Surprise and Relief for One High School Graduate

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Most graduating High School seniors feel proud of their accomplishment. But for Amelia Sanchez, who graduates third in her class at Concord High on Staten Island, graduation also brings surprise and relief. Sharon Lerner reports.

REPORTER: A year and a half ago, you probably wouldn’t have expected Amelia Sanchez to be picking out a graduation outfit. She didn’t.

AMELIA: When I stopped and really thought about it, like, hmm, do I think I’m really going to graduate? If I was honest with myself, I definitely didn’t think so. And like I kept saying to everybody, oh I’ll make it, I’ll make it, but you know deep down, when I was honest with myself, I had no idea.

REPORTER: Amelia was attending Staten Island’ Curtis High School at the time. Or at least she was enrolled there. Going to classes was another thing entirely.

AMELIA: I’d get dropped off at school at Curtis in the morning and everybody, all my friends, would be smoking cigarettes outside. Then we’d go to somebody’s house. And we would smoke weed and we would drink and we would all get trashed and hang around. And then everybody would just make their way back to the school and we would go home and the next day go back and do the same thing.

REPORTER: Amelia’s behavior started going downhill at the beginning of high school. With big brown eyes and tight ringlets, she had always been pretty. But in 9th grade, she began trying to draw attention to herself.

AMELIA: I started using gel and wearing make-up and all this kind of stuff and dressing differently. And I just wanted to fit in so bad.

REPORTER: She stole, lied, did drugs, and ran away – sometimes through her bedroom window, and sometimes out the back door of her school.

SWENSON: I would drop her off at the front door and I’d get a call inevitably a couple of hours later that would say do you know where your daughter is? And I’d say, well I dropped her off at the front door this morning.

REPORTER: Kirsten Swenson is Amelia’s mom.

SWENSON: And we had guidance counselors chasing her through woods and we had episodes of driving up and down highways and whatever the case may be where I would go out looking for her and wanting to know that she was safe.

REPORTER: Swenson is a hospice nurse and single mother of three. Hanging above her couch is a plaque that reads “raising teenagers is like nailing jello to a tree.”

SWENSON: There were times when I thought, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t – I don’t know where else to go.

REPORTER: So Swenson did what many New York City parents do when they can’t handle their teens. She took Amelia down to the local municipal building with the hope of getting her labeled a Person in Need of Supervision, or PINS. Swenson had heard that the PINS program might bring her daughter back. Amelia had heard it was a little like prison.

AMELIA: I thought it was going to be like having the collar on your foot and having the patrol officer come visit you all the time

REPORTER: Once upon a time, the court did allow kids to be locked up for cutting school, running away from home and the like, as New York City’s Commissioner of Probation, Martin Horn, explains.

HORN: It dates back to the turn of the century when there was this notion that there were children who were incorrigible and who were beyond the control of their parents. And when the law was first written they had the authority to take these kids out of their homes and place them actually in secure detention.

REPORTER: While kids can no longer be sent to detention for actions that aren’t criminal, the court can order them into foster care. A lot of parents still ask for these removals – and some still get them. But many don’t realize that the city can’t do much to improve their teens’ behavior. In 2002, the city began redesigning system. And by last year, every borough had its own program to help families seeking PINS stay together – and out of court. Commissioner Horn:

HORN: We basically flipped the process, so that we put the services in front of the court. We basically said, before you get to see the judge, you’re going to stop at this desk and we’re going to say, well what’s the problem and can we help you?

REPORTER: So, when Amelia got to the Staten Island PINS Diversion Program, there was no electronic ankle bracelet waiting for her. And, instead of landing in court, she wound up in therapy. With her mother. Yessenia Ortiz was the social worker assigned to her case.

ORTIZ: when I met them, she had absconded from the home for three days. And the mother was reporting to me that she was gone, she jumped out the window, she went to the bedroom and she wasn’t there and she was explaining to me how she felt violated and lied to

REPORTER: Amelia had seen therapists before. But somehow Ortiz asked the right questions.

AMELIA: She’s just like, I need you to tell me what’s going on, talk about what you want to work on and if you even want this for yourself. And it made me think, you know I don’t want to be like this forever. And I actually do want to graduate on time. And so I would start opening up to her – a little every week.

REPORTER: They talked about everything from her relationship with her then- boyfriend, to her feelings about being adopted from foster care. Amelia had lived with Swenson since she was 18 months old and been officially adopted at 7. But Ortiz helped her realize she was still confused about her identity.

ORTIZ: But after we put that on the table, I said, ‘how much of this does your mother know?’ And apparently she didn’t know any of it. She didn’t know her boyfriend had beaten her. She didn’t know she was using drugs as an escape because she didn’t know where she fit in.

REPORTER: Swenson also didn’t know that Amelia was hurt by certain comments she made in anger, Swenson had compared Amelia to her biological mother, who had used drugs and been promiscuous. Amelia eventually told her mother how hard it was to hear this. Ortiz says Swenson took it well:

ORTIZ: She accepted responsibility, acknowledged that she was doing that, which was awesome. And she stated that she didn’t know how painful it truly it was for Amelia and how life-altering that was for her. And once that began to change, their relationship began to develop. Other things began to change, too. Amelia switched schools last fall. She went from failing all her classes being third in her class. And these days, when she walks in the front door of school, she stays. She recently got an award for civic participation.

AMELIA [reading from award]: Whereas Amelia Sanchez has achieved excellence in her academic and volunteer activities, we the members of the business and professional women’s club of Staten Island are pleased to present Amelia Sanchez

REPORTER: Even in the improved the PINS system, success like Amelia’s is still rare. In her case, a good social worker, a devoted mother and her own willingness to think honestly about herself made a remarkable turnaround possible. Most kids aren’t so lucky. Warren Lyons is executive director of the Staten Island PINS diversion program.

LYONS: Maybe three quarters of the youngsters fall by the wayside. They don’t quote make it closed quote. Many of the kids who don’t make it will end up in jail.

REPORTER: For her part, Amelia is looking forward to a bright future. She’ll continue working at the diner over the summer. And, in the fall, she’ll start classes at the College of Staten Island. She says she wants to become a social worker and work with troubled teens. But first there’s tomorrow’s graduation, where she’ll perform a song she wrote.

Sharon Lerner is an independent producer and a senior fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.