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Crime

‘These young people matter.’ Anti-violence program Roca to expand into southeastern Baltimore County

The teens and young men in southeastern Baltimore County most at risk of killing or being killed are the target of an initiative set to expand to beyond the city’s borders for the first time in Maryland.

Roca, which launched in Baltimore four years ago and also has sites in Connecticut and Massachusetts, is a nonprofit violence intervention program that seeks to help the at-risk population change behaviors through “relentless” outreach efforts, programs and connection to services, ranging from therapy to education and employment classes.

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Its efforts, officials said at a Friday announcement outside Essex’s Stembridge Community Center, begin with knocking on doors and connecting to people who sometimes don’t want to be found or to engage.

“We keep going because these young people matter, and they can do something different,” said Kurtis Palermo, Roca Maryland’s executive vice president. “We know that young people at the center of urban violence can change. And we’ve seen it.”

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The pilot will start in Essex with two employees, who together could work with between 40 to 60 youth ages 16 to 24, program leaders said at Friday’s announcement. The individuals who could see outreach from the program have yet to be identified, but program leaders said they’ve begun to make connections and seek referrals.

Palermo said Baltimore’s program recently saw its first graduating class, a cohort of nine, all of whom are working and have no new arrests. One of them has since been hired by Roca itself.

The city’s program since 2018 has worked with 445 young people, according to a news release, 98% of whom had arrests prior to engaging with Roca. Of the 84 who have stuck with the program for at least two years of the four-year initiative, 79% had no new arrests and 98% had no new incarcerations, the release said.

“Success looks different for everybody,” added Palermo, pointing to examples ranging from reunification with family, job certification and even a person changing the name they wish to go by from a street name to their first name.

On Friday, Andrea Harrison, Roca’s assistant director of family and community partnerships, who has been part of Baltimore’s program since it launched, described a young person who called her late one night because he “wanted not to be here anymore.”

Harrison stayed on the phone with him for 45 minutes while he rode the bus, until he ultimately agreed to spend the night at a family member’s house.

“He didn’t trust anyone, but he trusted Roca and he trusted me enough to give me the phone call that night,” Harrison said.

The young person, once unsheltered, has moved into a house now and is working, Harrison said.

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“He’s doing everything that he set out to do. And that is due to our persistence, our relentlessness, in keeping him engaged,” Harrison said. “No matter what the challenge that our young people are facing, we are built to help them through it.”

The Essex pilot program will be funded with state and federal dollars, officials said. The exact cost is not clear, but the county said it would be covered through allocation of $1 million from the state state and $2 million from the U.S. Justice Department, both of which were set aside for Roca expansion, including in the county.

Roca’s Impact Institute also will provide training to the Baltimore County Police Department, officials said. It already has begun training Maryland Department of Juvenile Services staff on trauma and cognitive behavioral therapy, which centers the relationships between thoughts, emotions and actions.

James “JT” Timpson, who manages the Roca Impact Institute’s community violence initiatives, said Friday that Baltimore County Police officers would receive a daylong class on trauma-informed interactions, similar to what has begun with the Baltimore Police Department.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said Roca will effect change by “moving the needle to help break cycles of violence,” focusing on young people by first addressing trauma.

“Reaching high-risk young people with a therapeutic focus and engaging them in meaningful positive change can change their lives entirely,” Olszewski said. “Every young person matters, and they need to understand that they have value and that they can make valuable contributions to our community.”

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The county executive described the Essex pilot as part of a cross-departmental effort to direct county resources to help the community recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and its historical challenges, including around social and economic disparities.


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