Westchester Children’s Association Report Pushes for Key Policy Changes

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Westchester Children's Association Executive Director Cora Greenberg, left, and Deputy Director Allison Lake.
Westchester Children’s Association Executive Director Cora Greenberg, left, and Deputy Director Allison Lake.

Sometimes the difference between a youth making it through their teen years and transitioning successfully to adulthood is the support system surrounding them while they’re growing up.

Earlier this year, the Westchester Children’s Association, a nearly 100-year-old nonprofit organization that advocates for children, published a 63-page report, “Dreams Deferred…Reconnecting Youth to School, Work and Community.” It examines the factors that contribute to the proliferation of disconnected youth and the short- and long-term solutions to help.

Whether it be the absence of a strong home life and mentors, poverty, mental illness or those who lack the necessary skills to gain meaningful employment, an estimated 15,000 teenagers and young adults between 16 and 24 years old in Westchester are in jeopardy of becoming disconnected and placing a greater burden on society.

“Without these supports, these are the kids who then wind up homeless, couch surfing, getting into trouble legally,” said WCA Executive Director Cora Greenberg. “There’s no difference in the kids, there’s differences in the circumstances because, as we always say, you wouldn’t want to be defined by the stupidest thing you did when you were 15 or 16 years old.

“But unless you have a chance to do it over–you have the opportunity to have a chance at education, or at work or whatever–you’re not going to make it.”

WCA Deputy Director Allison Lake said a key focus of the report is to propose solutions through a variety of public policy initiatives to give many teenagers that second chance. The report cites another recent study that estimates the additional tax burden placed on the public is about $13,900 for each disconnected youth between 16 and 24 years old and a more than $250,000 lifetime burden.

Lake said among the achievable short-term goals is to raise the age of criminal responsibility in the state to 18 years old (New York is one of only two states where it is 16); replicate the Yonkers truancy and absenteeism policy in districts throughout the county, which is less eager to suspend students for some relatively minor offenses; and doing a better job of engaging young people in the planning and decision-making process.

The plan is for the White Plains-based Westchester Children’s Association and other advocacy groups to convince elected officials, school districts and various organizations to look at how these proposals would not only help the teenager and young adult but the public as well.

“So if the person has done something wrong it’s not to excuse the behavior but you deal with it as a community,” Lake said. “You’re still part of our school community, you did something wrong, there has been a victim involved, you need to atone for that, to make it right, but we’re not throwing you out of the school building. That’s not what you really need to move forward.”

Other short-term goals are to enhance county, state and federal jobs programs and to expand Medicaid coverage up to 26 years old for those aging out of foster care and for serious mental illness.

Lake said raising the age of criminal responsibility may appear to be counterintuitive but the investment is worthwhile.

“There are upfront costs but the long-term benefits are saving money by not incarcerating 16- and 17-year-old,” she said.

Long-term goals include improving transitional services for those leaving foster care, the juvenile justice system and special education programs, increasing minimum wage and supporting the Dream Act.

Greenberg said the report has become an effective tool to keep these issues in the forefront at the county, state and federal levels.

Still, the most effective solution is for an adult to give their time.

“The most important thing to do to keep someone from becoming disconnected is to have a meaningful and positive relationship with a caring adult,” she said. “There are many ways to do that. It’s doesn’t have to be (through) a formal mentoring program.”

To read the Dreams Deferred report in its entirety and learn more about the Westchester Children’s Association, visit www.wca4kids.org.






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