At Risk Youth, Did You Know?

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Did you know your N.C. Cooperative Extension of Yancey County runs many programs for the “At-Risk Youth” of our community? These are the kids that fall behind in school or drop out, actively use drugs and alcohol, have neglect and abuse as the norm in their family, and often become part of the court or DSS system. Many times, poverty and access to services plays a role and often the problems are a generational cycle.

Consider for a moment that two-thirds of juvenile offenders are in the child welfare system (DSS), and over eighty percent of adult inmates are high school dropouts. When it comes to drugs and alcohol, the statistics are equally troubling. Four out of five inmates are incarcerated where drug or alcohol abuse was a contributing factor. Over sixty-five percent enter the prison system with active substance use disorders (addictions) and forty percent were under the influence of drugs or alcohol during their offense. Nine out of ten addictions start in the teenage years and this sets the course for a lifetime of problems. Besides the enormous social cost, the financial cost per year to incarcerate one adult offender in North Carolina is almost $38,000 and approaches $150,000 for a juvenile. Most criminal behavior starts in the teen years and 80% of juveniles reoffend within the first five years of their first offense.

So, what’s the answer to such a daunting problem? Evidence-based programs work in reducing recidivism and preventing first-time offenses. Programs should support the efforts of the courts, DSS, and the schools in reshaping the lives and changing the trajectory of “Youth At Risk.” What we know doesn’t work is incarcerating youth in their teenage years. States that have raised the juvenile age to 18, and in its place provided evidence-based programs have seen a significant drop in juvenile crime. North Carolina is one of the newest states in the “Raise the Age” movement, and already is a leader in providing funds for juvenile programming through local JCPC chapters. N.C. Cooperative Extension in Yancey County uses these dollars and matching funds from Yancey County Government to provide these kinds of programs for kids in need.

What are these programs? First, they are all evidence-based and they vary based on the needs of the risk groups being served and the agency making the referral. Second, they come with an individualized plan of service for each participant. Third, they consider the four most significant qualifiers for youth “risk” factors which are: substance use disorders, generational poverty and lack of access to services, academic outlook, and family dysfunction or viability.

Court referred youth have two program options. First-time offenders are commonly enrolled in Life Skills classes using the award-winning ARISE Institute curriculum. Kids learn a variety of skills to cope with everyday life and create successful outcomes by adopting prosocial norms. Repeat offenders are offered Moral Reconation Therapy or MRT. MRT is a 12-step group program devised to create cognitive-behavioral change in the offender. The program uses best practices when considering adverse childhood trauma and trauma-informed care. MRT is particularly successful in cases involving substance misuse. This program started nationally in the adult prison system as a leader in the fight against recidivism, and has had equal success among juvenile populations in and out of incarceration. Kids referred from DSS or school guidance counselors can take advantage of Summer Challenge, a challenge-based summer camp modeled after Project Adventure curriculum for “At-Risk” youth. Project Challenge is the oldest provider of education for challenge-based programming (outward bound is a challenge program). Summer Challenge has high rates for building success stories and creating protective factors in vulnerable youth. Summer Challenge kids also learn the value of community and what they have to give back, by volunteering every week with area nonprofits, and from interacting with community leaders who offer their time to the program. The third leg of this camp is a heavy dose of experiential learning based in the great outdoors of Western NC. This includes Forestry and Ecology, horses, photography, water quality, and much more. These activities are utilized as hands-on learning. Doing is our motto. An additional program that is available by referral from DSS or school guidance counselors is a year-round 4-H club centered around outdoor WNC, horses, cooking, and volunteering. In the high school, program assistance is offered to the freshman SOAR class which is made up of kids identified by their middle school guidance counselors as being “At Risk” of poor high school performance. Two days a week, our facilitator teaches about healthy relationships as the foundation to success in life, and on the value of being active in your community.

For parents referred by DSS or the court system, parenting classes are offered. One parenting program which doesn’t need a referral is the Empowering Youth and Families Program (EYFP). EYFP is offered by NC State University through local Cooperative Extension Centers, including the Yancey Center. EYFP accepts families with children in the 9-14 age range and addresses the needs of the whole family dynamic (parents and youth). This program is designed for families to create protective factors in their kids that help them avoid “Risk” behaviors, especially substance misuse.

All programs are free. Transportation is provided when needed and child care is available for parenting or family classes. A member of the staff sits on the Executive Committee of the Mitchell Yancey Substance Abuse Task Force as the youth zone leader. A staff member also serves on the Board of the Reconciliation House (leading nonprofit addressing the needs of vulnerable families), participates in regular Community Child Protection Meetings at DSS, attends local JCPC meetings and training for Juvenile Crime Prevention. They are also trained and certified to facilitate the programs we offer. Youth truly are our future. Communities need to take an active role in developing positive outcomes for all our youth. Your local Cooperative Extension is committed to this goal.