All photos courtesy of James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy.

By Ashley Alt

There is no easy answer for decreasing crime, shootings, and other delinquent behavior that adolescents take part in. For many, crime is a quick solution to feeding a family because they don’t have access to jobs, healthcare and affordable housing. When families do have access to those things, they can improve the overall financial health and wellness of their situations, which is what this local organization proactively seeks out to do.

Founded in 1981 by James B. Moran, the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy provides low-income youth and their families with integrated legal and social work services to improve their quality of life at home, in school and within the Evanston community. With the goal of providing youth the tools to make positive life choices, the Moran Center advocates for children and adolescents that need additional supports, believing all kids deserve justice in the courtroom, access to the classroom, and support in the community.

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Due to the confusing time of transitioning from a child to teenager or teenager to adult, most youth, at some point, will engage in risky and impulsive behavior. The premise of the organization is built on learning from past mistakes and moving forward, believing that support and correction rather than punishment proves more effective.

On the brink of the nonprofit’s 36th year of continuing to be a pillar of hope for Evanston youth, Director of Strategic Partnerships Joi Russell shared with us the efforts and success of the organization.

“The Moran Center’s mission is ultimately to give clients hope,” Russell said. “Hope that they will have better days. We believe wholeheartedly that each person is worth more than their worst act and deserves a second chance.”

Russell is responsible for fundraising and building strategic relationships with community members, donors, board members, advisory council, staff and volunteers, the most fulfilling aspect of her job being able to see clients emerge hopeful from a tough situation.

“I feel fortunate to work in a community where people are generous with their time, talent and treasures, constantly thinking, ‘How can we do that better?'” Russell tells us.

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According to modern research, the period of adolescence lasts much longer than previously believed, illustrating that psychological maturity doesn’t occur until the age of 25. Because the brain of an adolescent operates very differently from the brain of an adult, it is imperative that we give youth time to be children so they can learn from their mistakes and receive age-appropriate interventions.

Commonly coming across clients with mental health conditions or emotional disabilities, the Moran Center makes it their business to find out what challenges these adolescents are going through. Connecting youth with people and resources who don’t judge them by their past allows them to be receptive to the help offered.

Reasons for delinquent behavior are complex and often related to social determinants such as poverty, racism, inadequate housing, unemployment and trauma. Barriers of long waiting lists, lack of insurance and difficulty finding psychiatrists who accept Medicaid prevent many families from getting the help they need. Because of this, the redirective programs offered under the Moran Center help individuals build up skills so they are able to rebuild their lives.

By providing healthy and supportive alternatives to school discipline, fines, and black marks on permanent records, troubled youth are able to improve relationships among themselves and police, perform community service duties, and educate their parents on children’s legal rights. Along the way, students learn conflict resolution and anger management skills to effectively escalate their “triggers.”

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While each client case is completely different from the next, the Moran Center is proud to see 7 out of 10 court-involved clients comply with terms of probation or supervision, 8 out of 10 counseling clients making substantial progress toward goals, and 8 out of 10 juvenile clients improving school attendance, disciplinary records and grades.

“We are currently in conversation with an outside evaluation consultant to measure our direct impact on clients’ lives to be certain we are providing culturally relevant, trauma-informed care for our clients,” Russell says.

Moran Center members believe that it takes the entire community to be present, engaged and inspired in order to keep low-income children, children of color and children with special needs out of the criminal justice system. In partnership with the Evanston Police Department and youth members, the Moran Center is excited about the continued success and opportunities each group shares in working together as a team to improve ideas and perspectives.

“When we all take part in making our communities a safe place to learn and grow, our children thrive and grow into positive, responsible, and productive citizens,” Russell explained. “But we all have to make it our business to get them there.”