Program Helps Youth 'Caught in the Crossfire' Make Positive Changes
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor

For many who have experienced a violent episode indicate, it is that moment that sparked a change in their lives. For youth involved with gangs or other violent behavior in the Oakland area, one program relies on that theory and assists youth in making more positive choices with the help of those who've had similar experiences. 

"The hope is to engage young people and to try and build a rapport while they are at a vulnerable point to see, first, if they are involved in other things, if there can be an intervention and second, hopefully discourage them from retaliation and maintain a more positive lifestyle," says Ricka White, Case Manager for the Youth Violence Prevention Program (YVPP). 

The YVPP, created by the Alameda County Medical Center/Highland Hospital, utilizes the services of Crisis Intervention Specialists (CIS) from Caught in the Crossfire, an innovative program that provides peer support both at the bedside and the home of youths who are hospitalized for violent injuries. The program also works with young people who are on probation for violence-related offenses, have been suspended from school and awaiting disciplinary hearings, or have been stopped, but not arrested by the Oakland Police Department.

"We realized that most of the kids being injured had a probation or criminal record," says Nic Bekaert, Program Director for Caught in the Crossfire. "If we were to go to probation [and work with youth at that stage], we'd be more likely to stop violence earlier. In working with probation, we've seen a lot of victims of violence or [youth] with violent histories, so this is another point at which to intersect the circle of violence."

For those in the hospital, however, the emotional and physical wounds suffered serve as further motivation to change.

"It's unfortunate we find them at this point, but they are injured and hopefully [the specialists] use this time to engage them in something else," adds White. "They try to curve retaliation and re-injury. We don't want them to come back to the emergency room or send someone else here [by retaliating]."

The Value of Self Experience

Caught in the Crossfire is a program of YouthALIVE!, a non-profit health agency that works to prevent youth violence and generate youth leadership throughout California communities. The program began after a social worker at the hospital, a victim of gun violence himself, reflected on his own hospitalization, how traumatic the experience was and how, while lying in a hospital bed, he was open to the input of others on how to change his lifestyle. 

YouthALIVE! was approached as an organization to partner with the hospital and provide peer support to hospitalized youth. In 1994, Caught in the Crossfire was created to visit hospital beds and provide solutions to youth who were going through an intense period of trauma and self-discovery.

"These kids have their guard way down, are accepting to feedback, look at their lives and see that there is not much going on - in fact, they are going nowhere fast," says Bekaert. "It's also a common sense issue. These kids are not in their own element and depend on others for help, so it's a great time to consider changes in their lifestyle, especially if approached with concrete [services], like finding a job, getting back to school or dealing with family issues."

Bekaert adds that the program does not use volunteers, but instead hires members of the community who have a lot of personal experience similar to what these youth are going through, from the injuries to dealing with the criminal justice system, to living on the streets.

"That [experience] is one of the strongest assets of the program," he says. "They don't make offers to get the youth back on their feet, say 'we know a great program for you' or 'here's a phone number for you,' it's more 'I can do it for you - I'll be your partner through this experience."

Specialists go through additional training to supplement their own experiences. The hospitals offer training on how to work with patients, from issues of confidentiality to what is appropriate/not appropriate in a hospital setting. For those who've never been a mentor or peer support system, there is training on the basics of working with a client, how to interact and what to accomplish and look for when dealing with youth. Additionally, specialists receive sexual assault training, as counselors, but rather to deal with the issue if it arises and be able to properly refer the youth to someone who can help them.

"While their experience is by far their greatest asset, when CIS start, it can be their only one," says Bekaert. "What is lacking is that professional background and clinical skills. Most know the juvenile justice system and what it is like living on the streets better than I do, but they need to learn about case management, prioritizing, documenting their work and other skills."

Moving Out of the Hospital, Back to the Community

While initial visits to a youth's bedside are to build a relationship, once released, the CIS will work with a young person to ease his/her transition back into the community. Besides providing support and mentoring, the CIS establishes a direct relationship with probation officers and hospital social workers, while linking the youth and their families with appropriate community-based services, including medical services, job training programs and educational programs.

"As an agency, we don't provide all the needed services [for these youth]," says Bekaert. "We provide the peer counselors that not only mentor and act as a positive role model but simultaneously assist in terms of getting kids where they need to get to."

For example, if a youth wants a job, but has no license and a criminal record, the CIS will assist them in sealing their record and go with them to the motor vehicle registry to take the test and help with some of the fees. They will then help the youth create a resume and meet with an employer.

"Employers look forward to our referrals, because they know there is [the CIS], that they can call who is accountable," says Bekaert.

While both Bekaert and White acknowledge that not every youth who starts their involvement with the program continues on once they return home, they both recognize that the impact made while in the hospital is an important factor.

"This is a voluntary program - we can't force [youth] to do it," says White. "[The CIS] tend to do a lot of work while they are injured and more receptive. Once they've left and feel good, it is difficult to maintain a long-term relationship."

White adds that, in her opinion, youth have an air of invincibility already, so going through the hospitalization process and being released is proof that they survived and can be a "badge" on the street. For her, they program is an attempt for the hospital community to be of some assistance in these youths' lives.

"We give them options and maybe this is a time when they can look at their lifestyle and do something different - like a job or school," says White.


For more information on the Caught in the Crossfire program, go to:

Nic Bekaert, Program Director, Caught in the Crossfire, (510) 594-2588, ext. 310

Ricka White, Case Manager, Youth Violence Prevention Program, (510) 437-5166
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339