Home News Center YJLI Fellow Lenore Wyant's Advocacy Work Gives Youth a Bigger Voice in Policy Reform

YJLI Fellow Lenore Wyant's Advocacy Work Gives Youth a Bigger Voice in Policy Reform

January 25, 2019
Sarah Bryer



We sat down with Lenore Wyant, a Youth Justice Leadership Institute Fellow, and the DMC Coordinator for Pennsylvania, to talk about her path to youth justice reform and her vision for a just future.

What got you into youth justice reform?

When I graduated from undergrad with a degree in Social Work, I found work as a Foster Care Supervisor providing oversight to foster kids in out-of-home placements. Most of my caseload consisted of urban youth of color placed in foster home in rural central Pennsylvania homes.  I observed the traumas that are intrinsic with being separated from family, friends, familiar surroundings and your community culture.  Layered on to that trauma, family visits created from parents who made promises they were rarely able to keep and fathers or siblings who were incarcerated.  From that experience grew a desire to understand the historical complexities of the youth justice system and to be an advocate for justice.

I have an older sister who, was incarcerated several times, but I never got the impression she was being helped for her issue.  It was a major inconvenience to her and our family, but the value that could have been gained by engaging her intellect in skill building and self-esteem development were sadly not a part of her time in the system.  From that experience grew a desire to support the reformation of educational opportunities for youth involved in the justice system.  Some places are really getting it right with seamless credit transfers at discharge or even opportunities to take college credits while finishing time in secure treatment, but most continue to struggle. 

Adding to these experiences, were jobs working within my own community with youth and families that were at-risk for becoming involved with the youth justice system; I’ve provided statewide supervision for the Title IV-E John H. Chafee Foster Care training and technical assistance initiative; I worked several years as a youth sex offender, fire setter and habitual offender Treatment Supervisor for young people in secure out of home placement.   Those experience led me to my own conclusion about cycles of trauma, hurt, silence, and the major impacts these life experiences have in shaping a child’s attitudes, beliefs and values. 

I advocate for young people, those currently and formerly involved in the youth justice system, to have a bigger voice in policy reform and advocacy while they are being mentored, guided and supported by key leaders in youth justice.   I enjoy interpreting and simplify system processes to eases understanding. I am currently in a position where I can advocate for youth by helping to shape state level policy through the lens my own experiences, culture and the relationships.

 

Tell us about your advocacy project.

My advocacy project is aimed at informing Pennsylvania’s communities, citizens, stakeholders, courts and law enforcement about the disparities that exist for youth of color who come in to contact with our youth justice system.  My hope is that the information will spark interest at local and county levels to do a deeper dive into reasons why their data may be reflecting disproportionate minority contact.   It is a crossover project that will coincide with the works I do as the state’s DMC Coordinator.  For those that express interest in improving relationships between youth and law enforcement, Pennsylvania has a DMC Corporation that developed a youth/law enforcement engagement curriculum and forum process.  These locally hosted, facilitated sessions give youth and police a chance to sit down and talk about their differences, but more importantly their similarities.  It can be easy to say that you didn’t know that there was a problem – that you didn’t know that we’re arresting youth of color more than white kids, so my goal is to expose people to the reality of the numbers in a very clear and easy to understand ways -- not in “research language”, which can be challenging to people find interesting, but worded simplistically with colorful charts and graphs.  And I then want to develop solution and process that will be used to collaboratively address identified problems.  My focus is on being solutions-driven, developing realistic goals and communicating with communities to develop their own strategic plan with action steps for how to address local issues of race and ethnic disparities in a community. 

Right now, I’m going through the data and looking at counties where there are high arrest rates for youth of color in contrast to the population of youth of color.  In about 8 or so counties, I’m seeing clear disparities in the percentage of youth of color contacts with police/law enforcement as compared to White youth.  My next step will be to use PAs uniform crime reporting system to get a closer look at reasons for arrest.  In one county I am seeing disparities for Black boys’ arrests for Larceny-Theft, Runaway, Aggravated Assault and Robbery in contrast is the White males arrested for liquor law violations, drunkenness and sex offenses much more frequently than their Black peers.  For Black girls in the county, arrests were markedly higher, again for Larceny-Theft, Runaway and Aggravated Assault as was the case for Black boys.   Arrests where White girls significantly outnumbered Black, in the county, were in Liquor Law, Vandalism, Drug Possession – Marijuana and Non-Aggravated Assault.  All boys in the county are being arrested at similar rates for things like Vandalism, Possession of Marijuana; all girls in the county have similar rates for Disorderly Conduct.

It’s so exciting when you’re using data and something suddenly pops out at you and makes sense.  You really see the value in using data to inform decisions, strategies and determine direction toward goals.

What motivates you?

What keeps me going is the knowledge is that I can always do better. There’s always something new for me to learn – someone new for me to teach – a new experience I can grow form.  And my little girl, my 11-year-old – she motivates me.  I want to model for her in what it means to be an intelligent woman of color in the U.S.  Not just about the challenges and struggles, but about the opportunities and options.  I am also motivated to do good works as a payback to my parents who were not able to attend college, but who put in a great deal of hard work so that I could go.  I want them to know it was a worthwhile investment. 

What’s your dream youth justice vision?

My vision is that all youth be treated fairly – that decisions impacting their lives are made individually, based on sound reasoning – with the full participation and feedback of loved ones, parents/caregivers, victims, community members – taking a holistic look at everything that impacts them – what is happening in the home, school, and community with peer groups; what types of resources does the youth lack access to and what is accessible.  I have a dream that we create space for all kids to make mistakes, where appropriate consequences align with appropriate incentives.   I also dream that we change our language and get rid of the word juvenile; a word few if any parents would use to describe their child leaving it as an unattractive label that pairs most often with the work delinquent.

My vision is doing more frontend/upstream interventions like teaching parenting skills in-home, so that cyclical behaviors with poor outcomes can be eliminated.  And when youth do have challenges the would require out of home placement that they are treated close to home so that parents don’t have to face the expenses of travel for visits and participation in treatment, for appropriate discharge planning and continuity of services after discharge.  In addition to systems that allow for better tracking of youth after various interventions.

My vision is giving communities and grassroots groups the resources to develop and keep programs that work for their kids.  And grassroots programs that work should be able to go through a process that teaches the organizational development and how capture the data so that they are “legitimized” and can get adequate funding. 

My vision is keeping the discussion going around adolescent brain development, trauma informed care and promoting restorative practices so that the voice of both victim, offender and the community can talk about what outcomes they would like to see.  Lastly, that we can have open, competent and compassionate conversations about the history of race in the US acknowledging how history impacts present day.

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