The mission of the YAP Policy & Advocacy Center is to promote policies and influence change that creates or invests greater resources in families and communities as an alternative to out of home placement. We advocate for systems to reduce spending on incarceration and other out-of- home placements, which disproportionately negatively impact youth of color. We combat systemic racism and other bias in youth justice, child welfare, and other social services by promoting policies that create an investment in a robust, culturally responsive continuum of care that supports youth and families of color. For example, YAP is among the organizations leading 150 Years is Enough, a New Jersey campaign to bring racial equity to the state’s youth justice system through community-based restorative justice practices and programs.

 

Using Direct Services-Informed Advocacy to Influence Public Policy and Systems Change

At the heart of our mission and our public policy work are the needs and strengths of the youth and families we serve, and we believe that public policy should be informed directly by those needs and strengths. The YAP Policy and Advocacy Center relies on the experiences of our program participants and direct service staff to inform how we advocate changing policies and systems that adversely and disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. The link between our practice and efforts to change policies that affect the people we serve adds a unique and important component to advocacy movements.

Our contribution is driven by our mission and informed by the direct services we provide and the self-advocacy of our youth and families. In addition to young people and their families, our community-based staff are a valuable resource in understanding policies that need change and the impact of policy changes on communities. This nexus to the people most affected by unfair and ineffective policies and institutions enables us to inform how priorities should be set to adequately reflect current and evolving needs of marginalized and disadvantaged people and communities.

 

YAP VOICE: Vocalize, Organize, Inform, Collaborate, Empower

Integrated within the work of the Policy and Advocacy Center is YAP VOICE, an agency-wide systems change initiative with a goal to empower and support our young people, families, and staff to work to leverage their experiences in human service systems to influence policy and systems change. Because YAP's direct services approach only works when youth and families have voice and ownership of the service delivery plan, they discover that what they have to say matters and they begin to take constructive control of their lives, becoming self-advocates. YAP VOICE helps our youth and families transfer that self-advocacy to advocacy for others, making even more of an impact.

Youth and families that participate in YAP's VOICE engage in a variety of activities such as: providing legislative testimony, speaking before school boards, meeting with legislators at the local and federal level, presenting at conferences and organizing letter writing campaigns. With over 20,000 families served each year, YAP's families and youth are a persuasive, informed force advocating for change.

Utilizing the expertise of the Policy and Advocacy Center's Advisory Board of seasoned youth advocates and policy experts, members of our Executive Team, our Direct Service staff, and our youth and families, we influence public policy to increase support for families and communities and reduce reliance on institutions. Our activities inform policymakers and advocates about what families, government leaders and communities need to make alternatives to institutionalization both a reality and a preferred approach to helping vulnerable and marginalized people achieve social and personal success while keeping communities safe and families intact. We also continue to work in collaboration with other advocates and groups who share our goals of deinstitutionalizing youth and strengthening families and communities.

Some of our activities include developing white papers, engaging social media to increase our impact, cultivating on-going relationships with legislators and advocates, providing expert testimony and offering training to governments on how to implement policies that can support deinstitutionalization and greater community investment.

 

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YAP is proud to be the founding organization of the Safely Home Campaign, a national movement to safely care for all youth and young adults in their home communities and with their families by reducing and preventing unnecessary out-of-home placements and creating safer, more supportive communities for at-risk young people.

 

 

Highlights of System Change

In the early 90's New Jersey had the dubious distinction of sending more kids to out of state residential placements than nearly every state in the nation.  Not only were the kids affected by being removed away from family members, but the resources for kids and families in need were exported with the kids to other states. To reverse that trend, YAP, under leadership of our CEO, Jeff Fleischer, in collaboration with grassroots advocacy groups and other service providers, led community meetings to devise strategies to bring children back home to NJ. 

The result was groundbreaking legislation called the Bring Our Children Home Act.  YAP co-authored the legislation and helped to implement the Act. This brought more than 1400 youth back home to their families from out of state residential facilities. YAP not only provided direct wraparound and advocacy services to many of the returning youth but also provided statewide training and technical assistance to support the effort. As a result New Jersey went from being the number two state in the country for placing children out of state to one of the lowest.

The Centers for Disease Control now estimates that 1 in 88 children have been identified with an autism spectrum disorder. YAP recognizes the importance of learning from what individuals on the spectrum, "self-advocates," have to teach us.  YAP contracts with self-advocates to co-train staff and community members in face-to-face Autism trainings along with our Training Department. As a result of this integrated training, community members gain a valuable understanding of what life is like on the autism spectrum from an "inside out" perspective-—from those actually experiencing autism. 

Self advocates share their life stories, what they've found helpful (and not so helpful) when working with direct care staff, and their unique insights. Because the autism label covers such a wide spectrum of learning styles and capacities, self-advocates introduce us to some very individualized means of support for that spectrum, and help us to understand how their experiences and relationships have helped to shape and improve their lives. By including their perspectives in these trainings, self-advocates influence how policies and practices that affect them and others on the spectrum are made and implemented.

Over the last several years, YAP staff have advocated for gang-involved youth and youth at risk of detention on the national level in myriad forums.

Some examples include providing oral and written testimony to Attorney General Eric Holder's Commission on Childhood Exposure to Violence, and Moderating a Congressional Briefing sponsored by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Congressman Dale Kildee (D – MI-5) on how to help disconnected youth aged 16-24 get reconnected to school and work and avoid negative outcomes, like institutionalization. 

We've also worked with Congressman Bobby Scott to provide information about community-based programs that work effectively with gang-involved youth in support of the Youth PROMISE Act.  Congressman Scott also invited YAP to participate on a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference about how YAP has successfully worked with gang-involved youth in the community.

New York Times reporter Paul Tough spent a year shadowing YAP Director Steven Gates as he worked with gang-involved youth on the South Side of Chicago. The youth Steve worked with were exposed to severe and chronic episodes of violence and living in extreme poverty. The result of Tough's exposure to Steve and the kids he works with was a front page article on the NY Times Magazine using YAP's intervention to frame the realities of extreme poverty in America, its effect on children and interventions that effectively combat some of those effects.   

Tough also included his experiences with Steve and the YAP interventions he observed in his New York Times Bestselling Book, How Children Succeed. The exposure of the article and the year Steve Gates spent with Paul Tough led to Steve participating in a panel discussion on UP with Chris Hayes, a talk show on MSNBC. Steve used his expertise as a street worker specializing in helping kids living in extreme poverty to shed light on a national discussion about poverty. An effective advocate, Steve demonstrated that people living in extreme poverty act reasonably for their circumstances and successfully challenged criticism that material possessions, such as microwaves, somehow made poor people "less poor."

In 2010, some YAP alumni were selected to present at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice Conference in Washington DC.  During their visit to DC, the young people each participated in a Hill visit training offered by CJJ and scheduled meetings with their representatives in Congress.  The young people shared their personal experiences with members and staff about what affects them in their local communities, how their lives had been affected by being system-involved youth and what Congress can do to help, and also gave their input on national issues of importance to them.