NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The Youth Advocate Programs (YAP) serving Nashville youth on probation from the Davidson County Juvenile Court seeks to hire more advocates to keep up with referrals from the court.
"The need for advocates is pressing. The need is ongoing. We have essentially an endless supply of youth that need our help and support," explained YAP Director Marcel Hernandez, who also serves as an advocate while the program searches for more.
YAP, a program funded by a grant from the Tennessee Victims of Crime Act, serves youth who have been recently arrested as well as others who were charged with a youth offense. The nonprofit is active in 31 states including Tennessee as well as the District of Columbia.
"Youth Advocate Program is really focused on community-based alternatives to out-of-home placements, and what that means is that we really focus on working directly with the youth, as well as their family with wraparound services," Hernandez explained.
According to a study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 86% of the youth that enters the YAP advocate program remain out of the court for about six months or more.
While six months may seem low, Hernandez explained among other agencies, those numbers are considered incredibly successful.
"Ultimately we know that the more positive linkages that a young person has to their community, the less likely they are to return to the juvenile justice system," Hernandez said.
In early fall 2021, 16-year-old Xavier was referred by the Davidson County Juvenile Court to participate in YAP and receive an advocate for the length of his probation after being arrested for burglary.
Xavier was paired with Hernandez to meet multiple times a week for both group and one-on-one meetings.
"Mondays and Wednesdays we come here and meet. We talk about, like, forgiveness, how to control your anger. Stay out of trouble. Stay out of the way. Focus on school and graduating," said Xavier. "It's been fun. I never had a mentor before so I like it. I can talk to Marcel about stuff that I can’t talk to, talk to about my mom with, so that it makes me feel more comfortable."
Within a few weeks of the relationship forming, Xavier’s mother Alice said she saw a change in her son.
"I started seeing him change a little bit. He started doing more than what he was doing,” she said. "Helping out around the house, not being on his game a lot, cooking more, you know, housley duties."
YAP explained Alice has been very involved in Xavier’s life and committed to a successful probation.
"I have four children," she said. “I have one that has ADHD, and I try to give my attention to all of them. So I may need more. So, it's good that mentors they're seeing that helps, You know, I don't have family here. We’re not from here. We’re from Louisiana and only have my husband. So that's a big help for me. The program is really good for the youth, because sometimes you may have parents that work a lot, and they need a mentor to show them what else is out there besides the things that they're doing."
"Our advocates spend on average about 10 hours per week, with each client and family. What that looks like is ultimately the advocate will sit down with the family and create a weekly schedule that is flexible for all parties, such that the family can really count on that schedule on a week to week basis," explained Hernandez.
He said most advocates also have other jobs in Nashville and are looking to expand their role in the community.
"We find that a lot of our more effective strategies involve... pairing an advocate that may have had similar experiences or at the very least is familiar with the area, and ultimately, that person can work with the youth from a very personal space, so maybe some experiences are common, maybe some challenges are common, whether it's dealing with familial backgrounds or even just regional growing up in the area," said Hernandez. “And that can really, I guess, gain an idea of where that youth is coming from, ultimately because it's difficult at times to be able to speak from an experience if one hasn't actually had that experience.”
YAP advocates are paid members of the team and can have a GED or a Ph.D.
"We really worked with our youth for about four to six months. The number one goal is to assist the youth and support him or her in getting successfully through probation," stated Hernandez. "We really try to be a mirror of sorts, so that ultimately the youth can see his or her strengths and build upon those in meaningful ways."
Often YAP finds the youth referred to their program have experienced trauma in their life and sometimes are even victims of crime.
"What we're really dealing with is a youth who's making decisions but they're making decisions from a place of a person who may be injured," explained Hernandez. "And so what we ultimately want to do is say, 'Hey, we know that some things may have happened. Those things are likely not your fault. However, we need to acknowledge them and at the same time, put ourselves in a position where we can really identify what those things are, with the ultimate goal of moving forward with some tools that we may not have had before.'"
The North Nashville-based YAP office hopes to fill several advocate positions as quickly as possible to serve up to 40 youth a year meaning they would serve about 30% of the youth that are on probation in Davidson County at any given time.
"Search your heart, search for that challenge or challenges that you may have overcome when you were younger or growing up or coming up and really find it, find yourself in a place where you can impart that wisdom with our young people," Hernandez said.
To apply for the Youth Advocate Programs advocate role, click here.