Editor’s note: Ronnetta Johnson is executive director of Community Service Programs
With so many challenges facing youth today, it’s important to take a moment to recognize the critical role that those who carry a badge play in giving youth who are struggling a safe place to recover and the public-private partnerships that make Orange County a better place to live.
When Community Service Programs (CSP) recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of our Huntington Beach Youth Shelter, we had the opportunity to share how the nonprofit organization and Huntington Beach Police Department work together to provide support services to struggling Orange County children and families at their greatest time of need. Since opening, the shelter has served as a short-term intervention and safe haven for more than 1,100 runaway, homeless and at-risk children between the ages of 11 and 17.
More than 100 community members gathered for the open house and anniversary reception, yet the message delivered is one that all Orange County families might benefit to hear. Without a doubt, it’s laudable that CSP and its supporters, such as the Huntington Beach Police Department, have protected so many struggling youth, reunited them with their families and helped them find lasting solutions to very complicated problems.
However, while we’re celebrating these achievements, we also have to look candidly at what more could be done for other struggling families, because too many in Orange County are falling through the cracks. This is without a doubt a complex issue, with many social, economic and cultural causes and factors. Yet one complication is clear: Without expanding community outreach and prevention, more families will suffer. And let’s also be clear about the consequence: Weakened family structures threaten the viability and vitality of Orange County’s future.
To understand what’s possible, as well as what’s at stake, just look at CSP’s Huntington Beach Youth Shelter.
Teens find more than a room, warm bed and hot food here. They find caring, trained people who help them cope with the issues that lead to their stay. They address heavy burdens that youth should not have to face.
Many of these kids are victims of physical, mental and emotional abuse and neglect at the hands of the very people they should be able to trust the most. In attempting to escape their situations, they’ve developed alcohol and drug addictions. Their righteous indignation has manifested as misplaced anger, derailing their opportunities for educational advancement. Their families are fractured, only contributing to their tenuous definition of safety.
To them, the CSP Huntington Beach Youth Shelter is many things. The stable home they never had. Their voice when they’re too fragile to speak. Their deterrent from the juvenile justice system. Their pathway away from gang life, alcohol abuse and drug addiction. A chance to reunify their families. CSP is their advocate, ally, voice of reason and mentor.
More than 60 percent of the youths who walk through our doors have experienced some kind of abuse, and more than half of the kids are from single-family homes. They’ve grown up without a support system or safety net that others can take for granted. For most, their story changes after their involvement with CSP Huntington Beach Youth Shelter.
At the shelter, teens from abusive families are identified through individual and family counseling, which gets to the heart of their problems. These teens and their families are often matched with a trained community volunteer who will mentor them for a minimum of one year. Parents attend shelter-based parenting classes during their child’s stay, and the entire family can attend after-care counseling for as long they need.
CSP’s goal is to break the cycle of violence, strengthen the family through counseling, guide the teen through the mentor relationship, and sustain positive reunification through follow-up counseling – and it’s working.
Huntington Beach Youth Shelter has a 90 percent success rate in reuniting youth with their families. Once they’re home, the progress continues. Ninety percent of the kids stay in school, and 85 percent never have another run-in with law enforcement.
These kinds of opportunities are possible with the types of services CSP offers, but none would be conceivable without its network of supporters. That’s why we were proud to recognize their notable involvement at the recent 10th anniversary open house and reception for the CSP Huntington Beach Youth Shelter.
Among the honorees, one stands out as an example of what’s right with law enforcement: Huntington Beach Police Department Chief Robert Handy. He earned the “Distinguished Partner Award” for the collaborative work and dedication he has shown to support the shelter and serve children and families in crisis.
Chief Handy has visited the Huntington Beach Youth Shelter to have lunch with the residents to encourage them to pursue higher education. As he connects with them and shares his background, he motivates them to make positive life choices. He also goes the extra mile to meet one-on-one with struggling youth who want to pursue careers in law enforcement. The Community Police Foundation, which was started by Chief Handy, has also supported the Shelter through our Change for Change Drive.
Chief Handy is not the only member of Orange County’s collective law enforcement agencies who stands by CSP and stands up for kids. Local Orange County law enforcement works with CSP in every component of the agency’s programs. For example, many city law enforcement agencies partner with CSP’s Juvenile Diversion Program, which provides an alternative to the juvenile justice system for children and teens up to 17 years old and their families in Orange County.
CSP has run the program since 1972, serving more than 65,000 at-risk youth and their families. The programs have diverted these young people from delinquency toward education, community service and a future outside of courtrooms and detention. Orange County youth who’ve had run-ins with the juvenile justice system – or are at risk of becoming a statistic – learn how to become contributing members of the community instead. They gain counseling, either individually or with their families, and pick up coping and decision-making skills. And they do it all in concert with law enforcement from Anaheim, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, Irvine and Laguna Beach.
Officers from participating police departments can share story after story of how they’ve seen teens turn around their lives by being involved with the program. They see these juvenile diversion programs as ways of complementing community policing.
So join me in thanking individuals like Chief Handy and all of our law enforcement partners who work to give kids access to support systems or safety nets. Each of you deserve our recognition and appreciation.