The state of Illinois is counting on a Cook County pilot program to fix its broken juvenile parole system. The pilot is called Aftercare, and it’s being rolled out statewide this year. You heard the debate over whether the pilot works. Illinois Public Radio’s Patrick Smith now takes us back out to the West Side of Chicago to see what the people trying to make it work are up against.
You may remember Day from our story about the state’s plan to expand a pilot program for kids getting out of youth prison. Under that pilot, kids get what’s called an aftercare specialist who’s supposed to be part social worker, part parole officer.
Day helps the Aftercare specialists keep track of kids on parole, and he helps those kids with all sorts of things like getting to school and finding a job. He says one time he drove food over to a kid. Another time he bought a school uniform.
"They’re more comfortable with me because they understand I’m not a police officer, I’m not a parole officer because technically the aftercare specialist represents the police to them," says Day.
Most of the kids on Aftercare don’t get this extra help. Day’s nonprofit has a special grant to work with just a sliver of kids on the West Side. When Aftercare is fully expanded, almost all of the 14 hundred-or-so kids in Illinois will only get an aftercare specialist.
I wanted to go out with those frontline state workers, who have caseloads almost two-times bigger than they’re supposed to, so I could see the pilot at work. But the Department of Juvenile Justice wouldn’t let me. So I went to Edwin Day, who let me ride along while checked in on some of his charges.
Day: "You recording now?"
Patrick Smith: "Yeah."
Day: "All right. Umm, well today we just had a staffing..."
It’s important to remember that this afternoon I’m spending with him, every frustrating, difficult minute of it, is Aftercare at its best. That gives you a good idea of just how difficult these kids are to reach.
Day’s first visit of the afternoon is a kid who just got done with his second stint in youth prison.
"He got sent all the way back to St. Charles because that was the day he was supposed to be taking his GED test. And one of his buddies ended up having a gun and he ended up being charged with the gun," says Day.
Day says the youth is doing well so far, but he’s not at the house like he’s supposed to be.
Patrick Smith: "So, you’re not trying to get them in trouble, or would you report if the guy wasn’t where he’s supposed to be?"
Day: "It depends. You know I’m not gonna just be like OK he’s not doing what he’s supposed to do...lock him up because if that was the case, all of them would be locked up."
A 17-year-old we’re calling John is next on the list. He isn’t where he’s supposed to be either. Then we see the very kid he’s looking for.
Day: "What you doing?"
John: "What’s up?"
Day: "You ready to go to school?"
John: "How am I supposed to go like this?"
Day: "You gonna go put your uniform on?"
When I met up with Day, he had just left a meeting with John and John’s mom where the aftercare specialist said if he didn’t stop smoking weed and starting going to school he’d be sent back to prison.
Patrick Smith: "And now he’s not in school?"
Day: "Now he’s not doing what he’s supposed to do. So, you’re getting a first hand look at it. This is it man…"
Day: "But, for the young people that I work with, they’re not bad …"
John: "My shirt ain’t clean though!"
Day: "We’re gonna get one there. … That right there, that’s normal teenage behavior and they’re just exhibiting normal teenage behavior but they just so happen to be involved in the criminal justice system."
After about 10 minutes, Day calls the house.
Day: "Hey come on."
John protests that if he goes to school with Day, he won’t have a way to get back home.
Day: "I’m gonna pick you up. I’m feeling to walk you through this, I’m gonna be right here with you though."
Finally, he comes out.
Day: "Throw the book bag on the other side."
John: "It’s one o’clock already."
Day: "Yeah I know, just jump in."
And we head south to the Ike, then about 3 miles east to John's school.
John: "Ain’t no use to going now."
Day: "You left in time enough to be there. You had no intention."
John goes to Ombudsman, an alternative school at Western and the highway. Day says a lot of the Aftercare kids he works with go there.
John: "I feel like it’s too late though. In school I’m in a third grade reading level I feel like it’s too late."
Day: "It’s never too late. It’s never too late."
John: "It’s gonna be a lot of work for me to do man."
When we get to Ombudsman, Day goes inside to make sure some of his other parolees are where they’re supposed to be. But John won’t get out. Day isn’t concerned. Getting him to go to school today was never really the point.
When we were waiting outside of John’s mom’s house, Day knew there was a good chance he wouldn’t go to school.
Day: "Even if he don’t get it today he’ll feel like in his mind, he’ll think man Mr. Day is really trying to work with me at least let me try. Because I try to leave the impression on the kids that I care about them and I want them to succeed. And the time that we’re spending trying to get him there, it blocks him from being somewhere else where he could be involved in a crime or something happening to him."
John: "I’m about to get right though, I’m about to go back."
Day: "You keep saying that. I’m just waiting on you and I believe it. And while you’re saying that I’m gonna be right here helping you and being your number one cheerleader egging you on to do the right thing."
John stays with us as we head back west to check on a 16-year-old we’re calling Adam. When I interviewed him in March he had been out for about two months and doing well. Going to school and passing his drug tests.
But now Day says he’s stopped going to school or his treatment. He’s back to smoking weed and he stopped checking in with his aftercare specialist.
"As of right now he actually has a warrant for his arrest," says Day.
Adam’s not at home either and his mom says she thinks he’s back to selling drugs. Before we leave, Day tries Adam’s cell.
Patrick Smith: "He hung up?"
Day: "Yeah. He ain’t gonna answer."
Day is mostly just relieved that Adam is still out of jail. He takes the long view: as long as Adam isn’t locked up, he still has time to get through to him.
After we drop John off at his sister’s house, Day drives me past the house he grew up in in Austin. On the way, we pass a bare lot with a handful of young men standing around … like they’re waiting for something.