SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - Between 2014 through 2017, Chatham County detained 1,881 youth. That's when Chatham County incarcerated the second-highest number of youth in the entire state, second only to Fulton County, which has four times the population.
Since 2018, however, the number of incarcerated youth has dropped 31% due to a concerted effort to identify youth and families at risk of becoming court-involved and wrapping them in community resources.
At the center of this effort is The Front Porch, which celebrated its third anniversary in October.
The Front Porch, according to Director Anne Robinson, is one of "80 assessment centers nationwide providing struggling youth and families with service linkages they need to thrive."
At the Oct. 29 celebration, Mayor Van Johnson spoke. "Today, we celebrate the Front Porch, but what we're really celebrating is our greater community and that all things are possible when we work together."
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
Chatham County spends $90,000 to $115,000 per incarcerated minor per year, said Robinson, a stark contrast to the $250,000 it takes to run the entire Front Porch organization per year. Over the past three years, Front Porch has served 700 families.
This quarter, Front Porch has seen a 33% increase in the total amount of families they have assisted, said Robinson, and in September, it completed its highest number of assessments in any given month.
That doesn't mean more kids in Chatham County are going down the wrong path, Robinson affirmed. It simply means more kids are being directed to the Front Porch rather than the juvenile court system.
"And the good news is we're just getting started, right?" said Robinson.
But that statistic is, in many ways, a double-edged sword: the demand could outweigh the supply. The more referrals coming The Front Porch's way, the more likely Front Porch won't have the bandwidth to match those referrals.
Because elementary, middle and high school has started in 2021, referrals have risen to 20 per week, in contrast with the 12 per week they received during the summer months. What stokes anxiety in Robinson is that, one day, the numbers will reach a point in which the referrals are so high that the Front Porch won't be able to help.
"You want to make sure that none of these children are falling through the cracks," said Robinson.
To fill the cracks, Front Porch needs more in-house partners. And hiring more in-house partners requires more state funding. "I don't want it to be interpreted that I'm saying that we are destitute or anything like that, but certainly, if (referrals) continue to rise in the way that they are, we're also going to need the number of (in-house partners) to increase."
When the Front Porch receives a referral for a child from either the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System or a local law enforcement agency, the first thing staff does is perform an assessment to determine the child's - and families - most pressing needs and challenges, from substance abuse and mental health counseling to educational support and pro-social activities. Based on the assessment, staff connect the child to an in-house agency that wraps that family in services. The Front Porch staff checks in with the family every 90 days.
Juvenile Court Judge Tom Cole said he is seeing fewer and fewer children walk into his courtroom each year largely because The Front Porch is catching them beforehand.
Two-thirds of children who come to Chatham County Juvenile Court have a mental health diagnosis, 70% of which are not being treated, said Cole. "It's just overwhelming, and (The Front Porch) is a place that resolves that kind of issue."
As a judge, Cole considers The Front Porch as both a tool in juvenile crime prevention and an opportunity to change the trajectory of lives. "To help people address the issues before they rise to the level that we see in our court is an amazing thing. That's what should happen with every family. And unfortunately, there's many in our community for whom it doesn't."