The coronavirus is decimating government budgets, leaving politicians to snip away part of the safety net intended to catch the most vulnerable—like 12-year-old Jahsaun, identified by the state of New Jersey as at risk of falling into foster care or juvenile detention.
Just about every week, Jahsaun hangs out with Sam Barber from Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), a national nonprofit that contracts with the state to pair advocates with 1,500 kids in all 21 counties. Barber’s role is part mentor, part friend, part guy-who-gets-Jahsaun-out-of-the-apartment. He takes Jahsaun to McDonald’s, to the library to research how to make YouTube videos (Jahsaun’s passion), and to the Delaware River to go fishing near Jahsaun’s home in Burlington City in South Jersey.
Because of Barber, Jahsaun is no longer on psychiatric medication, according to his mother, Sara. (Their last names are being omitted in this story to protect Jahsaun’s privacy). And Sara herself is “grounded and focused.” Mother and son were separated for four years as Sara dealt with problems related to addiction and homelessness. YAP, she said, has enabled them to stay united over the last year.
“Sam is like a father figure, part of the family now,” Sara said. “It’s been a blessing.”
Governor Phil Murphy planned to cut the YAP program by 55 percent due to coronavirus-related revenue shortfalls that is already leading the state to borrow at least $4 billion to balance the budget. On Tuesday, though, officials with the state senate said lawmakers will vote to restore $3 million to the Department of Child and Families, which funds YAP, but it’s still unclear if that will pay for YAP’s $7.8 million line item in its entirety.
“Ooh, I got something! I got something!” Jahsaun yelled as a fish nibbled away his bait in the murky Delaware one evening last week. “Wait, wait, wait...Oh dude, I don’t know.”
“Just tighten your line, in case it does bite,” Barber said.
“No, it took my bait. Dang.”
Of course, catching fish isn’t the point of Youth Advocate Programs. The point is the conversations that are had while waiting for that fish to bite.
“If tomorrow you could have any job but could still get paid million dollars a year, what would it be?” Barber asked.
Jahsaun looked at his line cast in the water and said maybe he’d work at Chipotle. Then Barber asked Jahsaun to guess what kind of job Barber himself would want.
“Professional fisher[man]?” Jahsaun asked. “Songwriter?”
Barber laughed. He said no, he’d want “the job that I’m doing right now...Because it’s not a job at all. It’s actually what I love to do. I like to spend time with you guys and hang out and do things.”
That first time they hung out, Barber and Jahsaun ended up spending about five hours together. “Mom called me immediately after I dropped him off, he had a big smile, she was like, ‘I don’t know what you did, but my son loves you,’” Barber said. They’ve kept up the weekly routine for the last eight months (the meetings went virtual at the outset of the pandemic).
Barber got into a lot of trouble with the law as a child. He was sentenced to adult prison at the age of 16. According to Barber, the judge “actually called me a menace to society and said there was nothing you can contribute to society.” By the time Barber got out nearly six years later, just about the only job he could get with his criminal record was working for YAP. That history gives Barber credibility with his kids.
“He’s done so much stuff for me,” Jahsaun said. “He’s taken me fishing, he’s taken me out for food, he’s given me a tablet—which I really like.”
Since 1978 YAP has provided a variety of services for families in crisis in New Jersey, including assistance with purchasing food and paying for utilities—whatever is deemed necessary to keep children out of foster care and juvenile detention. And during the pandemic, YAP workers distributed PPE, computer equipment, food, and clothing to hundreds of families, according to Jeff Fleischer, YAP’s CEO.
Murphy must sign a new state budget by October 1st. If YAP isn’t fully funded, federal COVID relief money could supplement the shortfall, a state official said.
Matt Katz reports on air at WNYC about immigration, refugees, hate, and national security. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattkatz00.