Yang-Tan Institute to aid justice-involved youth with disabilities

For youth who have been involved with the justice system, re-entry into the community can present a host of challenges.

However, these challenges aren’t the same for every person, and youth with disabilities face systemic and unique barriers to successful re-entry, according to LaWanda Cook, extension faculty member with the ILR School’s Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability.

“They come into a system that’s not equipped to address these differences, whether it’s a learning difference, a social skills difference or a physical accommodation that’s necessary but not well understood,” Cook said.

Cornell impacting New York State

This has far-reaching consequences for the more than 2 million young people who are arrested each year. The U.S. Office of Special Education estimates that 30% to 60% of them have disabilities; the National Council on Disability estimates the number could be as high as 85%.

Since April 1, the Yang-Tan Institute – funded by a $1.5 million grant from the New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council – has been working to build a support program for re-entry of justice-involved youth (ages 14-24) with disabilities. The program – Youth Reentering the Community through Opportunity, Networking, Navigation, Education, Collaboration and Transition Support, known as YReCONNECTS – is expected to launch in three years.

Central to the project strategy is the development of a “sustainable community of practice.” This includes building bridges across community organizations, developing best practice guidelines, and providing training and information to nonprofit and governmental organizations to ensure quality and consistency of service to youth with disabilities.

The grant also calls on the Yang-Tan Institute to identify county-level resource teams in New York state that would implement the recommendations. To build buy-in at the local level, teams will include professionals and community leaders, as well as individuals and families personally affected by the justice system.

Cook, principal investigator for the project, sees breaking down organizational barriers as a key part of creating better outcomes for youth with disabilities. Youth incarcerated for even minor offenses have high dropout rates, she said. For instance, more than a quarter of youth who return to the community after confinement drop out of school within six months, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Additionally, she said, they may experience “systems avoidance,” in which involvement in the justice system can lead to distrust of education, health care and employment providers.

“There are some good model programs in New York state and throughout the country, but they’re not necessarily in touch with each another,” Cook said. “One of our goals is to bring together groups and individuals already involved in this work and facilitate information sharing.”

At least four community of practice teams will be established through the project.

“A large percentage of people involved in the justice system have disabilities, but that’s not always considered when figuring out how to bring people back into communities,” she said. “This grant will help create a climate and resources that are conducive to successful re-entry.”

The project team includes Matthew Saleh, a Yang-Tan Institute research associate and co-principal investigator; and extension associate Carol Blessing, who will coordinate the peer support component. The team will create a technical assistance website that houses toolkits, online training modules and a unified set of forms for organizations to use in their work with youth.

See a longer version of this story on the ILR School website.

Laura Carver is a Ph.D. student in the ILR School.

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Rebecca Valli