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Anti-violence program shows promise in first four years in Baltimore, report finds

Baltimore Sun - 3/2/2023

When Roca youth workers first knocked on Sheldon Smith-Gray’s door in 2018, he thought it might be the police.

He was “outside” at the time — “whatever you can think of, I was doing it, for sure,” he said in a Wednesday interview — and it wasn’t until about a year in that he bought into Roca’s process 100%.

“They just was there,” Smith-Gray recalled. “They showed me how reliable they were.”

Smith-Gray, now 25, graduated from the four-year program in September and is now a youth worker himself, doing the same door knocks he once received from Roca. Part of his pitch to the people he’s trying to reach: I’m a product of this program.

Baltimore’s young men and boys most at-risk of being a victim or perpetrator of violence are seeing lower recidivism and arrest rates, more connections to employment and improvements in mental health assessments through Roca Baltimore, a new study from the group shows.

Young people in their first two years of enrollment had an arrest rate about 16% lower than similarly at-risk peers who didn’t participate, according to a Roca analysis.

And, of participants involved for more than two years, 21% were arrested — compared to a statewide, three-year recidivism rate for the same age range of more than 40%, according to Roca’s report.

The results show the innovative approach is having a positive effect, leaders say, as the program nears its fifth year operating in the city. It graduated its first four-year cohort last summer, leaving participants with cognitive-behavioral theory skills and experience, as well as life and workforce skills, employment and new connections.

The organization has purchased a building in Baltimore and, looking forward, plans to offer services to additional city residents and expand into Baltimore County. It also plans to train juvenile services workers and Baltimore Police officers through its Roca Impact Institute.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Molly Baldwin, the CEO and founder of Roca, said this week.

Since its launch in Baltimore in 2018, the nonviolence intervention program has sought to help its target population of 16- to 24-year-olds change behaviors with services including therapy, education and employment classes. It courts the city’s most at-risk young people, for whom the alternative is “death or jail,” staff previously described, with a primary focus of teaching emotional control to those who might have backgrounds of poverty, violence, systemic racism and trauma.

Roca made headlines late last year when council members expressed concern over a reported pause in referrals for the organization through the city’s Group Violence Reduction Strategy pilot — one of several routes for referrals to the organization.

Those referrals resumed in January, Sydney Burns, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, confirmed this week. The group has received seven referrals so far this year, in addition to 34 in 2022, Burns said. She said MONSE’s new contract with Roca is in its final stage and will be brought to the Board of Estimates in “coming weeks.”

The report released Thursday analyzed Roca’s performance from July 2018 through June 2022, during which time it served 445 young people.

Those enrollees were reached through what Roca touts as “relentless outreach,” with workers showing up at youth’s doors through referrals that can come through Baltimore Police, the Department of Juvenile Services or an “after-shooting” process for nonfatal shooting victims ages 16 to 24.

In one early instance, outreach workers didn’t hear from a young person whose home they visited. The importance of their work “clicked” when the person’s mother and sister called to say he had been killed the night before, Roca Maryland Vice President Kurt Palermo said.

His mother had a message for the Roca workers: “You are the only people who have ever come and looked for him as much as you have, and not wanted something from him, or weren’t trying to get him in trouble,” Palermo recalled.

Since 2018, the program has lost 19 young people to homicides who were enrolled and on a youth worker caseload, Roca officials said. It lost an additional 15 who were registered and Roca was either trying to connect with them or still evaluating their eligibility.

An analysis of Roca participants based on information they provided showed 96% had a history of trauma, including unexpected deaths of people close to them or physical assaults; 95% had drug involvement; 95% had a history of prior arrests; and 95% were “street-” or gang-involved, the report said.

An external evaluator, MDRC, which tests and examines ideas around issues such as poverty and education, found Roca is “finding and serving the right young people,” the report said. MDRC also found it was retaining enrollees and engaging young people at high levels – including a rate of about 90% involvement in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Roca reported 73% of the 455 young men were retained for at least a year; 52% for two years; and 46% three or more.

About 43% of the 97 people enrolled for at least 21 months had gained unsubsidized employment. And 94% of the 108 who completed at least two mental health surveys and were enrolled at least 18 months showed improvements in behavioral health —with categories ranging from emotional regulation, mental health, overall distress and substance abuse.

Smith-Gray said Roca helped him get his driver’s permit and license, new glasses, and certifications for forklifts, CPR and First Aid, among others. The CBT skills have “definitely” made a difference, he said, describing one instance where he failed a permit test but a youth worker encouraged him to breathe and remember he could retake it, rather than give into frustration.

As he tells young people he now works with, Smith-Gray had a few “slip-ups” in his four years with Roca, times when he would fall back to old activities or patterns, part of what workers refer to as a “relapse period.”

He was able to return, he tells others, and “If I can do it, they can do it.”

Roca’s work has also led to cost savings, according to the organization, for both incarceration and medical expenses.

Four years of Roca — about $40,725 per participant — is 83% cheaper than four years in the Maryland Department of Corrections, which would carry a price tag of $238,464, it found.

Roca’s budget in that time period was $10,913,234, the report said, creating a return on investment of about 10%. Report authors noted they expected that to continue to grow as pandemic restrictions ease and the project moves away from its startup phase.

In total, the report estimated a savings of about $11,973,146 to Maryland from reduced sentences and avoided incarcerations. Medical costs that were avoided in the two-year pilot project of the After-Shooting Protocol were estimated at $1,453,500 for saved emergency room and hospitalization expenses.

The report also pointed to a drop in homicides committed by or killing young people below age 25 from 2018 to 2021.

In 2022, 22 of Baltimore’s homicide victims were under age 18, the highest number since 2019 when there were 22. The year also saw 68 children wounded by gunfire, the highest number in at least the previous four years, according to the police department.

So far this year, four people under age 18 have been shot and killed. Seventeen have been wounded by gunfire and survived, according to police data.

Roca officials, asked about that uptick, said this week they work with some young men “involved in the violence” and “we do our best to keep them safe.” That group includes the brother of Deanta Dorsey, the 16-year-old Edmondson-Westside High School student killed in January at a shopping center across the street, staff said.

Smith-Gray said “by the grace of God” he had never been shot before Roca came knocking on his door, but said he’d seen people die right in front of him.

“It’s kind of normal,” he said. “Sad to say, it’s normal.”

Now a youth worker for the program, he said he thanks God for Roca.

“Who knows what I would’ve been,” Smith-Gray said.

Reporter Lee O. Sanderlin contributed to this article.

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