March 11, 2013 – TRENTON, N.J. — For 14 years, staff and volunteers from PEI Kids have been doing quiet work on Saturday mornings in Trenton, trying — sometimes successfully, sometimes in vain — to straighten out the lives of kids who’ve racked up auto theft or assault charges before their 18th birthday.
They work on anger management and de-escalation tactics with teens with hair-trigger tempers. They role-play, asking kids to place themselves in scenarios and walk through how they would react. But mostly, they talk, about subjects like gang life, loyalty vs. snitching or the latest burst of violence on the streets. Sometimes, more importantly, they just listen.
“We talk. It’s informal,” program coordinator Rob Fiorello said. “We have a topic we today, we talked about loyalty and how showing loyalty to the wrong group, the wrong person can have very dire consequences. We talk about community violence, how to stay safe, how to avoid situations that could put us in harm’s way, how to adhere to the law, how to be successful within the parameters of the law.”
“Mostly,” he continued, “we talk. We talk about things maybe they should be talking to a parent or guardian about, maybe they don’t feel comfortable talking to a parent or guardian about. We are here every week. We are structure. We are consistency.”
The program is called Comprehensive Juvenile Offenders Outreach Services — CJOOS for short. It is a court-mandated probation program run by Lawrence-based nonprofit PEI Kids for juveniles between the ages of 11 to 18. Founded in 1985 as Prevention Education Inc, the organization was renamed PEI Kids and specializes in three main types of programming: Prevention, Education and Intervention.
Teens who have committed an auto or assault offense are ordered there by the juvenile unit of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office or family court and must spend every Saturday morning for 16 weeks with Fiorello, the juvenile intervention services coordinator for PEI Kids, facilitators Mark Parrish, a retired state corrections officer and deacon, and Vertulie Massenet, and volunteers from The College of New Jersey’s Bonner Community Scholars program.
In coordinators like Fiorello and Parrish, graduates said they found non-judgmental, sympathetic sounding boards. They’ve attended baby showers and graduations for CJOOS kids, written letters of recommendation for jobs and appeared at court hearings.
“I used to talk to Rob every day and tell him about my problems,” a graduate named Michael, 18, said after a class two weeks ago. “I saw him as a father figure. I’d tell him, ‘Mr. Rob, I got a problem here’ and he’d give me good feedback on what I should do, how I should have handled a situation. This program helped me, motivated me to reach my goals, reach my future, stay out of trouble, leave the gang life.”
“The trust of the kids and the relationships we have with the kids mean more than anything,” Fiorello said. “We’ve worked very hard to be worthy of that trust for a long, long time. I mean, they’ll bring their friends to their probation program.”
It’s not easy work — and program leaders are the first to admit it. They work with kids who have been immersed or exposed to gang culture for years, often have a typical teenage distrust for authority and have been remanded to a probation program that requires them to give up their Saturday mornings.
“We don’t give up and sometimes we want to,” Fiorello said. “In 2005, we lost a bunch of kids and we’ve lost a lot along the way. But we have to concentrate on the good and keeping them safe.”
It’s work Fiorello and his team feel is slowly making inroads in the lives of at-risk teens. The program’s recidivism rate hovers around 25 percent — lower than most re-offender rates for similar juvenile rehabilitation programs, according to PEI Kids. And beyond statistics, there’s the reality of program graduates who stop in every week on their own time to update Fiorello and Parrish on their lives or spare a few words to the younger kids sitting where they once did on Saturday mornings.
“What really convinced me is the response of the kids when I give it to them as a punishment, or a part of a sentence,” said assistant prosecutor Robin Scheiner, the head of the county’s juvenile unit. “They love him. They all call him Mr. Rob, they’re happy to go.”
And it’s not because Fiorello goes easy on them, she said.
“In my opinion, from talking with the kids, they know he cares about them, he speaks their language and presents things to them in a positive manner that helps them deal with all kinds of things in their life,” she said.
“I used to fight anybody who said anything about me or him or anybody around me,” a 22-year-old graduate named Tyrik said. “Now, we can just laugh it off and walk away from it. I got more patient, I understand, I got better social skills.”
The program runs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday at the Sam Naples Community Center, with room for about 20 kids in each 16-week cycle. Fiorello and company also show up on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school at Trenton Central High School to meet with CJOOS participants. They also teach anger management and other coping strategies to local teens at a Wednesday night class.
“It may seem reactive on the juvenile aspect but it’s actually proactive for the kids as young adults,” Massenet said. “They’re not 18 yet. There’s time to be able to intervene and assist them, God forbid, before they get charged at 18.”
Program leaders maintain an open-door policy, allowing anyone to attend even if they’ve missed several classes in a row or have already graduated from the program. In the program’s 14-year history, only seven participants have been permanently booted from the program.
“When everybody else has given up, Rob will always say, ‘I’ll take them back, I’ll try one more time,’” Scheiner said. “He never gives up on them. He’s a miracle worker.”
In class, emphasis is put on how to make better decisions, how to walk away from a brewing fight and avoid situations that could lead to problems — sometimes a tall order for groups of kids used to feuding with each other outside class.
“We have kids who genuinely dislike each other, borderline hate each other, from different neighborhoods,” Fiorello said. “But we tell them, for three hours a week you can put aside your differences. Just as negativity radiates into the community, positivity radiates too.”
Of course, it’s not all success stories. Fiorello and Massenet said they’ve seen gang culture explode in Trenton in the last decade. In the past few years alone, the violence and the shootings in the city have become bolder, they said. Shootings in broad daylight, once rare or even unthinkable, are occurring with alarming frequency.
“It’s just brazen, it’s bold,” Massenet said. “Daylight doesn’t even deter an individual… The city is literally under siege at any given point in time, any moment.”
Marcus Hunter, 16, a former CJOOS participant, was gunned down three weeks ago at 2:30 p.m. on Beakes Street.
“We knew him well,” Fiorello said. “He spent the better part of a year with us. No child deserves such a fate. His mother used to drop him off here on Saturday mornings.”
Still, Fiorello sees opportunities to reach the troubled teens the court sends him.
“One of the things is, if you have 10 gang members, seven out of 10 didn’t want to join the gang. Seven out of 10 are poor decision-makers and three out of 10 embrace that lifestyle wholeheartedly,” he said. “While we work with everyone, 70 percent, the seven out of 10 we’re talking about, they’re willing to turn it around. And I think we could get some of the three, too.”
“With a logical, non-confrontational, fact-based manner, we’ll win,” he said.
Contact Erin Duffy at (609) 989-5723 or [email protected].