been thinking a lot about his four younger siblings, all in foster care, and how any one of them could have been that nine-year-old girl. He’s also thought about what could have happened to him that day at the human services building if he didn’t have an Advocate. “I could have gotten arrested — gone to detention,” he said.
He then wondered aloud what would have happened to the nine-year-old if she had an Advocate. “She wouldn’t have gotten maced and thrown into a police car. All kids deserve to have someone stand their ground, to not give up on them; to at least try.”