Faith-based programs for kids can work without legal controversies
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Faith-based correctional programs for troubled kids can survive and even thrive without legal challenges if they follow Florida’s lead in keeping participation voluntary and welcoming different religions, a new University of Florida study finds.
A pilot program in Florida believed to be the first in the nation for juvenile offenders has successfully avoided the separation of church and state controversies that have plagued some adult programs around the country and even shut down a prison fellowship in Iowa, said Jodi Lane, a UF criminologist who led the research.
“If other states can learn from Florida by anticipating the legal issues and addressing them before they start, they’re going to be in much better shape,” Lane said. “I would expect Florida to be a model for other states that want to set up their own juvenile faith-based programs.”
Unlike many other programs in the country that are exclusively Christian, Florida’s participants can select from other religions, Lane said. If a youth is Islamic, for example, the people running the program will find a volunteer from that faith to serve as a mentor, she said.
The other big constitutional issue — religious coercion — was not a concern here because the program was completely voluntary; interested juveniles and their parents signed a consent form agreeing to participate, she said.
As part of the Bush presidency’s focus on faith-based initiatives, Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice received $3.5 million in 2003 to create a pilot faith- and community-based initiative within juvenile correctional facilities. At the state’s request, Lane and UF criminology professor Lonn Lanza-Kaduce evaluated the program two years later in five residential facilities for incarcerated youth, three for boys and two for girls.
Their initial results were published in the April edition of the journal Evaluation Review titled “Before You Open the Doors: Ten Lessons from Florida’s Faith and Community-Based Delinquency Treatment Initiative.” Findings on whether the treatment helped prevent offenders from committing new crimes are expected this fall after the youths will have returned to the community for at least six months, Lane said.
But so far, anecdotal evidence shows the program to be a positive experience, Lane said. Participants say their morale has improved, and staff report inmates are better behaved, she said.
“We know these kids are getting a lot of attention, which is helping them,” she said. “When you talk with them, they definitely let you know they feel people care about them.”
Lane said she believes the passion the staff have for helping youth, which is driven by their faith, gives them the determination to make sure the participants have whatever they need, even if it means going out and shopping for it themselves. Many left lucrative jobs for a position with no benefits because they believed so strongly in what they were doing, she said.
“They gave up their personal lives to make sure things ran smoothly,” she said. “It was not your typical institutional setting where people tend to work their shift and go home. I think there is something about the faith-based community that gives them energy to work with kids, and kids need people with energy rather than those who go to work every day for a paycheck.”
Recruiting enough mentors for the youths was one struggle the staff faced, she said.
Florida’s program departed from those in many other states in that it sought mentors from a variety of religions, Lane said. Other programs in the country tended to be Christian, whereas participants in Florida were allowed to select from any religion or choose a secular mentor from a community organization if they preferred that to a faith-based mentor, she said.
“There were Jewish kids, who were given a Jewish mentor, Muslim kids, who were matched up with a Muslim mentor, and others who were more nontraditional,” she said.
The biggest concern was whether the youths would feel pressured to participate in the program and Florida’s program was designed to prevent this from happening, Lane said.
The youths are allowed not only the choice of whether to participate, but they also were given the alternative of having something else to do, she said.
“If there is a Bible study, the kid not only gets to choose whether or not to go, but is also given another equally enticing opportunity instead of just sitting in a cell and being penalized for not taking part in the religious activity,” she said.
Also to Florida’s advantage is that its constitution allows only community donations to be used to buy religious items, such as Bibles or the Quran, she said.