The fight that sent Isabella to juvenile hall at age 11 was neither her first nor her last.
She spent six weeks locked up, but the shadow of the experience stretched for years. Middle and high school were marked by a series of school suspensions and transfers, fighting with schoolmates, and conflicts with her parents, says Isabella, who asked that her last name not be used. She also remained on probation for more than four years.
Then in November, Isabella met Yessenia Ruiz, a mentor coordinator with the Youth Justice Mentoring Program at the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which supports youth who’ve had contact with the justice system. In the months that followed, Ms. Ruiz became Isabella’s go-to person for everything, from help with homework to grabbing burgers after school to relationship advice.
Her presence, Isabella says, was transformative.
“I think I've changed because I've got someone to talk to, someone that’s on my side and that would understand me,” says Isabella. Now 17, she plans to receive her high school diploma on stage next spring.
“I tell [Yessenia] stuff that’s been going on, and she's like, ‘You’ve got me. Don’t worry,’ ” she adds. “And I’ll feel much better about myself.”
On any given day, more than 50,000 minors – more than 70 percent of whom come from minority communities – are detained in residential placement facilities across the United States, according to the latest report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Many enter the system already saddled with socioeconomic and academic challenges. Once released, these young people often find themselves, like Isabella, doubly disadvantaged: They fall further behind in school and lack the skills to find jobs. What social and familial bonds they have tend to grow fallow. Too often, available resources fail to address the traumas and troubles that led them to offend in the first place.
Connecting those teens with supportive, caring adults can have a profound and lasting effect, some researchers say. But the solution is frequently left out of the nationwide discourse around juvenile justice reform, partly because most reentry programs lack the infrastructure needed to develop a successful mentoring initiative.
“Mentoring is hard to do well,” says Roger Jarjoura, a principal researcher for the American Institutes for Research (AIR) in Washington. Matching the right mentors with the right youth is often a complicated process. And effective programs require trained staff and resources for monitoring, evaluation, and support, not to mention a set time period and clear goals.
“You have to be really committed to the idea,” Professor Jarjoura says.
Complicating the issue is that there is no “average” nationwide recidivism rate for juveniles – even though recidivism is the main standard by which most reentry programs measure success, according to a 2014 brief by the nonprofit Council on State Governments Justice Center. Instead, states use different ways of defining recidivism, with some reporting around 50 percent and others as high as 80 percent for high-risk youth over a one- to three-year period.
Numbers and success rates of reentry programs, including those involving mentoring, are scarce and scattered. And there’s as yet little evidence to show what effects mentoring can have in the context of reentry for juveniles.
Still, mentoring programs can help level the playing field for underserved youth – when tailored toward specific populations and combined with other strategies, studies show.
“The odds of social success go up considerably if you have just one adult who takes an interest in you, supports you, helps [you] navigate challenges,” says Sharon Dolovich, a professor of law and faculty director of the Prison Law and Policy Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“If you’re a kid who’s just come out of the system, and you have no stable home life … nobody in the world makes you a priority,” she adds. “It’s so easy for kids like that to sink right back into unhealthy patterns.”
'You've got me'
When Ruiz first met Isabella, she saw a quiet teenager with short hair and a quick grin.
“She was smiling a lot,” Ruiz, recalls, sitting in an office at the Superior Court of California’s Juvenile Justice Center in San Francisco. “But she seemed really, really shy, not wanting to talk.”
To get Isabella to open up, Ruiz started taking her to restaurants and coffee shops, peppering her with questions about school, friends, her parents, hobbies. They bonded over their Mexican heritage, talking to each other in Spanish. Ruiz also spoke about her own life in an effort to build trust.
As the weeks passed, their relationship began to feel less like a contrived pairing and more like an organic friendship.
“It took me a while” to get through to her, Ruiz says. “But I kept asking her questions, lots of questions, just to see the type of person she was. Once you get her talking, she has a lot to say. She's a clown. She's quite funny, actually.”
