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Nonprofit Uses ‘Relentless’ Outreach to Connect With High-Risk Youth

Roca is recognized for helping young people break the cycle of poverty, violence and incarceration.

By Kate Bryan  |  July 2, 2024

David Baxter and his colleagues know what it means to never give up.

“Relentless. We are relentless,” says Baxter, reentry coordinator at Roca, a Boston-based nonprofit committed to helping young people break the cycle of poverty, violence and incarceration.

Speaking to lawmakers and legislative staff from eight states, Roca representatives shared their experiences in the community and “behind the wall”—working within the confines of jail or prison—reaching out to 16- to 24-year-olds who have dealt with urban violence, poverty and justice system involvement.

As a model, data-driven program, Roca is internationally recognized for helping emerging adults break the cycle of incarceration, gain access to stable housing and employment, and learn positive coping skills. Since its inception in 1988 in Chelsea, Mass., the organization has added six locations and changed thousands of lives. In 2023 alone, Roca reached out to 114,976 individuals in the New England area who were either already system-involved or at risk of being the victim or perpetrator of crime.

“Being relentless means ensuring safety and stability for our participants and assisting with their basic needs. It involves staying committed to engaging with them, even during relapses when they push us away.”

—Carl Miranda, Roca Boston

In a two-story building with a bright, lime green accent wall, Roca Boston Director Carl Miranda and his team welcomed lawmakers, legislative staff and NCSL policy experts to the site where the program’s interventions happen. The visitors learned about the four pillars that inform Roca’s evidence-based intervention model: cultivating safety and stability; Rewire CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy); trauma-informed programming; and engaging institutions and systems.

“Being relentless means ensuring safety and stability for our participants and assisting with their basic needs,” Miranda says. “It involves staying committed to engaging with them, even during relapses when they push us away. Essentially, it requires us to draw closer when they want to distance themselves. Above all, it means never giving up.”

Often marginalized and socially dislocated, many of the young adults supported by Roca face barriers to positive community engagement such as an arrest or criminal record, substance use, lack of employment and/or a history of victimization. “It was either jail or death,” says one program participant who now works at a local Boston business—a career path facilitated by Roca’s partnership with community stakeholders.

Roca’s interventions are tailored to emerging adults. For example, Roca’s Rewire CBT—developed in collaboration with Massachusetts General Hospital—teaches young adults to identify negative patterns, pause and make a choice before they act. As meeting participants learned from Lisa Jacobs, associate director of the Legislation and Policy Clinic at Loyola University School of Law, physical maturity does not correlate to developmental maturity or capacity.

According to the latest research, emerging adults are susceptible to making “in the moment” decisions influenced by peer pressure, having increased sensitivity to rewards and lacking consideration for long-term consequences. These neurocognitive features, and the structural changes the brain undergoes during young adulthood, make emerging adults distinct from their adolescent and adult counterparts.

“As a former teacher and principal, I have always said that students who have reached the age of 18 aren't necessarily ready for the realities and demands of the adult world,” says Oklahoma Rep. Danny Sterling, who participated in the tour. “I have stated repeatedly that I believe most young people do not really mature psychologically until the mid to late 20s. My assumptions were confirmed after receiving the data and research that was presented in this conference. After the Roca visit and listening to the staff and participants, I am even more thoroughly convinced that I was on the right track.”

In addition to basing its intervention model on evidence-based practices, Roca also meticulously collects data to track outcomes. During 2023, Roca served 1,758 young adults in New England and Maryland, with an 88% retention rate. Of those individuals with justice system involvement, 91% had no new arrests and 97% were not reincarcerated during the 24 months (or longer) they were enrolled in the program. Furthermore, 96% of Roca participants reported improved behavioral health, and 77% reported improved emotional regulation.

“Our success stems from our relentless pursuit of partnerships with system partners, recognizing that we can't achieve our goals alone,” Miranda says. “For instance, during peak violence hours between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., we rely heavily on our police and hospital partners for wraparound assistance. In courts, we depend on our DA partners, among others.”

Miranda says operational know-how is key. “We focus intently on daily operations: tracking every effort, analyzing data patterns, and ensuring our resources are optimally allocated to make a meaningful impact on our participants’ lives.”

Montana Rep. Laura Smith says she’s eager to share with her colleagues Roca’s proven formula of personal relationships, accessible cognitive behavioral programming and employment and opportunities for young adults in their communities. “This is a program we should seek to replicate across the country.”

Kate Bryan is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.

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