Efforts to reach at-risk youth in Orange, Orlando gain momentum – Orlando Sentinel


Credible Messengers of Florida is set to soon begin work with Orange County to identify potential mentors for at-risk youth to help stem violent crime, months after the grassroots organization was fired for a $150,000 contract.

A smaller contract, worth $85,000, will appoint Ruben Saldaña, the group’s leader, as a consultant to the county to recruit “credible messengers,” a term for formerly incarcerated and other people with former criminal ties who use this experience to intervene in high profile cases. crime areas in a way that law enforcement cannot.

The county’s use of credible messengers would address one of the key recommendations of the Citizen Safety Task Force, of which Saldaña is a member, formed by Mayor Jerry Demings amid a series of shootings attributed to a feud gangs, leading to the allocation of approximately $2 million to combat gun violence in high-crime ZIP codes.

“We are all saying the right things, now we have to demonstrate that by bringing these parts together for these very important programs to ensure that we are using them to improve the lives of our youth and families in our community,” said Lonnie Bell, director of community and family services for the county, in an interview before his death late last month.

The contract comes as Credible Messengers of Florida seeks to expand its reach to Miami and other cities in the state, with Orlando being the organization’s hub. At the same time, the city of Orlando is seeking to establish its own anti-violence intervention initiative, modeled on a program implemented by California-based group Advance Peace, city officials said.

Meanwhile, a University of Central Florida researcher is studying what drove believable messengers to crime earlier in life. The goal, said researcher Katherine Philp, is to use feedback from study participants to develop outreach and intervention strategies with young people.

“Our greatest hope for this study is that it can contribute actionable insights on how to improve fieldwork,” said Philp, who is also an advisor for Credible Messengers of Florida.

As recommended by the task force, credible messengers will be used to target neighborhoods, mostly predominantly black and Latino, with high rates of violent crime as well as youth arrests. According to data from the Juvenile Assessment Center used in the task force report, youths living in Pine Hills, followed by the neighborhoods of Parramore, Oak Ridge and Orlo Vista, make up the majority of youths arrested, mostly for minor offenses .

These arrests carry a stigma in the community and on school campuses that research shows can push young people toward more serious crimes. At a meeting last year between the Credible Messengers of Florida and local law enforcement, Saldaña, a former gang leader, said the goal was to reach young people before they are brought into the criminal justice system.

Currently, Saldaña works with children and teenagers both at home and in collaboration with organizations like the New Image Youth Center, training them in mixed martial arts and dance to get them off the streets. He hopes to one day turn his organization into a full-time, fully-funded business.

But the process of obtaining funds for the group was long and difficult. Orange County commissioners had to approve the $150,000 contract in January before it was taken off the agenda and later scaled back. Meanwhile, attempts to secure funding from the Florida Legislature failed because bills that would have created grants for community mentors never passed.

“Children need an alternative, and the alternative cannot be, ‘put down your guns, you’re going to get locked up’ – they already know that,” Saldaña said in a recent interview. “I don’t want my story to become their story, but this work needs resources.”

Meanwhile, the $2 million allocated to implement the task force’s recommendations has been spent demolishing destroyed buildings while continuing partnerships with organizations like the Boys & Girls Club of Central Florida and engaging a “community ambassador” to be a direct link between the targeted communities. and the county.

County officials are also coordinating with the Valencia College Peace & Justice Institute to create workshops on “negative childhood experiences,” or ACE, among other topics, while working with UCF and the Edyth Bush Institute. for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership to help sustain small nonprofits. .

This latest initiative is expected to be announced on Monday.

“It can’t be all of Orange County, it can’t be the Boys & Girls Club or the YMCA,” Bell said. “We need other grassroots organizations to participate as well.”

Bell was described after his death as “the civil servant of all civil servants”, while Saldaña on social media referred to him as “the driving force in obtaining the resources of credible messengers”.

“His faith in us days before his death strengthens our resolve not to fail and to bring Death Valleys back to life,” he added.

Saldaña isn’t waiting for funding to be approved to move forward, as plans are underway to expand her group’s reach to young people across Florida in partnership with community leaders elsewhere. Locally, he is planning what he calls a restructuring of the group’s current model, seeking to bring in mentors as soon as possible.

“I have to start reaching out to neighborhoods I’m not in and start bringing them into the movement,” Saldaña said. “We could practice”

As the county applies the task force’s concepts, the city of Orlando is also looking to tackle violent crime, allocating $3 million in US bailout funds to train and hire “neighborhood change officers.” .

Similar to credible messengers, they would be tasked with intervening in neighborhoods with a higher propensity for violence, with one key difference: the use of police intelligence to identify those at risk of committing a violent crime and those at risk to be attacked.

It’s a model put in place by Advance Peace in Richmond, Calif., which saw an 85% drop in shootings with injury between 2007 and 2019, according to data from the group. His method of identifying potential shooters has been used in other cities across the state, such as Sacramento and Stockton, with similar results.

The Orlando Police Department’s involvement in the work of neighborhood change officers stops at data sharing, said Lisa Early, director of the Department of Families, Parks and Recreation.

The initiative, called the “alternative response” to police involvement, is expected to be implemented in June.

“No information from the street workers goes back to the police,” Early said. “This is strictly to provide support to people who are at risk of being shot or who are shooting people or planning to do so. It’s a way to divert them from it, it’s not a way to put them in the criminal justice system.

From using government resources for youth intervention like in Washington, DC, to public-private partnerships like those in New York, efforts to stop violence have shown promising results.

Jacksonville has seen a 30% drop in murders from 2021, partly attributed to the efforts of the global nonprofit Cure Violence, which deploys people to targeted neighborhoods to combat violent crime.

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In Orlando, these people would be recruited by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

“If you have this spike in violence, you have an injection of funding, you have research showing that this is an effective model to deal with it, so let’s do it,” Early said.

Philp, the UCF researcher, seeks to contribute to the conversation about how to reach at-risk youth, especially those involved in gangs. The study she is conducting – endorsed by Saldaña, who is also a former gang leader, and Lorine “La Madrina” Padilla, formerly of the Savage Skulls gang in New York – hopes to identify “push and pull factors of gang life.

“All of these folks from the credible messenger movement are actually a huge resource and repository of knowledge, because they’ve been through it,” Philp said.

Several people have already volunteered to participate in the study. The goal, she said, is to better understand what attracts young people to gang life, such as studies that have examined children’s motivation to learn in school, and to apply these findings in future response efforts.

“Less work has been done to apply these same concepts to children who engage in illegal behavior, but there is evidence that shows some of these same processes are at play,” Philp added. “If we understand it, we can actually intervene.”

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