But on long walks up and down San Francisco’s famous piers, Ruiz also picked up on Isabella’s problems at school, her tendency to snap when teased or confronted. She heard about girlfriends who took advantage of Isabella’s generosity.
And she learned about Isabella’s fraught relationship with her father, a man who used his fists to show his disapproval of his daughter’s sexual orientation.
“I've been liking girls since second grade,” Isabella says. “[My dad would] be like, ‘No, that's disgusting.’ And then he would try to put me in skirts and everything. And I didn't like that.”
Those conversations became the foundation for a growing intimacy between mentor and charge. Soon Isabella found herself calling Ruiz whenever she would get into fights at school – which happened regularly. Ruiz would calm Isabella down and encourage her to walk off her rage. They began meeting more than once a week, and would message each other almost daily.
Ruiz became the most consistent adult in Isabella’s life.
“The other adults I have, they leave me. And then they come back. It's kind of hard,” Isabella says. “Yessenia's always there for me. Like when I need help, when I need someone to talk to, I hit her up.”
A critical difference
Researchers and social justice advocates agree that mentoring programs are not a magic cure for youths in the justice system. The challenges are myriad, and successful reentry requires concerted efforts at all levels – from the family on up to government. More research also needs to be done to truly understand the effects that mentoring relationships in particular have on young people, especially those with mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral issues.
But as Jarjoura at AIR puts it: “If we’re going to incarcerate kids, if we think that’s important, I think it’s our responsibility to make sure that after, there’s a good program that would include reentry.
“We would never say mentors would be the whole solution,” he adds. “But we think it’s a critical difference.”
Making that difference requires time and stability, studies show. Programs that encourage mentoring pairs to work together for longer and predictable periods of time tend to have better outcomes for youth than those that focus on short-term partnerships, according to a 2010 review published through the Society for Research in Child Development.
This is especially true for kids coming out of juvenile detention, who often have no stable home or family life to return to. Isabella, for instance, bounced between different living arrangements – she stayed with her mom’s family for a while, then with her dad, and then spent some time in a group home before settling with her stepmother and younger brother in Daly City.
This is why CJCJ coordinators ask mentors to commit at least a year to their charges.
“The consistency is huge,” says Kimo Uila, the center’s director of juvenile justice services. “What [our mentors] provide is role models, which is something that these youth are not exposed to on a regular basis. It’s unfamiliar for an adult to say to them, ‘We’ll meet every Tuesday at this time, for a year.’ ”
Contact with the justice system can also lead to a slew of added challenges, such as barriers to obtaining a driver’s license or accessing certain schools and public services. A juvenile record can affect young people’s employability, mental and emotional well-being, and relationships with their families, research shows.
Having a responsible, trained adult around to help navigate the maze of social services and provide support at key moments is often crucial to a young person’s success.
When 18-year-old Bartholomew found himself struggling not to start drinking again after his probation ended, for instance, he turned to his mentor, Arthur Garcia.
“I was spiraling a little bit,” says Bartholomew, who asked that his name be changed because he is currently looking for work. “And he went, ‘Hey, you know ... Let's get you help.’ ”
Bartholomew spent four months in juvenile hall in 2015, after police found a stash of illegal drugs and other contraband in his backpack while he was cutting class. He signed onto CJCJ’s mentoring program after his release.
“And so … [Arthur] came over to the house and we went to [an Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting,” Bartholomew says. “And in complete honesty, if he didn't come over I probably wouldn't have gone. And I thank him for that.”
It wasn’t just during the tough times that Mr. Garcia, 25, showed up for Bartholomew.
“He's got my back on everything,” says Bartholomew, who is starting his freshman year at San Francisco State University.
He runs down a list: “My scholarship applications. Applying for school. Going to orientation, he went with me. Usually your parents go; Arthur went with me. Setting up my classes. Helping me get my résumé together, look for jobs. Grow as people. And you know, learning to experience and love.”
“He's been there all the way,” he adds. “He's always been there for me.”
