Meet Jeff Fleischer: Community non-profit leader and new director of DCYF 

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 07-24-2023 1:33 PM

For $1 in North Newark, New Jersey, Jeff Fleischer and the organization La Casa de Don Pedro, bought an old burned furniture warehouse. Three years later, that abandoned space became a youth center – with street outreach, afterschool programs, employment search programs and eventually an alternative school as well.

This was the start of four decades in the non-profit child services sector for Fleischer, who went on to work at and lead the Youth Advocate Program for 38 years.

Through his time at the Youth Advocate Program, a non-profit that provides community-based alternatives to youth incarceration in 35 states, he worked alongside state governments to implement solutions that kept families unified with their children.

Now, he’ll be on the flip side of that work as New Hampshire’s next director of the Division of Children, Youth and Families.

The Executive Council approved his appointment at their meeting on July 19 and he’ll begin on Aug. 1.

Fleischer inherits the department from Joe Ribsam, who in his five years at the helm of DCYF introduced a children’s behavioral health bureau and transformed probation rules for juvenile offenders. During his tenure, the number of residents at the Sununu Youth Services Center, the state’s sole youth detention site, hit record lows, with an average of 12 kids per night at the 144-bed facility.

Building off of this new foundation will be Fleischer’s challenge, he said.

“Keep it going, strengthen it, fill in the blanks, stand it up and really make it a real and genuine, authentic, community-based system of care as an alternative to separating families,” he said.

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New Hampshire is one of few states that is now committed to building a smaller detention center with 12 to 18 beds. It’s a more therapeutic approach to juvenile incarceration where the facility mimics a house rather than an adult jail. And without a doubt it’s the right direction for the state, said Fleischer.

The new location of the facility is unknown, but after back in forth in the legislature this session, the current building is set to close by March 2024.

There are a few essentials for the new facility, according to Fleischer. The first is that kids who don’t need to be in the facility don’t get sent there.

That means an increased focus on building out community programs so there are effective and robust alternatives to incarceration. It’s a core theme of the mission of Youth Advocate Programs that he’s bringing with him to the Granite State.

“Kids that normally would go to the youth detention center need to be captured by really creative and effective and intensive programming so their needs get served before they ever have to go to a facility like that,” he said.

But in order to provide community services there needs to be funding to do so. If it costs $100,000 a year to place a kid in a detention center, a subsequent portion of that money should be available for alternatives.

“You don’t have to give us all $100,000 that you would pay in a detention or youth prison or residential facility,” he said. “But a good portion of that really meets those particular needs.”

The other key aspect of community care is tailoring individualized plans to the kids and their families.

To do so, service providers need to listen to what youth really need and design solutions specifically tailored to the individual, “as if they were the only kid in the system.”

And if a child has to be incarcerated, a tailored plan for what’s next needs to be in place before they leave the facility.

Community support could be connecting them to a local mental health center, or even encouraging the youth to get a part-time job for lessons in responsibility and accountability.

Crafting these care plans is like a diagnosis at a doctor’s office, said Fleischer. Patients are often drawn to doctors that include their preferences and ask individual questions in treatment plans. Engaging the youth and their family to know what will work, is no different here.

“It’s about really including the family and young person in their own destiny,” he said.

Another way to bolster support for kids in their community is through people with lived experiences.

“These are folks in the community where the kids live,” he said. “There are many times where they have been in the system themselves, that really know the community, have lived there all their lives, know the strengths of the community and the dangers of the community, and have an uncanny ability to build trust with young people.”

With a limited workforce and high turnover rate that has caused staffing challenges in New Hampshire, especially at SYSC, hiring people with lived experience as an alternative credential could be a way to fill open positions, said Fleischer.

And what will be most important, especially when opening the new facility, is to carry forth a strong message to guide staff.

“It’s about finding out what works and what families need near their homes. That’s a great mission,” he said. “And then make sure that resources are redirected and focused in that area.”

When Fleischer starts in New Hampshire in August he’s excited to connect with nonprofit leaders, given his background. And he’ll look to them as partners to strengthen community support for kids.

“That’s going to be the key to keeping New Hampshire a great place to serve kids and families,” he said.

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