ALIIVE, Roberts County
A New Years Eve party for the youth at ALIIVE.

Ending the Truancy to Prison Pipeline for Native Youth

Christina Rose

Incarcerated youth on the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota, too often find themselves back in the juvenile detention system only weeks after they return home. But a new Young Ambassadors Program gives them an opportunity to break that cycle and become leaders in their community.

“The majority of our incarcerated Native youth start out with truancy problems. They get the books thrown at them, and their life after that is pretty much done,” said Dustina Gill, Sisseton-Wahpeton, project manager at ALIIVE, a state accredited prevention program in Roberts County, South Dakota. Gill recently returned from the White House where she met with then Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs Jodi Gillette, of the Standing Rock Reservation, and several youth advocates. There she presented her thoughts on youth suicide, alcoholism and incarceration.

When youth are released from mental health or juvenile justice programs, they come to ALIIVE for support. Gill’s program seeks to expand services to offer mental health support to the recently released youth and their families.

Jaron, a 17-year-old high school student, said he continually struggles with addiction and appreciates the environment he finds at ALIIVE. “The kids are great,” Jaron said that when he was sent away, he had the chance to work on his addictions, but when he returned, “we come back to the same environment.”

Without proper counseling, families don’t have the tools to support their children’s return, to help them find new friends and make new habits. “I think every parent has expressed that frustration,” Gill said, adding that many of the youth quickly fall back into old patterns and end up back in the system. “Mental health goes hand-in-hand with juvenile reform,” she said.

Gill’s plan to break the cycle is based on a proven method of honing leadership skills. Throughout 2006 and 2007, she participated in Americans for Indian Opportunity founded by LaDonna Harris, Comanche, and other Native American activists in 1970. Every two years, a fellowship is offered to 17 adults in their 20s and 30s, who are invited to participate in leadership training based on traditional indigenous philosophies.

In AIO’s Young Ambassadors Program, leaders focus on community need. “How does your community need your personal medicine? How does your personal strength benefit your community?” asked Laura Harris, Comanche, executive director of AIO.

Harris was one of Gill’s advisors in AIO. She said Gill is adapting the Young Ambassadors Program for the Sisseton-Wahpeton youth at ALIIVE. “Dustina is sharing some of our values and principals... and is adapting it to the needs of their community to make it culturally appropriate for their tribe. Our program is for young adults, aged 20 to 30, Dustina’s is for teens,” Harris said.

Recently released youth are usually ignored by such leadership programs. “They may have a background of truancy, treatment, or they might be on probation. They don’t meet the criteria,” Gill said. “This is a brand new concept, and it will be offered as an alternative to juvenile detention through the court services and probation. We will be taking youth from 13 to18, and they have to apply. We want to be sure they want to do this,” Gill said.

Gill is operating the Young Ambassadors Program through ALIIVE as a nonprofit organization rather than through IHS or the tribe, because Indian Health Service doesn’t receive enough money to run well-staffed counseling programs in her area she said, and the other tribal health programs are already “fighting for the same federal dollar.”

Gill found through her own family experience how difficult it is to get an appointment with an IHS mental health professional. Frustrated with the system, Gill asked, “What do you say to a kid who is suicidal? Come back in eight weeks? There is an immediate need and we want to do it ourselves. We have the capacity, the space; we have everything we need to operate our own mental health center. We want to do it in a way where both the kids and parents come in.”

Until she finds funding, Gill is holding after-school and evening activities to encourage bonding between families and “creating happy memories,” she said. She is paying for snacks and incidentals from her own pocket. Counselors are volunteering their time until the program can offer individual counseling.

Group counseling is already available, but for some, individual counseling is critical. Gill asked, “How many teenagers are going to sit in front of a new friend and say, ‘You know, I felt suicidal today,’ or ‘I wanted to cry.’ They are not going to be open like that. When one falls, it creates a domino effect.”

When Gill was young she “was lucky enough to have a supportive grandma and family, and I was always selected for leadership programs.” She remembers those left behind, who weren’t chosen “because they didn’t have the money to clean their clothes. There were the kids who got left out” and “the kids who went down the wrong path… All they needed was that little bit of support, that nudge, for somebody to say, ‘Hey I believe in you.’ That makes a world of difference. But I don’t think there’s enough people that do that, or enough time, or even enough resources,” Gill said.

Gill worked for her tribe for eight years, and was active in promoting the passage of the Violence Against Women Act and has also worked with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. When Harris first met Gill in 2006, she remembers a young woman who had rarely left her reservation. “Dustina didn’t want to get on a plane to come to the first meeting. This year she was willing to jump into a little tiny plane to go out to the Amazon jungle. Now she is taking a risk with her Young Ambassadors Program. We encourage her—give her moral support and technical assistance. She really is the poster girl for the Ambassadors Program.”

To contact Dustina Gill and the Young Ambassador program, email [email protected].

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