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Police partner with local group home providers

on October 24, 2011

Whenever a police cruiser pulls up to the curb framing Jamie Richard’s neatly manicured lawn, his heartbeat flutters.

“I immediately think, ‘Which one of my kids is in trouble?’” he says. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m conditioned.”

Richard opened North Star group home – a state-funded living facility for kids who, for a multitude of reasons, are wards of the court and in need of residential care – on Burbeck Avenue 20 years ago, and experience tells him cops only show up when something, or someone, is amiss. So, when Det. Nicole Abetkov, a member of Richmond’s Youth Crimes Unit, asked for a meeting his reflex reaction was to become defensive.

“My first thought was, ‘What do you want?’” Richard said, although he amicably invited Abetkov and Sgt. Brian Dickerson, leader of the youth squad, to come for a visit.

To his surprise, several hours later the officers showed up at his door.

The pair was there to discuss developing a more supportive and substantive relationship between the police department and local group home operators, a gesture emblematic of the division’s overall approach to law enforcement.

They went to North Star first because it is a model home.

Currently, the only interaction police have with those who operate youth homes and their occupants – or, as Richard refers to them, clients – is in response to behavioral complaints.  Most commonly it’s a child not coming home on time or running away, and occasionally it’s drugs, fighting or vandalism. By law staff must report a child missing if he or she doesn’t come home within an allotted amount of time; last year, Abetkov said she went to one dwelling, for one kid going AWOL, roughly 80 times.

“We need to figure out how to coordinate this better,” Abetkov said.

Through the proposed policy – one Richard calls a dose of preventive medicine – the youth team is trying to intervene before problematic behaviors surface, which serves the client and saves money and time responding to excessive calls.

If the home doesn’t comply and the calls persist, police can deem it a nuisance.

Richard, who grew up on the streets of Richmond and previously worked as a detention officer, said he sometimes goes months without having to call in an AWOL. Despite appearing to have things under control – from a passerby’s perspective North Star looks the most well kept on the block, with a fresh coat of paint and closely trimmed lush blanket of grass – but inside, the realities of working with unsettled teenagers is not so simple. Richard’s clients joke with him about being nostalgic of his prison days – they were much simpler.

Jamie Richard sits in the basement of the group home he runs. He tries to keep the inside and outside of the home immaculate, but raising stressed out teenagers, he says, isn't so easy.

“There you’re dealing with grown men,” Richard said. “Here you’re responsible for shaping these young minds, and there are so many different agencies you have to coordinate with.”

Coordination is one aspect that has made Richard effective in molding such impressionable personalities and one area police can deliver support.  Richard, whose wife handles the administrative side of operations, personally visits his kids’ schools and engages them in development programs such as RYSE Center, the Police Activities League and Juma – an organization that fosters higher education aspirations for underprivileged youth.

But not all residential providers are aware of, or take advantage of, these community assets. The youth unit hopes by being involved from the start that it can mentor kids based on their individual needs and ensure all necessary agencies have a stake in the solution – ensuring no one falls through the cracks of an oft-splintered child welfare system.

“These kids are put into these homes for a million things, and one minute thing could make it turn one way or the other,” Abetkov said. “I’m hoping with this startup we can have more of a positive influence on the kids and group homes.”

Some end up in a group home due to broken familial structures, while others are sent because they are out of control and need a more constrained environment. Since authorities don’t want to keep the latter category in the same city where they were acting out – near old friends, gangs or other pernicious influences – they are often placed in another county, meaning the majority of residential occupants in Richmond aren’t from here. Rather, the city is a haven for teenage refugees from Northern California counties or as far south as Los Angeles County.

Officers won’t just be checking up on kids. They will be making sure homes, of which there are approximately 20, are in compliance with state codes. The youth department plans to hire another detective by the first of the year to help carry the growing load.

Richmond police created a specific Youth Services Division just over a year ago, with one of its main objections to provide more preventative rather than reactive services.

“If you don’t engage them now you will probably have to engage them at some other point down the road,” said Lt. Michael Booker, who heads the division.

In the past, petty youth crimes were either neglected or sent to the over-burdened District Attorney’s Office, where they routinely sat neglected. Under the new system, the Youth Crimes Unit, currently composed of one sergeant and three detectives, specifically investigates juvenile crimes and can place offenders, who might otherwise end up tangled in the judicial web, into therapeutic-derived diversion programs. The youth team will not handle homicides or violent and sexual assaults.

“Our goal is to not have kids in the juvenile justice system,” Dickerson said. “We’d rather get them in diversion or some other program. A lot of times there is something else they are struggling with and they’re just acting out.”

Richard told his clients about Abetkov and Dickerson’s proposal. At first they were apprehensive, as was their boarder. But after awhile, Richard said, they thought it was pretty cool and were even excited.

“In a city like Richmond, it’s imperative for our youth to see an officer as someone with a heart and to see them reaching out,” he said. “How do you change a community? You have to reach out. I think this gesture could really touch some of our young men and women.”

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