Family First

F rom her office window, Barbara J. Tinney can see Monterey Place, a pastel cluster of mixed-income townhouses on the site of the housing project where she lived as a child. 

Elm Haven, it was named. A complex of lower- and higher-rise apartments, it was torn down in the early ’90s, by which time disrepair and crime had made it virtually unlivable. But Tinney lived there in the ’50s and ’60s and has warm memories.

“Adults knew all the children. We knew all the adults,” she says. “We were not materially rich… but more importantly we had a community.” After Tinney moved away from the projects, the poverty remained but the community she remembers was gradually corroded with drug use and crime. “As we moved forward, we moved away. We moved away from our collective sense of responsibility for each other. We’ve lost our bearings.”

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Tinney’s spent the last 19 years trying to regain them as the executive director of the New Haven Family Alliance, a 25-year-old organization founded around the time Elm Haven was demolished. Working towards the sort of nurturing family and tight-knit community Tinney remembers having as a child, NHFA operates in neighborhoods all across the city with a blend of four on- and off-site family-building programs.

One of them is the Intensive Family Preservation Program, run in partnership with the Yale Child Studies Center. Funded by the Connecticut Department of Children & Families, the IFPP is an intensive intervention program deployed in homes where a child is at imminent risk of being placed into foster care. Over the course of 12 to 16 weeks, the IFPP aims to improve parenting skills and coping abilities, with the ultimate goal of reversing patterns of neglect or abuse and developing “nurturing parent-child relationships.”

While the IFPP primarily targets families with single mothers, the NHFA’s Male Involvement Network functions to bring the father into the equation. Black dads from impoverished communities are often written off as unwilling or unfit to care for their children, but Tinney says that’s a short-sighted assumption. “If you think of yourselves as taking care of the family [while ignoring the father], then you are colluding with the myth that these poor men of color don’t care and are not involved in these children’s lives, and that’s not true.”

The MIN aims to support “low-income, non-custodial fathers in their efforts to be involved parents and community assets.” Classes cover healthy male-female relationships, men’s health and “how to be a dad.” Since July 2015, the program has engaged 143 fathers, 79 of whom now work and pay child support.

Both of the above programs aim to provide at-risk children with a stable home and parenting environment. But for many, help at home may be too little too late. That’s why NHFA has two programs dedicated to keeping boys and girls alive and out of jail.

For kids that have crossed the law—albeit for the first time and with a minor offense—the NHFA has two Juvenile Review Boards, one in New Haven and one in Hamden, that aim to divert them from the formal juvenile justice system, giving the kids a second chance while allowing the system to focus resources on more serious cases.

Those who come before the JRBs—about 200 kids a year—must face their victims and their parents or guardians, plus a group of volunteer community members, to take responsibility for their actions and agree to a plan of restitution. The hope is to make it clear that bad behavior has serious consequences—not just for themselves, but for the people they know and care about.

While JRBs deal with minor first-time offenders, a juvenile who commits a Class D felony or worse is out of NHFA’s reach. The NHFA can only try to prevent such cases, which it does with its Street Outreach Worker Program. Employing a team of ex-gang members to reach out to kids at high risk of being victims or perpetrators of gun violence, it’s modeled after programs used at the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, RI, relying on trained OGs—“Original Gangsters,” or gang members that have aged out of gangs—instead of regular social workers.

“In 2007 [when the program started], some of these guys were legends, and not in a good way,” Tinney says. “They know the game. It may have evolved but hasn’t changed that much. They’re able to go where others can’t.” And where they go, they’re listened to. Not only does the SOWP defuse individual beefs but it negotiates inter-neighborhood truces. Some of these pacts have held for years—though many have not.

“This can be pretty weighty work,” Tinney says. She says it’s not the view of those pastel Monterey Place dollhouses that she likes most about her office, but rather the sounds she hears coming from the Wexler-Grant School just out of sight.

“During recess you can hear the kids running and laughing,” she says. “It reminds me every day … given all of the crap, all of the stressors, all the obstacles and challenges … we have some healthy thriving children that live amongst us.”

New Haven Family Alliance
230 Ashmun St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 8:30am-5:30pm
(203) 786-5970

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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