New city dept. to focus on youth

New Haven’s newly created Department of Youth will combat rising incidents of violence among youth and give them an unprecedented level of access to community resources, city officials said.

The Department of Youth — which was approved last week by the Board of Aldermen finance committee — will consolidate oversight of the city’s many community- and government-based efforts to reach out to New Haven youth for the first time in decades. City officials said they hope the efforts of this department will address issues of rising incidents of youth violence and of a lack of out-of-school opportunities and community support.

New Haven Community Services administrator Kica Matos said the reshuffling will benefit both the small percentage of youth involved in criminal activity and also their peers, who may simply lack access to mentors, comprehensive health care coverage, health education and after-school activities.

“We are dealing with two separate populations,” Matos said. “We have to look at the two separately and address specific concerns.”

Ward 7 Alderman Frances “Bitsie” Clark, chair of the Aldermanic Youth Services Committee, said while there was a department for youth services several decades ago, the job has since been distributed among several departments. Programs are currently administered by a variety of departments, offices and community-led groups. The new department will incorporate initiatives such as the Street Outreach Workers Program, Youth at Work and Open Schools, as well as programs addressing substance abuse, teen pregnancy and the uninsured youth, Matos said.

The decentralized organization of youth services came into question in 2005 as a result of an increase of youth gun-related violence and homicide that year, Clark said.

Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield said the youth crime rates — which have continued to increase since 2005, according to city crime statistics — called for the institution of more productive activities for youth.

“We’ve had this problem with crime,” Goldfield said. “A lot of the crime comes from kids with no constructive outlets — they come from homes that don’t exist. We’ve made a commitment to pay attention.”

Clark said there is already an abundance of youth-oriented groups throughout the city. The problem, she said, is there is currently little coordination between the organizations. The centralized department will help by functioning as a resource and coordinator of the city’s many grass-roots groups.

“There are many, many groups in New Haven for youth development,” she said. “Now they have a specific place to go for grants and support from the city. Groups can be coordinated and brought together … Having a single place in the city that elevates the concerns about youth will make it easier for grass-roots groups to develop and find support.”

She also said that more traditional organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Club, could benefit from contacting grass-roots groups and brainstorming creative approaches and solutions.

Che Dawson, head of the new department, said he also plans to get youth directly involved with the department. One way the new department hopes to do this is by forming a youth council with representatives from every school to meet twice a month with city officials, he said.

Clark said the city has been contemplating ways to consolidate youth services since the 2004 mayoral election. In his inauguration speech following his reelection that year, Clark said, Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., announced his new youth initiative to reach out to the city’s young people and start to consolidate youth-related services.

City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said the mayor has made efforts to address the concerns of New Haven’s young people.

“The mayor is very committed to making opportunities and opening doors for youth and giving them safe places outside of school where they can go.” Mayorga said.

The Board of Aldermen’s Youth Services Committee was created soon after that election, Clark said.

“The [newly created] Youth Services Committee held a town meeting for the youth and asked them to start talking about what they wanted,” Clark said. “It was frustrating because, with no specific department devoted to youth, things were harder to implement.”

In the past year, the committee has focused several of its meetings on bringing youth program leaders together to network and discuss opportunities for collaboration, in light of an increase in youth involvement in shootings in 2006. Last fall, the Board of Aldermen also considered a proposal for a citywide youth curfew, which was ultimately defeated after the city held a number of forums with youth on the matter.

Mayorga said the department is expected to gain final approval when it goes before the full Board of Aldermen on Nov. 19.

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