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City Hopes to Break the Mold With New Youth Agency

By Theola S. Labbe
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page C05

For the second time in three years, the District is seeking to create a new agency to reform and improve the delivery of services to a vulnerable population.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) wants the D.C. Council to make the troubled Youth Services Administration the city's 29th government agency. The change, the mayor contends, would give the YSA more visibility and address management problems, cited as obstacles to reform since 1986, the year that such problems led to a class-action lawsuit, Jerry M. v. District of Columbia.

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The YSA, which runs the city's jail for juveniles and group homes and supervises runaways, has a budget of $61 million and is overseen by the city's welfare agency, the Department of Human Services. Last year, the YSA served about 1,400 youths.

City Administrator Robert C. Bobb maintains that "the issues facing youth in the District are so monumental, it really needs to have much more focused attention at the highest levels of the District government."

One of the issues that city officials and residents have become increasingly concerned about is the growing youth death toll. Last week, 13-year-old Michael Swann became the 21st person under the age of 18 killed in the District this year. Last year, 12 youths were killed.

But will altering the city bureaucracy have a major effect on protecting young people in danger of becoming victims of violence? Will the change alter the behavior of those young people who have or will become part of the problem?

For answers, the city clearly is looking to the model created when the D.C. Council established the Department of Mental Health in 2001. That change came 27 years after advocates filed a class-action lawsuit maintaining that the city had failed to meet the needs of its mental health clients.

Attorney Peter J. Nickles, one of the lawyers who represents plaintiffs in the lawsuits filed on behalf of the mental health clients and the juveniles, said a new agency can be much more than a reorganization.

The change would become a fresh start, a chance to break a calcified structure that has not produced results, Nickles said. "I'm hoping that this independent, cabinet-level agency will be able to perform," he said.

The city's juvenile justice system is still under a court order to reform its programs and services in ways that will help change the lives of youths. If the system becomes an agency, the court's threat to appoint an outside receiver if the changes are not implemented would fall squarely in the lap of a director who would report to Williams.

Nickles pointed out that the mental health department has had great success in improving services because it has independent budget authority and a director, Martha B. Knisley, who is an industry expert.

As the public face for mental health, Knisley speaks to residents at Saturday information fairs and answers questions under fire from the D.C. Council or Congress. "She's been able to be a force in the community," Nickles said.

Knisley recalled the many late nights she has spent doing everything from creating a budget to drawing up organizational tables and pondering the agency's mission. The agency served 6,000 people when she started; it now has more than 20,000 clients.

"That won't change," Knisley said of the expanded client base. "What happens next is that we have to make sure that every service we provide to those 20,000 people is of the highest quality possible."

Advocates and attorneys are hoping for the same for juveniles seeking help from a new YSA.


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