A successful program to aid at-risk juveniles is caught in the budget vise

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Jay Barnes (center), of the Don't Fall Down in the Hood program, explains job-interview skills to clients Andre Chambers (right) and Keith Richardson (Steven M. Falk / Staff)

WHEN THE CITY'S Department of Human Services cut $150,000 from the "Don't Fall Down in the Hood" rescue program for first-time juvenile offenders, it might as well have cut a piece out of Archye Leacock's heart.

Despite his blindness since childhood, Leacock's vision of what it takes to save the endangered lives of young black and Hispanic males in Philadelphia's most violent neighborhoods has worked miracles for more than a decade.

Today, Leacock's program is a shadow of what it was only a year ago - his small staff diminished by three case managers who visited homes and schools to keep their at-risk juveniles from straying, his dozen juvenile offenders down from the 40-50 who filled Don't Fall Down's classrooms at Temple University before the budget was almost halved.

While DHS maintained the budget for youths who come to Don't Fall Down after being sent to a juvenile facility by the courts, it eliminated the preventive program for juveniles who were sent to Don't Fall Down to keep them from committing crimes that would get them killed or jailed in the future.

The funding cut makes no sense to Leacock in a city where, according to police, 7,906 juveniles were arrested last year, including 329 for firearm possession, 1,447 for drugs, 584 for aggravated assault, 1,094 for simple assault and 18 for murder.

"We are the only program in the city working with at-risk youth who have been charged with gun offenses," Leacock said. "DHS cut all of our funds on the prevention side for kids who have been charged and not found guilty.

"But a kid with a gun can get off because a witness doesn't show up and the case is dropped, or because he has a clever lawyer," Leacock said. "That kid could think, 'I can keep on doing what I'm doing and get away with it.'

"We see so many of those kids back in the criminal-justice system within a year."

Leacock's voice betrayed his frustration with DHS.

"We know kids have guns," he said. "We know kids with guns commit crimes. But DHS is not willing to fund a program that steps in before a crime is committed, trying to prevent that kid from committing it. That doesn't make sense to me."

Nor does it make sense to Leacock's program director, Wesley Jones, who pleaded guilty to gun possession in 1999 when he was a 17-year-old senior at George Washington High School, went through months of Don't Fall Down in the Hood life skills and job-skills training, and believes the program saved his life.

Jones, 29, has helped save hundreds of at-risk juveniles but worries about youths like Jonathan Lee, 17, who arrived at Don't Fall Down in the Hood on Dec. 3, fresh out of St. Gabriel's Hall, a residential facility for delinquent male youths, where he was sent after being arrested for a home invasion and found guilty of the lesser charge of burglary.

Lee has a fresh tattoo on his neck that reads "MSM," which he told Jones stands for "Master Street Mafia." Jones studied the tattoo as he watched Lee in a skills class, practicing what to say at a job interview.

"Employers aren't going to like that tattoo," Jones said. "Whether or not it represents an actual gang or just a group of guys who hang out together on the block, that tattoo says 'gang' to a prospective employer."

Jones worried that Lee's getting a neck tattoo just before starting job interviews indicates how different his thinking is from the youths he will be competing against for a job, some of whom were students rushing down the hall between classes in the Temple University building where Don't Fall Down in the Hood rents classroom space.

"I'm afraid we might lose him to the streets," Jones said. "I'm afraid he's not willing to change."

After his job skills class ended, Lee smiled when told that Jones is worried about him. "I like to hear that stuff 'cause I know he's concerned," Lee said. "And if somebody says I'm not going to make it, I might try even harder so I can say to them, 'Watch me. I'm not messing up.' "

But then he said something that goes to the heart of the Hood vs. Don't Fall Down in the Hood.

"I listen to everything Mr. Wesley says," Lee said of Jones' concerns. "I get the message. I do understand repercussions. But in the long run, I am who I am. I've been raised around crime all my life. That's what I know.

"I hear my friends being called criminals," he said, "but I grew up with them and I still consider them my friends. When I don't want to do something, I walk away. But it seems those things keep following me. I didn't choose where I grew up. I'm not looking for trouble. But sometimes trouble comes looking for me."

