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Saving kids in trouble with the law

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By ALEC JOHNSON

It was just after five on a Thursday evening in March. Pots and pans clanked on an industrial stove top and the crack of ping-pong paddles connecting with balls echoed up a narrow stairway from the basement. A 55-year-old man with slicked-back black hair wearing a white button-down shirt partially open to expose a gold medallion peered into a large stainless steel stockpot. He stirred it with a wooden spoon and decided that dinner was ready.

Angel Rodriguez serves pasta during a Thursday night dinner at the Robert Siegal Center in Lower Manhattan. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

He called the kids to the table. Slowly, they arrived, one at a time with Styrofoam plates in their hands. Angel Rodriguez buried the white plates in red sauce, pasta and meatballs. They bent under the weight as the teens turned towards an old conference table, where they would eat.

The ping-pong paddles had been stowed and the only sounds that remained when their plates were filled were a quiet banter at the table, the spoon scraping the bottom of the pot, and a faint radio playing pop music.

“Richard, work your way over here,” hollered Rodriguez to a straggler who was glued to a computer at the front of this narrow townhouse on Avenue B on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

A group of five young men and one young woman shook grated Parmesan cheese on their pasta and passed around garlic bread and a two-liter bottle of 7 Up.

With all the plates full, Rodriguez sat down on the left-hand side of the table, leaned on his forearms and clasped his hands. “How is school?” he asked.

Mumbling, the kids said school was alright and then when a Beyonce song came over the radio, they perked up and talked about the day’s news—Beyonce’s reported pregnancy.

Almost immediately, Rodriguez entered the conversation. “Some people have their children first, when they are young and others wait until they have a career in place,” he said. “Which do you think makes more sense?”

The teens around the table agreed that waiting until you have an established life and a way to support a baby makes the most sense. They talked about a friend whose 16-year-old girlfriend had had a baby the previous week.

Not mentioning his name, because he wasn’t in the room, Rodriguez said. “Is he ready for a child?”

“No,” said a 20-year-old named Joe, who didn’t want his last name used. “He’s starting his offspring in a bad position.”

Teens talk with Angel Rodriguez over dinner at the Andrew Glover Youth Program's center in lower Manhattan. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

It sounds like a regular, all-American family dinner. Dad is lecturing about not getting someone pregnant and asking about school. The kids respond with anecdotes about kids from school who are pregnant. But this is a very different kind of gathering. It is a Thursday night dinner at the Andrew Glover Youth Program and Rodriguez is its executive director.

The teens around the table are participants in the program that serves many functions, but in this instance is an alternative to jail. All the young people been charged with crimes ranging from petty misdemeanors to drug-related felonies and are required to attend Rodriguez’s program after school. Some come every day and others come a few times a week, depending on how much supervision Rodriguez believes they need. In the evenings, The Robert Siegal Center, or the center, as Rodriguez calls it, serves as a “safe place,” for troubled kids. It keeps them off the street and gives them the opportunity to spend time with adults they respect.

Rodriguez personally mentors many of the 13 to 21-year-old young men and women who come to the program through court or personal recommendations. They must pass an evaluation in which they are questioned about their life in order to determine if they will benefit from the program. Many come from single-parent homes and live in East Harlem or the Lower East Side, where drugs and street crime are prevalent.

In New York City, according to a study in the journal Child Welfare Watch, 12,588 children under the age of 18 were arrested in 2008 for the pettiest misdemeanors to violent felonies. Of those, about 2,400 are sentenced to alternative programs. Some come through the family court and others are charged as adults. Some go to jail and others are offered alternatives because judges and people like Rodriguez believe they have potential to become something. An adult who has met and evaluated them believes they have the ability to change so they get a second chance.

Joe was arrested two years ago for selling crack cocaine. He was 18 at the time, but had been in and out of the juvenile justice system since he was 14 when he was charged with his first felony—counterfeiting. “I tried to use fake $100 bills,” he said. He believes his biggest mistake was stupidity; he didn’t get caught the first two times he passed the bills that he got from a friend in payment for packs of gum and pocketed $98 in change — so he decided to try again.

“I went to K-Mart three times in a row,” he said. “That’s when I got caught.” It was the same K-Mart. Slapped with a felony, he was sent to the city’s main jail on Rikers Island, but was released shortly afterwards on bail. When he got back to his home — which was often empty, because his mother worked two jobs — he found a new way to make money.