A meeting of mentors
On a Monday afternoon in July, Chris Tasi, a coordinator with CJCJ, gathers a group of young men, most in their 20s, in a conference room at the San Francisco State campus. All seven are mentors to formerly incarcerated youths. They call them their John Doe’s.
One major issue: keeping the kids busy and out of trouble.
“He has a Camaro, and he likes to speed and use the car to full potential,” says Zynel Aziz of the 17-year-old he's mentoring. “The more busy he is, the less chance he has to do dumb stuff with his car. But when I try to bring up the fall, talk about getting a job or staying with his internship, he doesn’t want to commit.”
Another mentor, Mark Jenner, says his charge is deeply under the sway of a less-than-stellar role model of an older brother.
“My John Doe is like his mini-me. What big brother does, little brother also does. And big brother doesn’t care about school. They’ll wake up late, come in for one period, and leave before lunch,” Mr. Jenner says. “And he’s not answering any of my texts.”
The group goes through some ways Jenner and Mr. Aziz can connect with their kids. Garcia says he and Bartholomew often bond over burritos. “Bribe them with food,” he says to general laughter. Others suggest alternate methods: Talk to the parents. Show up at their house.
Mr. Tasi holds these meetings once a month to encourage mentors to talk through the challenges of the job and plan ahead. He reminds them that consistency is key – but that continued training and planning are just as crucial.
“I tell my mentors, you have to show them how to. How to what? How to apply for school. Get a job. Stay off the streets,” Tasi says. And doing that, he notes, takes dedication and preparation.
The stakes are considerable. Evidence suggests that when a mentoring relationship is cut short prematurely, or involves negative interactions, the consequences can be profoundly detrimental. Mentors in particular need to learn to be sensitive to their kids’ histories and situations, and careful not to encourage behaviors that might lead them to revert to offending.
“The ideal is for mentors to be helping these kids in creating a plan, and then identifying the resources important to making that plan happen,” says Jarjoura, who has studied the role of mentoring in restorative justice for nearly 20 years. “Mentors … can be a bridge to families, schools, treatment providers. They can work with a young person to make sure they stay on track for each of their goals.”
It’s often a tough ask, he says. But when it works, the relationship can become as transformative for the mentors as for the youths.
Garcia would agree. An aspiring elementary school teacher, he became a mentor because he wanted to “give back to the community and hopefully change someone's life for the better.”
After eight months with Bartholomew, he says, “I definitely do have a greater sense of patience as well as a willingness to be open. Technically, on paper I am the mentor and he's the mentee, but I don't look at it that way anymore. I look at it as more of a friendship than anything.”
'I felt free'
In May, Isabella went to court to find out whether she would have to stay on probation. The hearing had been postponed twice before. Now Isabella finally was getting the chance to make her case.
As attorneys for both sides presented their arguments, Isabella’s friends and family waited nervously. “We were all on the edge of our seats,” Ruiz recalls. “It was a good 45 minutes of court.”
The judge mulled over Isabella’s progress, her determination to walk away from fights, her straight A’s in school, her efforts to reconnect with family. At last, he made a decision: He would dismiss the charges against her.
For the first time in 4-1/2 years, Isabella was off probation.
“Everyone was in tears, excited,” Ruiz says.
“I felt great because I felt free,” Isabella says. “It was like a release.”
Getting off probation was one of the three main goals that Isabella and Ruiz had set when they first met. Together, they’re working on the other two: Managing Isabella’s anger and ensuring she graduates high school on stage.
Both Isabella and Ruiz are confident that the next year will see Isabella crossing those items off the list. Already they’re looking ahead to college and a career in criminal justice.
“When I grow up, I want to be a probation officer … ’cause they help kids my age and you could show them what you used to be and you can give them good advice,” Isabella says. For now, she’s holding on to the most important lesson she’s learned from Ruiz: that just because life can be hard doesn’t mean it can’t be good or meaningful.
“You don't have to be be a perfect person for you to be with someone. To have a good friendship,” Isabella says. “You just have to be yourself. And stay true to yourself.”