Bringing Youth Safely Home: Why It is Better to Serve Youth in Their Communities Than in Institutions

Ariana Brill, Summer Law and Policy Clerk,

This blog post is part of a series on the #SafelyHomePhilly campaign. #SafelyHomePhilly represents a commitment to providing every young person in Philadelphia the services to meet their individual needs in their community, rather than sending youth to one-size-fits-all institutions that often do more harm than good. This post focuses on the national Safely Home Campaign, created by Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP).  For more information on what’s happening in Philadelphia, check out our blog post or follow #SafelyHomePhilly on Twitter.

Anything that can be done in an institution can be done in a community, only better. – Youth Advocate Programs, Inc.

This country has a long history of removing young people involved in the justice system or child welfare system from their communities and placing them in facilities far from home. Institutional placements are increasingly recognized as costly, damaging, and inhumane, and localities have successfully implemented alternatives. Juvenile Law Center is part of an advocacy coalition working to grow the #SafelyHomePhilly campaign in Philadelphia to demand community-based alternatives instead of institutional placements far from the city. #SafelyHomePhilly takes its name and principles from Youth Advocates Program, Inc. (YAP)’s national “Safely Home” Campaign . YAP is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding community-based alternatives for youth through direct service, advocacy, and policy reform. As Shaena Fazal, YAP's National Policy Director, explained in a recent interview, YAP was founded in 1975 to release youth from a prison in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania shortly after Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JDDPA) in 1974. Forty years later, YAP launched the Safely Home Campaign to reduce out-of-home placements and keep youth with their families and communities.

Safely Home highlights 12 elements of effective community-based programs, developed through research and YAP's experience serving youth. These elements emphasize the importance of understanding a young person's individual circumstances and offering flexible services—rather than creating institutions that fail to adapt to the diverse needs of youth.

One key element is adopting “no reject” policies. Programs should not utilize restrictive eligibility criteria that turn away youth who most need support. According to Ms. Fazal, “These eligibility criteria have the effect of leaving these young people no place to go but institutions” or even sent out of state. Instead, programs should make services available to all youth, particularly if they have complex needs. Ms. Fazal acknowledges that providing individualized services is difficult—but it “is also where change happens.”

Additionally, community-based programs with individualized services have a greater capacity than institutions to advocate for youth of color and youth who identify as LGBTQ+, who are overrepresented in both the child welfare and justice systems. Ms. Fazal explained that communities have more cultural and linguistic competency and a greater capacity to address individual circumstances. For instance, YAP asks youth: "What do you need, how can we help, how can we work together, [and] how can we help you give back to your community?" This kind of engagement allows YAP to provide responsive services to youth based on their unique needs.

Successful community-based programs must go beyond serving youth—they must also engage a young person's family. Research demonstrates that "family engagement is the most important factor for youth engagement and success." Ms. Fazal elaborated on this point: "Even if we 'perfect' placements, we're not dealing with the root causes of issues kids are experiencing," like trauma. As a result, partnering with youth and their families from the beginning and drawing on their expertise can be deeply impactful—"the institution we should focus on is family."

Reducing out-of-home placements in Philadelphia is certainly possible, but real change is unlikely without redirecting funds from institutions to communities. Ms. Fazal clarified that the notion that "anything that can be done in an institution can be done in a community, only better" applies to properly resourced communities. Community-based alternatives are cost-effective, improving outcomes at a fraction of the cost of institutions, but they are not free. YAP reports a cost of $240 per day, per youth, for institutional placements versus $75 per day for community-based alternatives.

Given the success of YAP programs and community-based alternatives to institutional placements in other localities, how can we ensure these alternatives are available for youth and families in Philadelphia? Ms. Fazal believes the new task force, as well as strong leadership in City Council and the Department of Human Services, provide a powerful starting place. Another strength of the initiative is that young people are already leading the charge; movements like these can only succeed when youth and families are true partners in advocacy. Ms. Fazal suggests that people who are interested in the growing #SafelyHomePhilly movement read about alternatives to placement, volunteer to work with organizations like YAP, and talk to their city leaders and legislators. Philadelphia community members and leaders have already acknowledged the problems with institutional placements. It's time to find alternatives that are responsive to the diverse needs of youth and families.

Ariana Brill is a summer law and policy clerk at the Juvenile Law Center and a rising third-year student at Penn Law.