DC YouthLink investigation: Full story

In early 2010, the District of Columbia launched what many people called a revolutionary new program for troubled teens. It tries to reform some of the most violent and dangerous kids that live in the community. Dubbed DC YouthLink, officials consider it critical to public safety.

The program grew out of a wave in juvenile justice reform that began out west. Based solidly in research, it incarcerates youths only as a last resort – if they are deemed a threat to others or themselves. This model instead relies largely on therapies like mentoring and tutoring. For instance, just 15 percent of participants in Milwaukee reoffend.

There, some call it a miracle. Here, it has fallen victim to mismanagement and abuse.

Our investigation uncovered millions of dollars paid to providers that have delivered substandard services, or not adequately documented work. The funds were awarded through an entirely noncompetitive process, with decisions made unilaterally, without contracts.

It happened under a regulatory mishmash, where four bodies provided oversight but limited accountability. All the while, vulnerable city wards struggled without care, losing their own lives, and taking those of others.

Over eight months, we conducted dozens of interviews with service providers, government employees, parents, and youths. We obtained confidential emails, youth rosters, invoices, inspection reports, tax returns, and spending data. Together, they paint a troubling picture not just for the youths, but for public safety.

A third of the program’s participants were rearrested while still enrolled, over just half of last year. From 2010 to 2011, 15 were charged with murder and 15 more were killed.

Moreover, of the more than 750 youths served by the program since its launch in early 2010, the city can only point to 13 that have graduated from high school.

Some argue that no one could have really been expected to turn these kids around. Similar programs elsewhere though, have shown results. And in many ways, DC YouthLink has fallen short of even the most modest of expectations.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the District had extreme difficulty providing community based care.

“The whole notion was to privatize that process by selecting agencies that had a proven track record,” says Bob Brown, who helped lead the DC YouthLink design team.

The plan generated tremendous excitement. Based on research, it had broad support from both officials at the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), which DC YouthLink falls under, and key community stakeholders. Most people still consider the idea to be a good one, as it has helped reverse the city’s “overreliance on incarceration,” says Joe Tulman, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia.

Unfortunately, the city bungled its implementation, Brown says. The design team called for planning and pilot periods, but they never happened. The DYRS Director at the time, Vincent Schiraldi, was so hot on the idea that he pushed it forward without policies and procedures in place. The city jumped into the deep end, before working out the kinks. Schiraldi would not return phone calls seeking comment.

There was another problem. The city had to choose two nonprofits to run DC YouthLink. These groups would go on to control where the youths – and the money – went. It picked Progressive Life Center (PLC) for the western part of the city and East of the River Clergy-Police-Community Partnership (ERCPCP) for the eastern part.

But according to several people directly involved in the selection process, ERCPCP did not have the highest score among the applicants for that job. In fact, a panel had ranked it a distant third. Sources, who signed a confidentiality agreement and could not speak publicly, say that contract was ultimately awarded behind closed doors.

Brown says since the rushed implementation and shady selection process, he hasn’t had any involvement with DC YouthLink. Upset that the city bastardized the original plan, he only knows what he has heard from friends: “It’s a far cry from what was intended.”

Mentoring has been by far the most common offering of the program. Teens also receive tutors, job training, physical activity, and more. Every enrollee should get something. But according to an internal letter obtained by ABC 7 News, almost 30 percent of youths west of the river had no services in place whatsoever last year.

Of those who did get services, many faced shortages. Confidential records show extra supervision was requested for one young man with an extensive history of gun charges. The request was denied. Another teen had his mentor hours cut, and began getting suspended from school

All in all, dozens of participants had problems with services, according to interviews with their parents, mentors, or the youths themselves. While some blame a lack of funds, others blame bureaucracy.

Since 2010, DYRS has poured more than $14 million into DC YouthLink. Yet last year, only about $4.35 out of every $10 actually went to services while the rest went to administration, according to an analysis by ABC 7 News. According to the American Institute on Philanthropy, the best programs operate almost twice as efficiently.

Of the remaining $4.35, less than $1.10 went to providers that have not been cited for failures related to documentation or quality of services. DYRS insists that it addresses problems as soon as they arise, but parents, mentors, and youths spoke repeatedly of breakdowns that were never resolved. Furthermore, most of the issues raised below were still going on about a year into the program.

With regards to documentation, Lead the Way Foundation received $541,705 in DC YouthLink expenditures last year, but was only adequately reporting 15 percent of its work for the program, according to one sample of its files. Marvin Lee, the nonprofit’s director, would not return multiple calls to his cell phone for comment.

Another group was adequately documenting just a third of its work for the program, and received $367,218 in 2011. These organizations, and others, made additional money in 2010, but DYRS officials could not produce documentation of how much.