One of the Glover program's participants draws a design that later will be silk screened onto a T-shirt during an evening art class at the Robert Siegal Center. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

Joe took the little bit of cash he had and told a friend to give him as much crack as he could, and then he turned it around for a profit. Eventually he hooked up with a dealer who supplied him with drugs and a pager and paid him handsomely for his work. “The streets are always hiring,” Joe said. “Other than the fact that it was illegal, it was the best paying job I’ve ever had.”

Three years later, Joe was busted with 98 bags of crack and sent to Rikers Island again. This time he stayed for six months. When he got out and was having trouble with his probation officers, Rodriguez, who has known Joe for years from the neighborhood , finally caught up with him and brought him to the Andrew Glover program. He wanted to help him get on the right track.

Joe joined a long line of young people who have found refuge in the program. Started 30 years ago, Glover’s mission is to help preserve the rights of young people who have gotten in trouble with the law and are caught in a system that was designed for adults. Rodriguez spends long hours working directly with participants. “I am on call around the clock,” he said. Rodriguez appears with them in court, negotiates with judges and prosecutors on their behalf and then gives them a positive place to hang out at one of two centers either on the Lower East Side or on Second Avenue in East Harlem. “These kids are growing up in some of the worst scenarios around,” he said. They end up on the streets and then in trouble.

“We have a system that is very quick to punish and incarcerate as a solution to perhaps the outcry of the public,” he said. “Our systems do not correct and help young people become better citizens in prison.” Rodriguez believes that sending a kid to jail for a long period of time causes them to “learn how to be better criminals.”

Rodriquez has been involved with the program since his friend Robert Siegal founded it in 1976. Siegal, then a political science major at New York University, tutored children for class credit. His tutoring brought him to the Boys Club of New York, where Rodriguez worked evenings. “He walked through my office to get to his office so I got to know him very well,” said Rodriguez.

While tutoring, Siegal became respected by the children and wanted to help them. “Kids were drawn to him like flies,” said Rodriguez. In addition to tutoring at the Boys Club, Siegal recruited more NYU students to tutor children on the college’s campus. “He had them tutoring students in the NYU dorms,” Rodriguez said. “If they did that today, they would be arrested.”

When the teenagers were at the college being tutored, Siegal made sure they were fed. “Bob would collect NYU meal tickets from people who weren’t using them and feed the kids,” he said.

One day, Siegal got a telephone call from one of the kids he worked with at the Boys Club. He had been arrested and didn’t know what to do. He had to go to court but didn’t have anyone to stand up for him. “He was scared,” Rodriguez said. Not knowing what they were doing, Siegal and Rodriguez made their first court appearance that day.

“We both stood in front of the courtroom in jeans and t-shirts,” said Rodriguez. And that began the court advocacy program, which later became the Glover program. Siegal named the program for Andrew Glover, a police officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty in 1975. Glover had been known as a friendly cop who liked to help kids whenever he could.

Around this time Siegal rented an apartment on Seventh Street on the Lower East Side and continued to tutor. Rodriguez said it served as a “safe place” for kids to do their homework and helped keep them off the streets.

“The Lower East Side was a different world back then—there were not many white people that could walk into our community without being mugged, stabbed or shot,” Rodriguez said. “Bob never had a problem.”

Rodriguez enjoyed helping his friend with the program, but never thought it would become his life’s mission. “I wanted to play professional golf,” he said. “I said to my friend, ‘If I make it on the PGA tour I will fund you.’ ”

That all changed in 1979. “One day we had to go to Spofford to see a kid—Bob didn’t show up,” Rodriguez said. He knew that Siegal had been ill, but didn’t think much about his disappearance. It was around a Jewish holiday, and Rodriguez thought he might have taken a last-minute trip home to visit family in Pennsylvania.

On Monday, Rodriguez went to his apartment to check on him. “I looked in the window and saw him lying there,” Rodriguez said. “I ran around the building and kicked down the door. He had been dead for three days.”

Siegal’s death, of natural causes, led Rodriguez to make the Andrew Glover Youth Program his life’s work. “I’ve been at this ever since,” he said. “Bob put me here for a reason.”

