Boys & Girls Clubs Detained Youth Mentoring Program

By Boys and Girls Club of America, National Mentoring Resource Center

When a youth enters a juvenile detention facility or another place of incarceration, everything changes. They are separated from family members, friends, and surroundings that are familiar to them. They are supervised by uniformed guards who use strict rules (no talking, walking in a straight line) and punishments (physical/chemical restraints or solitary confinement) to maintain order in the facility. For many youths, this experience not only takes away their freedom but also their humanity and hope for the future. Boys & Girls Clubs Detained Youth Mentoring Program (BGC-DYM) seeks to engage these youth to help them understand that they can change their future and that people are willing to support them if they allow them to.

The Boys & Girls Clubs Detained Youth Mentoring Program promotes positive outcomes. Through focused mentoring and case management, it reduces adverse outcomes for detained youth in short- or long-term juvenile detention centers. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has funded this program and Delinquency Prevention’s Youth Mentoring Initiative since 2019. Under the current FY 2020 grant, BGCA serves over 500 youth across ten Clubs sites in juvenile detention facilities in five states. Program implementation varies across locations depending on the type of juvenile detention facility, the kind of access that Boys & Girls Club is given, and the shared objectives of the program. However, some aspects of the program are common across all program sites.

All BGC-DYM programs are a component of collaborative efforts between the local Boys & Girls Club and the local juvenile justice system to provide positive youth development opportunities for youth in detention and effective re-entry programming as youth return to their communities. These programs require deep relationships with Juvenile Courts, Probation, law enforcement, social services, and other support agencies in the county and city. Each of the 10 juvenile detention facilities are Boys & Girls Clubs of America chartered Boys & Girls Clubs that offer a modified version of the Boys & Girls Club within the detention facility that youth are allowed to attend regularly (often as a reward for good behavior). These programs run traditional Boys & Girls Clubs programs in character, leadership, educational support, and health/life skills. However, they often also include programs to support youth preparing for re-entry into the community by obtaining a GED, learning soft skills needed for gaining employment, and identifying support people and resources they can rely on once they are released. The BGC-DYM program is an essential component of this comprehensive support, as it creates space for mentors to work individually or in small groups to focus on the specific needs of each mentee.

Due to security regulations, mentoring detained youth requires a significant amount of continuity and background screening. BGC-DYM engages Boys & Girls Clubs staff as mentors to ensure long-term consistency and reduce mentor attrition. BGC staff are trained in positive youth development, trauma-informed care, creating inclusive environments, and many other areas to ensure that they are well-suited to support youth as a mentor. Staff mentors are assigned to individual mentees or small groups of mentees and meet with them regularly outside of standard Club programming to engage in mentoring activities. Some sites base their mentoring sessions around BGCA curricula, such as the SMART Moves program, while others engage in less structured mentoring activities like journaling or helping with homework. Each site determines the frequency and length of the mentoring interaction based on the facility’s schedule and the average detention duration for youth. Some programs are only given access to the facility once per week, while others are in the facility daily and can provide more frequent mentoring sessions.

Most BGC-DYM programs are run in detention centers instead of residential facilities or prisons.1 Youth are detained in these facilities until they are sentenced and either placed in a residential youth facility, committed to an adult prison, or released to Home Supervision or probation. For many of the detention centers served by Boys & Girls Clubs, this has meant that youth typically remain at the facility for anywhere from 20 days to six months.2 As Club staff do not always know how long a youth will stay at the facility, mentoring relationships are structured on a case-by-case basis which may differ from those for non-detained youth. These programs must make the best use of the time provided by the facility and operate within the rules set by the detention center. Therefore, staff must be prepared for youth to lose their Boys & Girls Club privilege if they misbehave and are absent due to placement in solitary confinement or other punishment.

Similarly, mentors must maintain flexible schedules as youth constantly join and leave the facility as they are arrested or released, which may not align with mentoring program start and end dates. Finally, mentors must maintain a clear understanding of their role and objectives due to the nature of the youth found in detention centers. No mentor can rehabilitate a young person on their own in the short time they are detained, and it is not their job to do so. However, the mentor can be an influential member of the youth’s support system while in detention and after release, identifying and connecting them and their family members with essential resources and opportunities that may be available in their respective communities. The mentor can show the young person that they are seen and cared about, even if they feel separated from and possibly abandoned by the world outside the detention facility. This recognition of a young person’s humanity can be the thing that gives them hope that they will persevere beyond their current circumstances.

Mentoring detained youth is not easy with the many challenges often found in non-traditional mentoring, but the impact of connecting a youth who has lost all hope with someone who cares about them cannot be underestimated. While the impact of mentoring on the lives of detained youth is difficult to measure, BGC-DYM programs have seen significant improvements in the lives of youth and the daily operations of the facilities the programs serve. These changes can be seen in mentees’ behavior while in detention, their engagement in Club programs and activities once released, and their desire to have siblings and friends participate in similar programs to protect them from making bad choices. Mentees are shown that their past does not have to dictate their future and that they have a support structure ready to guide them towards a brighter future.

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