The quality of services also left much to be desired. Children, Children, Children got more money than any other provider last year – almost a million dollars. The for-profit company received some of the most challenging and violent teens in the program, yet a sampling of its files revealed its mentors were spending valuable time playing video games with youths and taking them to Burger King.

Its tutors were not even collecting students’ report cards or other evaluation tools, so no one could tell “if actual progress was being made or if youth were simply just ‘doing stuff,’” according to one report.

When reached by ABC 7 News on his cell phone, the company’s director, Henry Culbreth Jr., said that “as a matter of protocol, I do not speak to the media.” Children, Children, Children and several other providers were also cited for randomly pairing teens with mentors and tutors, as opposed to matching them by skills.

CHOICE, Inc. was one of DC YouthLink’s top education providers last year. However, reports reveal it didn’t even have adequate instructors with traditional qualifications. When asked how the nonprofit intended to educate some of the most difficult students in the country without adequate teachers, board president Rev. Ed Cole replied, “I haven’t gotten any complaints about that, so there’s no reason for me to make a comment.”

CHOICE received $331,732 in 2011, but wasn’t adequately documenting 31 percent of its work for DC YouthLink, according to one sample of its files. The organization also fired a high level staffer this year after he allegedly had sex with a student.

About half of DC YouthLink’s 756 participants also received GPS monitoring in 2011. In June, more than one in three of them violated curfew. One participant, Amber Kelsey, did so repeatedly, her grandmother says, but city officials never did anything about it. Parents of other youths echoed her concerns.

In addition to programmatic problems, DC YouthLink suffered from operational issues as well. In some instances, documents show services were approved by caseworkers, but providers say the program later would not pay for them. It also compensated nonprofits months after they submitted invoices and gave providers incorrect phone numbers and addresses on the whereabouts of youths.

Beyond mismanagement, many have questioned the objectivity of the referral process. Confidential documents obtained by ABC 7 News show that caseworkers and family members repeatedly requested one particular provider, but according to interviews with that provider, the youths were not sent there.

Meanwhile, another organization, which had never gotten a city contract for mentoring before, received more referrals for it than almost any other group.

In addition to cronyism, there were allegations of fraud. Amber Kelsey had a mentor try to bribe her with a new pair of sneakers to sign the attendance sheet instead of mentoring her, according to her grandmother.

In another case, a DYRS employee directed youths to a particular nonprofit, in exchange for promised kickbacks from that provider, according to a source close to both parties. The source spoke under the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution. Records show the nonprofit in question had significant problems with documentation.

Inspections of case files also raised red flags. At least one contained a tutoring plan completed before the youth’s first day of services, creating “concern about the documents validity,” a report reads. Another provider had days of services occurring before the kids even got to the program.

Files kept by the Alliance of Concerned Men “contained repeated notes from week to week with outdated content…It was clear that these notes were simply 'cut and paste' and were not specific to the week reported.”

At one point, the nonprofit’s files also did not have any youth sign-in sheets, to show they received services. The organization’s director, Tyrone Parker, referred our questions to DYRS.

Four different bodies provide oversight of DC YouthLink: the Children’s Youth Investment Trust, DYRS, PLC, and ERCPCP.

The Trust is now known for allowing a former councilmember to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from youth programs.

DYRS recently hired a former nonprofit director, Louis Henderson, to help monitor DC YouthLink. Henderson was recently under investigation for allegedly misusing funds from an almost $300,000 city contract. He denied the charges, but due to “resource constraints,” the city auditor’s office never finished its investigation, according to a department spokesperson. A phone call to Henderson’s office was not returned.

PLC and ERCPCP also monitor and run the program, controlling where the youths and the dollars go. Rev. Donald Isaac, a well-connected former Chief Financial Officer of the D.C. Council, directs ERCPCP. Frederick Phillips founded PLC decades ago, and oversees its DC YouthLink portfolio. The Trust, PLC, and ERCPCP referred us to DYRS.

Over a series of weeks, we reached out repeatedly to the agency for an interview. DYRS would only agree to an off-the-record briefing, and would not allow our cameras inside. When asked why, spokeswoman LaShon Beamon would say no more than, “because we’re not doing it.” DYRS Director Neil Stanley agreed to attend the briefing, but then backed out at the last minute without explanation.

Claims of improvement

In previous conversations, Beamon insisted that the agency has drastically improved DC YouthLink since last year. As evidence, she claimed that so far in 2012, no youths have been killed or charged with a homicide. DYRS also says 83 percent of its enrollees were not re-convicted between April and December of last year. Additionally, they say DC YouthLink has significantly increased the quantity of services each enrollee receives.

The quality of those services, however, is another question. Moreover, re-arrests of enrollees remain about as common as ever. Compare the program’s first and latest performance reports for reference.

And of the more than 750 youths served by the program, only 12 went on to higher education. Just 42 have held on to unsubsidized employment.