Lee paused for a moment, thinking about trouble looking for him. "My pop died in 1999, when I was 7 years old," he said quietly. "I got one picture of him. My stepmother raised me. Since I was 13 and got arrested for retail theft, all my memories are of placement. I got to get a plan to get through this stuff. All I need is a plan."

Lee is studying building maintenance at De La Salle Vocational school in Bensalem. He is scheduled to graduate from Don't Fall Down in May, but Jones and Leacock want to keep him in the program until they see his attitude change.

"Some of them, we don't save," Leacock said. "Some of them get killed or go back to jail. But those are very small percentages. Most of them, we save."

Of the 553 juveniles who have gone through Don't Fall Down in the Hood since 2006, only 27 were rearrested, far below the state's 50 percent recidivism rate for juveniles after institutional placement, Leacock said.

He also noted Don't Fall Down in the Hood's $24-per-day cost for each youth compared to $150 to $250 per day in an institution.

As the winter of Leacock's frustration gives way to spring, a sign of possible renewal for his decimated crime-prevention program comes, surprisingly, from the very source that cut its funding a year ago.

DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose told the Daily News that the $150,000 was cut from Leacock's program at a time when her agency was still struggling to rebuild itself after failing to save Danieal Kelly, a 14-year-old with cerebral palsy who died in 2006 from horrific abuse while under the care of a social service agency that DHS funded and was supposed to be supervising.

"We had drifted away from our focus on preventing abuse, neglect and delinquency," Ambrose said. "We were undergoing a tremendous transformation to refocus on those goals."

Ambrose said DHS will request proposals this spring for a "strong mentoring program for older youths" and "really intensive delinquency prevention for non-adjudicated youths that falls right in line with [Don't Fall Down in the Hood].

"I think Archye is great," Ambrose said. "I've known him for a long time. I respect what he's done over the years.

"I came from the delinquency side [of the criminal justice system] so I totally get his program. These kids need a safe place to go where they know people care about them. Hopefully, [Don't Fall Down in the Hood] will be one of the providers we fund."

George Mosee, a deputy district attorney who has been in charge of the DA's juvenile division since 2002, hopes so.

"I don't want to slam my friends over at DHS," Mosee told the Daily News, "because I'm sure it was a tough decision [to cut Don't Fall Down's funding]. But if there is $150,000 out there, Don't Fall Down in the Hood deserves consideration."

Mosee said his experience with the Youth Fatality Review Team convinced him that intense supervision, which Don't Fall Down excels at, is the key to saving at-risk young lives.

"Many of [the youths who died] came into the criminal justice system but there really wasn't any intervention during their first one or two incidents, either because the case wasn't successfully prosecuted or the judge cut them a break on the first offense.

"I see what happens when kids don't get any supervision," Mosee said. "Their conduct escalates and they become a great risk of hurting somebody else or being hurt."

Jones, the Don't Fall Down program director, agrees wholeheartedly.

"I was never a violent young man," Jones said, "but everyone I knew seemed to always get into conflicts. It was never about one-on-one fighting. It was always about getting jumped or stabbed or shot.

"I wanted to be grown before my time. I wanted to be up at 2 in the morning, go to strip clubs, buy liquor, sell drugs - I did not know any better. I was drinking at an early age and everything evolved from there. I carried a gun in case something might happen. Something did."

Jones had just come out of a West Philadelphia bar at 2 a.m. when a man tried to carjack him. Jones pulled his gun. The man ran away. Jones found a police officer, told him what happened, was arrested on a gun charge and pleaded guilty. "Probation was one of the best things that ever happened to me," he said. "Don't Fall Down in the Hood saved my life."

Jones' background, so similar to so many of the youths he is trying to save, gives him instant credibility with them.

It also gives him reason to worry about the kids he might fail to save, kids like Lee, who is due to exit the program in May, but still hasn't bought into it enough to not get a fresh ganglike tattoo while training to go out on job interviews.

"We'll try to keep him here beyond May," Jones said. "We lose a few to the streets every year. We don't want to lose him."