City plans to run VRI social services programs

City plans to run VRI social services programs

June 3rd, 2018 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

hattanooga City Council holds a voting session on Aug. 22, 2017.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

After six months without a social services contract for its anti-gang efforts, the city of Chattanooga is thinking about doing the work itself.

In his 2019 budget, Mayor Andy Berke is proposing to hire three "re-entry navigators" who would work with adults and children to get out or stay out of gangs.

How we got here

Berke’s focused deterrence program, the Violence Reduction Initiative, had decidedly mixed results after launching in 2014. The premise was to offer gang members a choice: Give up guns and violence and get education, job training and referrals and other aid, or stay in the life and become the focus of police attention.

The rate of gang shootings and violence finally started to fall in December, and police point to a number of factors affecting the city’s violent crime rate.

Sgt. Josh May, head of the police department’s new gun unit, said in May the reduction is the hard-won result of a full-court press on multiple fronts. That includes the March indictment of 54 Athens Park Bloods gang members, the first prosecution of a Chattanooga street gang under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act.

Meanwhile, the “carrot” of the carrot-and-stick approach fell into disarray early this year when the city council refused to vote on a $600,000, two-year contract with Father to the Fatherless [F2F].

The Berke administration said it wanted to add a focus on youth, and F2F already had a strong mentoring program in five schools where children are at risk.

But the council balked, upset over what members said was inadequate information about the contract and the providers. The city has been without a social services contract since then, although F2F has said it continues its programs on a volunteer basis.

The three hires would work in the Department of Youth and Family Development, reflecting the Berke administration's desire to add prevention to its gang strategy, and they would partner with the police department and public safety office.

"Not only will re-entry navigators provide legitimacy to [the] focused deterrence message, they will also decrease violence by helping individuals involved in gang violence to become productive community members, ending a cycle of incarceration, crime and harm to the community," the budget request states.

Chattanooga City Council members heard a bit about the proposal last week and asked for more information before they vote on the budget later this month.

"I want a picture painted of what this program is going to look like, so we understand exactly what we're going to do for these kids and for the adults," Councilman Chip Henderson told Youth and Family Development Administrator Lurone "Coach" Jennings.

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The initial plan for in-house services came from the Chattanooga Police Department, which sought $250,000 for three navigators to assist gang members referred by police or other law enforcement.

The navigators will perform intake and assessment, help the clients set goals and a plan, and work to connect them with services such as mental health, substance abuse treatment, education and training or other support. Confidential case management will be done through the city's secure system and the city's public safety coordinator will report regularly on the number of gang members referred for services, number and type of services provided and number of members who successfully complete a plan.

In the current budget, the plan has been placed in Youth and Family Development and its budget trimmed to $172,444 for fiscal 2019.

That will pay for two navigators who will work with adults and one for children.

"Is that going to be sufficient, or are we still going to be asked for money to contract with?" Councilwoman Carol Berz asked at last week's budget briefing.

City Chief Operating Officer Maura Sullivan said she thinks so, but the city will be watching how the program goes.

"We felt like, having those folks housed in the Office of Empowerment [an after-school program for the most troubled teens] and having those wraparound services already existing [in that office], we believe that this will position us for success," Sullivan said.

Henderson pressed for an exact definition of the navigators' roles.

"We can call them whatever we want to, I just want to know what they're doing," he said. "They are case managers for gang-involved individuals."

Neither Sullivan nor Public Safety Coordinator Troy Rogers were available to provide more information Friday.

Jennings said the youth navigators will roam the city but focus on Opportunity Zone schools, where most of the children live in poverty.

"That's the greatest need, in those schools," Jennings said. The department has its own education and literacy programs going in the Youth and Family Development centers, he said, and also partners with community organizations such as youth recreation to reach out to youngsters who need guidance and mentoring.

He also believes more case management will be available through a variety of service and mental health agencies who will treat youths referred by the program. Most of those children will be insured under the state's TennCare program, Jennings said.

Sullivan promised to pull together more information on the proposal and Berz set up a further briefing for Tuesday at 2 p.m. during the council's budget education session.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.


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