Kids’ program blindsided by budget cuts | AspenTimes.com

Kids’ program blindsided by budget cuts

A nonprofit group that tries to keep up to 1,500 valley youth out of trouble per year lost about a quarter of its funding this month due to budget cuts by Gov. Bill Owens.

YouthZone received $564,000 of its $1 million budget from the state government in the fiscal year that ended in June. The Legislature approved a budget with similar dollars earmarked for fiscal 2002, but Owens vetoed the spending.

YouthZone executive director Debbie Wilde said the organization hopes to keep about $250,000 of state funding.

To cope with the loss, she instituted a hiring and wage freeze. The organization also placed a 30-day freeze on working with the courts to evaluate appropriate treatment or punishment for youth. Its priority is continuing to work with 183 kids in the system.

The organization plans to make the adjustments it needs even if it means temporarily dipping into reserves.

“We’ve had a strong organization, not one on the brink of disaster,” she said.

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One option for the future is moving more toward a fee-based system.

If there is any silver lining in the budget cuts, it is that they came right when YouthZone launched its major fund-raiser of the year. Kiss ‘n Squeal raised $112,000 last year. “Candidates” from around the valley try to collect the most votes via dollars. The winner kisses a pig.

But state and local government funding has always been the primary source of revenues, at 61 percent.

“That’s not a great way to operate,” said Wilde. “It’s been our goal to get more diverse.”

YouthZone is lobbying hard to get the private sector to make up in donations what the government has cut in grants. Wilde knows she will still be dealing with a deficit even after the fund-raiser ends on Aug. 3.

The funding shortfall comes when demands for service are increasing. YouthZone offers several programs but two of the most important are diversions for troubled kids and court referrals.

The organization crafts alternative programs for kids accused of the most serious crimes and facing processing in district court. It also works with municipal and county courts to design appropriate treatments or punishments.

In some cases when a juvenile gets arrested, the district attorney or a district judge will give a family the opportunity to work on a specially tailored program with YouthZone. If the kids successfully work through the program, they avoid a conviction on their record.

Wilde said there was a case where a young man was arrested for allegedly dealing drugs. The district attorney’s office could have sought prosecution but opted to steer him toward YouthZone. Counselors there discovered that they boy’s parents had been in and out of prison and that he witnessed his brother’s attempted suicide. Nevertheless, he got good grades in school and showed potential for a productive life.

“Some of these cases turn out to be like peeling back the layers of an onion,” said Wilde. “Crime is often a red flag, a cry for attention or acting out by a kid.”

The savings for a community and society in general of working with a kid who shows potential rather than incarcerating him are “astronomical,” she said. It costs $58,000 on average to apply one year of “commitment” for a juvenile that would include a short sentence at a juvenile detention center then probation.

For $60,000, YouthZone can work with about 90 kids in alternative programs. Wilde said her records show that those programs have a 92 percent success rate of preventing kids from becoming repeat offenders. She has never seen the rate climb higher than 25 percent for repeat violations.

Colorado Department of Corrections statistics show that 63 percent of adult inmates were arrested for nonviolent offenses as juveniles, and 48 percent were arrested for violent offenses, according to Wilde.

Clearly, she said, it behooves society to try to divert juvenile offenders away from trouble.

YouthZone works with 1,500 kids a year out of offices in Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood, Rifle and Meeker. Wilde, who has worked with YouthZone for 20 years and 16 as executive director, said demand for services is increasing with the valley’s population.

Most of the demand comes from Glenwood and Rifle, with about 200 cases annually for each in court referrals and diversions. Carbondale and Pitkin County/Basalt have about 100 cases each.

The latest statistics for the last fiscal year covered the third quarter and showed demand was up again. “Every four or five years we take this leap,” said Wilde.

More information about YouthZone and its Kiss ‘n Squeal fund-raiser can be found at http://www.youthzone.com. Contributions can be made online or by calling 920-5702.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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