Few residents at St. Croix’s Youth Rehabilitation Center have their family visit, Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch said.
“Not even St. Croix families come to visit,” he said as the Human Services, Recreation and Sports Committee met Wednesday at the Earl B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas to learn more about various programs under the Human Services Department’s umbrella and the Education Department’s role in those programs.
The lack of positive family involvement is a key reason why many youths end up in the juvenile justice system in the first place. Finch said that despite various programs, 50 percent of those who were at YRC are repeat offenders.
“The only solution is to work with the entire family because that child has no place to go other than back with their family,” Finch said.
Finch said that in some cases, that family environment is dysfunctional.
“Some of those parents have substance abuse problems,” Sen. Alvin Williams, who chaired the meeting, added.
Finch indicated that the boys at YRC and in other juvenile justice programs have one common thread – they do not know their fathers.
YRC currently has 17 residents – 16 boys and one girl. In fiscal year 2010, a total of 106 from St. Croix and 39 from St. Thomas/St. John passed through the facility. However, Finch said that while YRC has fewer residents than it used to, they are harder-core criminals than in the past.
Head Start and preschool are key when it comes to keeping youths out of the juvenile justice system, several senators indicated.
Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly got a bit testy when Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry told her that the department needs to do a feasibility study on a proposal to provide prekindergarten classes.
“The feasibility study is already done. Look at the number of dropouts, the number of dead, the men incarcerated,” Rivera-O’Reilly said.
The territory offers Head Start and subsidized day care to parents who qualify, but Human Services official said they don’t begin to meet the demand.
Assistant Human Services Commissioner Michal Rhymer-Charles said there are 200 to 250 families on St. Thomas and 150 on St. Croix waiting for subsidized child care. Diane Jeffers, administrator for preschool at Head Start, put the number at 382 who are waiting for Head Start admission.
“So now we really see the need,” Williams said.
The number of children in Head Start stands at 464 on St. Croix and 430 in the St. Thomas/St. John district. A total of 466 families across the territory get help with subsidized child care. Finch said that 98 percent of those receiving child care help are children of single women.
Terry told the senators that language development is the single biggest challenge facing children entering kindergarten. Finch later added that the problem would take care of itself if parents would speak to their children in full sentences.
The senators also heard from Manuel James, who is the president of the Foster Parent and Adoptive Association of St. Thomas/St. John. He complained that some children are stuck in foster care for their entire lives because their biological parents refuse to give up their rights. He urged the senators to pass a bill giving biological parents a deadline for “getting their act together.” If they don’t the child become available for adoption.
“There have not been any children returned to their original parents in the last five years,” James said.