Finding alternatives for troubled teens in Broome County

August 14, 2013

"I want to see kids do something better with themselves."

Damascus Ocasio was somebody who could have gone either way. The 18-year-old Binghamton native thought about joining a gang when he was younger. His friends with large families often had family members who were in gangs. He noticed the bond they had.

“They always had each other’s backs. It was something I wanted people to have for me," says Ocasio.

He wears his long, curly red hair pulled back into a ponytail for our interview and plans to study criminal justice at Broome Community College in the fall. Ocasio says he knew early on that there is something more worthwhile than gangs and criminal activity. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t tempted.

"It seemed like they had a lot more stuff because they would sell drugs so they had a lot more money,” says Ocasio. “I was looking for a job, but no real job would hire, like, 14, 15-year-olds."

Ocasio also says there were very few things for teenagers to do off of the streets, whether or not they had money.

Dorian Lans is a counselor with Broome County Gang Prevention and has worked with Ocasio for years. Lans says that, before he became a counselor, he chose the opposite path.

"I was one of the kids out there causing trouble," says Lans.

But he says he woke up one day and decided to get his life in order. Now he works to help kids avoid that lifestyle, using a mix of personal experience and incentives to help keep middle school and high school students out of trouble.

Despite the pressure to join a gang, Damascus Ocasio chose a different path. And Dorian Lans woke up one day and decided he didn’t like where he was headed.

What makes an at-risk youth choose gangs and crime? What effect does it have on the child, his or her family and the community? What can be done to lead a kid to making the choice Lans and Ocasio made?

Kevin Wright, professor at Binghamton University, explains the difference between a "late" and "early" starter, a child who begins disruptive behavior late in life and a child who begins disruptive behavior early in life, respectively.

Broome County does not keep an exact head count of gangs in the area. The 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment estimated up to 499 gang members resided in Broome County.

According to county officials, several factors make Broome County attractive. Positioned at the crossroads of Routes 17 and 81, Binghamton attracts organized criminal organizations because it’s a convenient distribution point. They also come from other cities because drugs have twice the street value in Broome, because there’s an abundance of cheap housing and because their family members are already there.

And, as Broome County District Attorney Gerald Mollen recalls hearing with frustration, there’s a perception that Broome County is safer, a place to avoid competition and turf wars

DA Mollen says there’s no simple way to characterize a gang or a gang member.

"It's people who identify themselves in some way - sometimes it's clothing, sometimes it's tattoos, sometimes it's signs, sometimes it's through actual organized criminal activity,” says Mollen. “The actual structure is not as formal as you might see in a movie."

Lans says that gangs are a natural part of any city, starting in school.

"Every city's going to have gangs. Every city's going to have groups of kids that mesh together that give that impression of a gang,” says Lans.

“When I was growing up, there was definitely gangs. There was the Asian crew of kids, then there was the black kids, the Spanish kids. They all had their gang names. Now it's just more of the commercial gangs around here: Crips and Bloods and Latin Kings."

Today, 18-year-old Ocasio says there are gangs across Binghamton, but mostly on the West Side. Fights break out often. Sometimes they’re started for old reasons like family problems or conflicts started in school and sometimes it’s new reasons like insults posted on Facebook.

Kevin Wright, professor of criminology at Binghamton University, notes an increase in violence since one gang, the Latin Kings, arrived.

But Wright says the biggest threat is the passing of the lifestyle from parent to child.

Parents can impart behavioral defects, like violence, and personal defects, like low self-worth, to their children. That makes the development of problems in school, poor social skills and negative peer groups much more likely. By middle school and high school, these students often end up suspended or drop out entirely, says Wright.

Parents dealing with personal problems of their own and struggling to connect with school administrators or feeling like the authorities are untrustworthy often fail to change the course of their child’s life.

“With gangs existing in the area since the 1980s, many young people have grown up in the lifestyle,” says Ralphalla Richardson, who runs an after-school program at Lourdes Youth Services.

"We've seen a lot of kids in recent years where the parents were raised in gangs, and the grandparents were, so when we get to these kids, the parents don't see anything wrong with that culture, that lifestyle," she says.

And with children growing up with parents living that way, they are starting the behavior at a younger age, says Broome County District Attorney Gerald Mollen.

“Contrast it to way back when, the ‘80s, you wouldn't see many young offenders committing organized robberies or assaults and revenge for things that may have happened on the street," says Mollen.

Reaching a kid who’s been immersed in that life for so long can be hard, he says. He’ll sometimes sit with kids who have been through the juvenile justice system.

"It makes an impression when a 17-year-old sitting across the table says to you, 'Well, do whatever you're going to do,'" recalls Mollen.

He hears kids say that their lives, how they were brought up and the things they have experienced, have lead them to different options and choices. But Mollen insists that youth can still chose to avoid gangs and crime.

Lisa Blitz, a professor in the social work department at Binghamton University, says poverty, like violence, has become intergenerational in the Southern Tier and weighs on young people.

As Blitz explains, people who spend a lifetime in stressful situations, like poor children, live in a different state of normal - a chronic stress that has effects on development.

A person reacts to a traumatic event by having trouble sleeping or changing eating habits. As the traumatic events are compounded, through situations like ongoing poverty or domestic abuse, a child begins to live in a state of chronic stress, which affects neurobiological development.

Lisa Blitz, professor at Binghamton University, describes what it means to take a trauma-based approach when working with troubled youth.

Once a child chooses the streets and gets picked up, they often are sent through what’s known as diversion. Lorraine Wilmot, director of Broome County Probation, says it’s a way to keep them out of the system as much as possible.

"It's very difficult for a 16 year old to see consequences," argues Wilmot.

"Keeping them in diversion, it gives them that second chance of 'okay you made a mistake, you did something wrong, these are the consequences for your actions, learn from those consequences.'"

The department supervises the youth for up to four months. They have to meet program requirements like going to school and staying out of trouble or go back to court.

Because of state and federal budget cuts and an increase in the cases sent to county court, Broome County has sent more cases into diversion over the past several years.

"Our diversion program is very strong,” says Wilmot. “Everybody in the family services and in the probation department really feels that diversion is the way that most of the kids should start out."

Youth sent through the diversion program often end up in one of Lourdes Youth Services programs. Programs like Mental Health Juvenile Justice, which offers counseling, and the Detention Alternative After-School Program, which targets “last chance” youth who would otherwise be institutionalized, offer a chance for teens to deal with family problems and build life skills.

The counselors focus on a teen’s talents, what’s known as a strength-based approach, in order to help them create a life plan that could work.

Increasingly, an emphasis is being placed on helping at-risk youth with their lives at home. Lourdes Youth Services has a program that brings families in for counseling sessions. Kevin Wright of Binghamton University advocates for parent and preschool education as early as possible. Professor Lisa Blitz hopes that better dialogue between parents and schools, one that acknowledges the hardships parents and their families face, could lead to more positive school environments.

And Damascus Ocasio credits his mentor, Dorian Lans, and programs like the Broome County Gang Prevention program for providing alternatives to gang life. He’s worked with community groups like Citizen U, Vines and Growing Connection, and he appreciates that Lans always had something new for him to get involved in.

Lans says that, for every ten kids he works with, he might only reach 3 or 4 of them. He tries with each, but says it’s ultimately up to them to choose what they want to do with their lives.