DYRS Chief of Staff Chris Shorter also claimed that while DC YouthLink has grown, it always has held service providers accountable. He says no money has been paid out without proper documentation. This appears to be false. Despite the very limited access that the agency afforded us, ABC 7 News found evidence of tens of thousands of dollars paid without adequate documentation.

Confidential letters clearly indicate an attempt to recoup some of that money.

Ultimately, sources close to DC YouthLink gave mixed reviews as to how it has progressed. Some said it had made significant strides, others did not. Regardless, even those who noted change said that by far the biggest actions came after ABC 7 News started posing questions eight months ago.

According to its website, DC YouthLink is currently in the process of assembling an entirely new pool of service providers. For the first time, a panel of private citizens and government officials will select the groups based on their proposals (though ERCPCP and PLC will continue to administer the program). The process should wrap up by the end of this month.

In January, DYRS hired an additional staff member for oversight of DC YouthLink. This summer, the agency launched an Office of Parent and Family affairs, complete with a liaison to field complaints. However, according to one government source, those who work there feel marginalized with little influence.

The changes were due in part to the pressing of D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham, who has worked with ABC 7 News throughout our investigation. He has held oversight hearings and taken serious questions to the agency’s leadership.

“We heard [DC YouthLink] described as an ATM machine for service providers,” he wrote in an email. “There was very little rehabilitation happening, and a lot of money being spent.”

DYRS statement

Throughout our investigation, DYRS has operated with limited transparency. An attorney for ABC 7 News had to file a threatening legal letter to get the agency to release public records. To date, it has not provided us with documents from our request. PLC and ERCPCP have also refused to release any of their reports. DYRS did, however, provide ABC 7 News with a statement:

We are very proud of the great progress being made by community, nonprofit and government partners that assist in providing services to youth through the DC YouthLink initiative. No other similar jurisdiction has achieved so much in so little time.

We acknowledge that none of the agency’s programs and services is a finished product and that there is always room for improvement. However, we have established and will continue to build strong reporting systems and tools to increase our level of accountability, transparency and effectiveness.

Ideally no youth in the District would come into contact with the delinquency system, but if a youth does need services through a juvenile justice system partner, we believe the portfolio of services being offered to court-involved youth in the District of Columbia has vastly improved over the past several years. We are providing youth with opportunities and experiences that they would not otherwise have and we believe the District of Columbia’s system is quickly becoming one of the best systems to support positive life outcomes for court-involved youth in the country.

DYRS’ growth and continued reform is evidenced by the positive outcomes of the youth and families we serve. They are earning trade certificates, finishing high school, entering college and getting jobs. They are also positively engaged with other caring adults in their communities.
Our most recent publications speak to these and other strides.

This calendar year, we have not lost a DYRS youth to a homicide and have not had a DYRS youth charged with homicide, however dozens have gone on to college, earn GEDs, high school diplomas and vocational certifications. These benchmarks are not the only way in which we gauge our progress but they absolutely speak to the positive work being done by community organizations and other DC YouthLink partners.

On a recent summer afternoon, the sun beat the hard pavement outside a small, white, wood-frame home in Northeast. Overgrown weeds smothered a dirt driveway out back. A new ramp stuck out from the door, awkwardly distinct from the old structure it led to.

Inside, Maurice Hall’s wheelchair hauntingly occupied a dark corner. His 40-year-old mother, Latonia, sat at her dining room table in a red polka-dot shirt, with matching lipstick. She had just cleaned the entire ground floor to prepare for a television interview.

She took a deep breath and looked down with an exasperated gaze. For her and dozens of others, whatever changes the city has made did not come soon enough.

Maurice was shot and permanently paralyzed while riding in the back of a stolen car. He had been stealing cars constantly, she says, and DC YouthLink didn’t stop him.

She says the program never provided promised services, so she could only beg the city to lock him up. But that didn’t happen either. Today, Maurice is in an Upper Marlboro jail, arrested on an old charge.

“It just feels like you’re alone,” Hall said. “You’re trying to get your child help but they just wouldn’t listen.”

“I often say, ‘Could I have done more? What could I have done differently?’” Bob Brown, the aforementioned DC YouthLink visionary laments. “Maybe I should be doing more writing, more speaking, more yelling.”

Brown says now the city must hold those in charge of DC YouthLink accountable. Even if things have improved, they should not get a free pass for what happened in 2010 and 2011. The mayor should also seriously question whether the nonprofits at the helm ought to remain in power, and launch a concerted effort to recoup the public’s money.

Ultimately though, he says the root of the problem goes well beyond this program.

“I hold us all accountable for this. I don’t think anyone is really blameless," Brown said. "Not the young people, not me, not you – we all share in the blame of what’s going on. And I think we all have a responsibility and an obligation to come together and really see how the situation can be fixed."