Schenectady County Family Court is launching a mentoring program to help at-risk youth.
U-CAN Family is a joint venture with the New York Mentoring Program, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Capital Region, and the state Office of Court Administration. Family Court Judge Jill Polk says it connects young people between the ages of 7 and 17 with mentors to help them navigate probation.
“The goal in Family Court is always to help families, and that means addressing some underlying and emotionally-charged issues," she explains. "What [kids have] endured is considerable trauma, and often tragedy in their young lives. They are in desperate need of guidance, and at times positive role models.”
Polk’s program is largely built on the United Against Crime-Community Action Network, or U-CAN, started by Cohoes Criminal Court Judge Andra Ackerman in 2017. After her own tumultuous childhood, Ackerman says she wanted to make probation a more transformative process wherein defendants could look to future. She says many of the defendants in her court have never even been asked what they want to be when they grow up.
“I knew to ask because no one asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up until I was 14 years old and it was my third foster home. And I knew that the young defendants before me hadn’t been asked that, many of them," Ackerman notes. "And that’s the piece that the mentor comes in to give them support on transforming their lives – raising the bar in their own life, and meeting those expectations.”
Ackerman also calls U-CAN a “tough love” program, and “those expectations” include the usual aspects of probation – attending school, observing curfew, and refraining from drug and alcohol use. John Caher, senior advisor at the New York Office of Court Administration, says the balance between structure and support is what makes U-CAN work. He says 22 people have gone through the Cohoes program so far, and all have stayed out of prison.
“These are people who are being arrested regularly. There was one young man in the program who, in the year prior to getting a mentor, had been arrested six or seven times, and his crimes were increasing in seriousness and in violence," says Caher. "Since getting a mentor he’s not been arrested once.”
Judge Polk clarifies that U-CAN Family’s mentees are “juvenile delinquents” or “persons in need of supervision” – not criminal defendants. But the program’s structure is otherwise the same – once a child accepts U-CAN as part of their probation terms, they meet with an assigned volunteer mentor for an hour each week.
Brad DiPietro, executive director of the state Mentoring Program who mentors in Cohoes, says that hour can be as simple as a cup of coffee. He says the best mentors are patient and good listeners.
“We train the mentors to make sure that it’s mentee-driven – we want the youth to drive the conversation," he explains. "Let them talk about what they want to talk about, and then throughout that hour you can find opportunities to make advice or give advice.”
DiPietro says probation usually lasts a year, but many mentorships continue far beyond that. Judge Polk says all mentors are screened and trained by the New York Mentoring Program and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Capital Region – and as a result of these partnerships, U-CAN Family operates at no cost to Schenectady County residents or the court system. She adds U-CAN may also expand to Schenectady City Criminal Court, but for now, U-CAN Family is ready to go.
“I’ve already identified, with my stakeholders, two youths. I’ve extended to their attorneys the offer of participation in the U-CAN program," Polk smiles. "So when they come back to court I’m gonna find out – fingers crossed!”