A program that provides intensive probationary services to more than 1,000 at-risk Mississippi youth every year is closing. MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports.
Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso says the Adolescent Opportunity Program provides an array of critical services to at-risk youth, including counseling, tutoring and substance abuse treatment.
"Most importantly, the program provides transportation," she says. "So many of our children are disadvantaged because they do not have the means of transportation to get to the services in the community. AOP was absolutely the only program I had for children that provided transportation."
The state Department of Human Services notified Alfonso earlier this month the program would end because the federal funding that paid for it can no longer be used for juvenile services ordered by a court.
"This is devastating for our juveniles who are charged with delinquent acts," she says. "It is a proven effective program offering free counseling, tutoring, case management, substance abuse. It's been in existence for over 20 years."
Loretta Palmer has been coordinator of the program in Coahoma County since 2007. She says they initially had a 99% success rate. More recently, that has fallen to 85%, due, she says, to increased gang activity. But while they haven't been able to help every participant stay out of the criminal justice system, Palmer says the vast majority have found the motivation within themselves to succeed.
"They have dug deep down and found the part of them that has the efficacy that makes them want to do something better," she says. "And this is what we strive for.
She adds: "Even though our program is closing, we are still available to our families and our youth. We are not going to give up on them. We will be the volunteers and the mentors in our community."
Judge Alfonso says she plans to send a letter to the governor requesting that he consider putting funding for the adolescent program on the agenda of any special session, if he calls one this year.
DHS said in its 2015 annual report that nearly 1,200 youth statewide were served by the program that year.