State will close all juvenile-delinquent programs


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 Judge Margaret Alfonso
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Judge Margaret Alfonso

GULFPORT -- The state plans to close all of its Adolescent Opportunity Programs, which serve at-risk youth, effective July 1, following an order by the federal government that restricts Mississippi's use of federal welfare dollars.

"It's devastating," said Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso. "At a time when alternatives to the incarceration of children are being examined throughout the country, we are getting ready to lose the most valuable tool we had in this effort.

"If this state is serious about addressing the needs of children, this loss of funding needs to be reversed immediately."

Adolescent Opportunity Programs are community-based programs that provide resources to at-risk juvenile delinquents and their families. The resources -- such as mental-health treatment, probation services, recreational therapy, counseling, vocational training and others -- are designed to divert young people from further involvement in the criminal-justice system.

Alfonso said the programs serve as the last available reform effort before a child is committed to a state mental institution or juvenile detention.

The judge specifically pointed to the crucial transportation resources provided by the programs, which will no longer be available if the closures take effect.

"Transportation is such a huge issue to the community I serve," she said. "This was the only program that provided transportation. It's not going to be able to be replaced by anything that currently exists."

Alfonso expressed her disappointment Monday with a letter she'd received from the state Department of Human Services, saying the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is no longer allowing it to fund the programs with subsidies from the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.

States are permitted to directly allocate federal TANF dollars, which are designed to assist needy families with child-care costs. Mississippi has recently come under scrutiny for its failure to use TANF money for their proper purposes.

Only about 15 percent of federally eligible children in Mississippi were actually receiving TANF benefits, according to a report by the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

And in 2013, Mississippi had allocated none of the subsidies to child care, leaving more than $7.8 million in TANF money unspent, according to the HHS.