D.C. Juvenile Reform Official Quickly Shakes Up Attitudes
Monday, August 29, 2005
Vincent Schiraldi made the rounds, forgoing the handshake in favor of the chest bump, a greeting not in the standard repertoire of most city officials.
Then again, Schiraldi is not most city officials. As director of the District's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, he manages the care of about 200 detained youngsters and nearly 400 more in foster care, group homes or other living arrangements. Many of the confined youths were arrested for car theft or drug offenses, but others include runaways and rapists.
Student council members at the Oak Hill juvenile detention facility in Laurel pulled out copies of Schiraldi's plan for the department, which they had already read, to offer their reactions. With family therapy and outreach, activity and job opportunities, as well as intensive case management, he proposes to return many young people to their families or place them in supervised independent living, group homes or monitored foster care.
"You get more freedom, and you also get to make decisions on your own," said one teenager, excited by the prospect of independent living.
Right now, "if you screw up, the choice is between locking you down or nothing," said another.
Increasingly talkative, the young people asked for larger meals, less time kept in their rooms and more soap. They praised photography workshops the department organized but requested better job opportunities. "How about assistant to Schiraldi?" one joked. Schiraldi did not laugh. He nodded, then said, "That's not a bad idea."
Schiraldi later said, "It's amazing how simple their requests are. Soap. Think about what their demands were. They were asking about tutoring. It's counterintuitive."
For Schiraldi, who for years pressed for juvenile justice reform, running a system he once vocally protested is a dream come true -- but also a challenge.
Growing up in a working-class Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood, Schiraldi saw friends jailed for drug-dealing, car theft and murder. "They always came out worse, and we always looked up to them more," he recalled. During college, he worked in group homes. When he returned to Brooklyn, he was horrified to see and hear of childhood friends sleeping on benches or dying of AIDS in prison, no better off for their years in and out of youth facilities.
After getting a master's degree in social work, he spent the 1980s and '90s with criminal justice reform nonprofit groups, becoming executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. In 1996, he started the Justice Policy Institute in the District.
During that time, Oak Hill was deteriorating. Over two decades, there was a new youth services administrator almost yearly. Mismanagement, abuse, overcrowding, escapes, violence and lack of rehabilitation made it notorious. The Youth Services Administration, then part of the Department of Human Services, failed to comply with a consent decree and faced the possibility of being placed under court receivership.
One solution to the problems and "chronic lack of leadership," said Todd Cox of the Public Defender Service for the District, was to create a Cabinet-level department run by someone with a "deep commitment to and expertise in juvenile justice." Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) chose Schiraldi. He was confirmed by the D.C. Council in February.