The center provides computers for teenagers to check e-mail and complete homework assignments. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

In the beginning, critics said there was no way the program could continue without the passion of its founder, but Rodriguez defied them. In the years since, Rodriguez has balanced fundraising with working with children. The Glover Program is a not-for-profit program that does not receive any support from the government. It is entirely supported by philanthropic ventures such as family and business foundations and operates on a budget of about $1 million a year.

About 300 juveniles are enrolled in the program at any given time. The number stays pretty steady, because they come in and complete the program on a rolling basis.

Last December, a report by Gov. David Paterson’s Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice concluded that the state spends an average of $210,000 per year to hold a juvenile in jail. In contrast, it costs the Glover program about $2,600 per child for a year of treatment. Rodriguez’s costs are kept low because he doesn’t need to pay rent on the center, which he bought in 1984 and paid off.

Rodriguez and his staff of 12 keep a cramped office on the 15th floor of the Criminal Court Building at 100 Centre St. in Downtown Manhattan. When not in court or at one of the centers, Rodriguez works from a small desk in a room partitioned off from the rest of the office. It is just big enough for an L-shaped desk and two small chairs. There is no computer, just a telephone and stacks of files.

During an interview in March, his phone rang. It was a mother with questions about her son who had been arrested and sent to jail by a judge. With the phone set on speaker, Rodriguez took her call.

“My home is so peaceful that Dante isn’t here,” she said. “When I hear sirens outside, my heart doesn’t miss a beat.”

Dante was arrested for robbery and taken from his home, where, according to Rodriguez, he routinely disrespects his mother and has no respect for authority. According to his mother, Dante leaves the house whenever he pleases in the middle of the night, and often doesn’t even close the door. Rodriguez and Dante’s mother agree that incarceration isn’t the right thing for her son, but something must be done. When he goes to school he throws chairs and then doesn’t think he did anything wrong. “He’s a jerk,” Rodriguez said. “But I like him.”

Rodriguez sees potential in Dante and is willing to work with him to find the appropriate anger-management classes and then have him come to the center to keep him off the streets.

“I’m looking out to help the kid that is an idiot and makes a mistake, but not the kid that was trying to kill you and chased you down the block with a knife,” he said. “I’m not supportive of that kind of violence.”

In violent cases, Rodriguez agrees that teens need to be incarcerated for the public’s protection. The Glover program’s comprehensive approach to finding alternatives to incarceration separates them from several other programs that operate in the city. While other programs usually become involved after the youngster has been ordered to one by a judge, Rodriguez often enters the picture early, sometimes just after the crime. Both parents and probation officers call him when something happens. “I surrender the defendant to the cops,” he said. “I will protect their rights.”

He knows they need to be turned in, but also knows that the police do not have a right to question them without a lawyer or parent present. A 1967 Supreme Court case gave juveniles the same rights as adults.

Angel Rodriguez speaks with a new entrant to the Andrew Glover Youth Program at the Robert Siegal Center in Lower Manhattan. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

Back in the center, Rodriguez connects on a more personal level with the kids. The court proceedings are in the past and he talks to them like they are his own. Some nights they have tutoring, on others there is anger management, art class or dinner. On Fridays, they watch movies on an old boxy big-screen TV that is wedged into the corner near the large table.

Before dinner that night, Rodriguez cornered Joe at the table to inquire about an inch-long cut above his left eyebrow that Rodriguez believed Joe received from falling down when he was drunk. “You still haven’t given me an answer,” he said.

“I hit it on a bottle,” Joe said.

“That means you’re drinking again?” Rodriguez said.

Joe swore that it was from a coke bottle and he bashed his face on it while head banging to heavy metal music with his friends.

“I was acting a fool,” he said. “I know it sounds ridiculous.”

“That cut,” Rodriguez said, “There is no way you cut that on a soda bottle.”

Joe said his mother was upstairs at the time and she would back him up.

“Give me her number,” Rodriguez said.

Joe handed over his mother’s phone number and Rodriguez dialed it into his phone. As he dialed he looked at Joe and said, “If you’re drinking, my man, you are going to need to deal with treatment.”

On the phone with Joe’s mother, Rodriguez didn’t get a straight answer. She had been sick so wasn’t sure. Joe—For the meantime—was off the hook.


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