Tamara*, a high school senior, was just months away from graduation and her 18th birthday when her family, led by a single mom, was evicted from their apartment. With no means of financial support and her mother soon having left the picture, Tamara was facing homelessness, alone.
On probation and an active participant in a program for girls called VOICES, run by Houston-based Civic Heart, Tamara had already been assigned a trained staff member who specialized in wraparound case management, an approach that focuses on meeting the needs of justice-involved youth through individualized support offered along a continuum of services. The strategy enlists a wide range of trusted community resources working together to ensure continuity of care designed to ensure safety, well-being and success.
The case manager, along with school personnel and partnering agencies, made short-term living arrangements for Tamara, matched her with a mentor and continues to advocate for her needs, including finding stable housing. Civic Heart’s VOICES team and Tamara’s mentor celebrated with her last spring as she attended prom with her friends and walked the stage as a proud high school graduate.
Tamara is one of more than 175 young women who have been reached through VOICES, an initiative funded by OJP’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention that provides a range of services—from individual support to group engagement—designed to reduce the risk of future justice system involvement.
VOICES is tailored to the unique needs of girls, who enter the system with higher rates of substance use and mental health challenges than their male counterparts. Many have suffered sexual abuse, and some have been exploited by human traffickers. Ninety percent of young women in the program are Black and brown.
Dr. Sujeeta Menon, Program Director for Civic Heart, said that, despite the extensive challenges, her organization’s goal is to set their clients up for success, to help them not just survive but thrive.
“We see ourselves as change agents,” said Menon. “Our goal is to put these young women on a trajectory to lead empowered lives.”
VOICES is one of two OJJDP-funded programs led by Civic Heart. The other, Youth C.A.N. (Create A New Beginning), is supported by a grant awarded through OJJDP’s Second Chance Act program, which helps young people who come into contact with the juvenile justice system transition back into their communities. Youth C.A.N. serves youth in Harris County as they re-enter their communities, linking participants transitioning from residential facilities to educational and vocational training, mentoring and other trauma-informed and culturally relevant services.
Integral to the Youth C.A.N. approach is its focus on restoring stability within families. Vanecia Weathersby Gray, the Mentoring and Juvenile Justice Program Coordinator for Civic Heart, points out that the adverse experiences that lead young people to justice involvement are usually awaiting them when they return. Addressing those family dynamics is inseparable from the services that target youth directly.
“Our role is to support youth by helping to absorb these narratives,” she says. “For us, wraparound services should address every challenge in a young person’s life. It means working with the community, working with the family. What we’re trying to do is create a web of intermediaries.”
Of the more than 50 youth served through Youth C.A.N., Civic Heart reports that 84% showed improvements in social competencies and skills. Many of the young people were not expected to graduate from high school when they began the program, says Weathersby Gray, but four young men not only graduated recently, but did so in the top 15% of their class.
OJJDP recently invited Civic Heart staff to a peer-to-peer session where they shared their successes with groups from other large urban centers.
In addition to the VOICES and Youth C.A.N. programs, Civic Heart serves as the intermediary for the Youth Justice Community Reinvestment Fund, a program administered by the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department and Harris County Commissioners Court. After mapping youth offenses and identifying high-need zip codes, the Civic Heart team selected six local programs to provide a range of services in the communities where young people live.
The Reinvestment Fund relies on grassroots organizations to build a continuum of care and enlists credible messengers who mentor and support youth. During a recent visit to Houston for a meeting of the federal Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan said the program exemplifies “how young people and communities benefit when agencies come together and focus on community-based services.”
Says Civic Heart’s Menon and Weathersby Gray, “Our goal is to eliminate barriers to opportunity and success—to be interrupters of those barriers. We hope our work elevates the worth and dignity of all the young people we serve.”
As part of more than $4.4 billion in grant funding made available by OJP in fiscal year 2023, OJJDP recently awarded more than $192 million to fund organizations like Civic Heart in communities throughout America. Funding will support developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive interventions for youth, ensuring that young people are served at home in their communities whenever possible, are equipped to transition to a healthy adulthood free of crime and are protected from violence and abuse.
*Name changed to protect the individual’s identity.