Friends of the Children stresses “the power of one” – one person, that is, who can rescue a kid from violence. “Our model is distinct, courageous and proven,” the organization’s website states.
It is based on studies that show a caring, consistent adult is the one thing that separates children who succeed from those who don’t. That includes troubled kids at high-risk for committing future crime.
“I absolutely love this model,” said Chris Patterson, chief program officer. “It’s the missing component in the violence reduction world.”
He points to research that shows kindergarten through third grade life experiences are key to determining who will eventually have criminal records. That’s why children start at FOC between the ages of 4 and 6.
Referred by schools or other agencies, “they’ve experienced at least three childhood traumas – homelessness, gun violence, domestic violence, things like that,” said Ann Goldman, development director.
Each child is assigned a paid professional mentor who makes a long-term commitment to spend four hours a week with each one. Mentors work with 8 to 10 kids each and FOC itself vows to stay with its young clients for 12 years “no matter what.”
During that time, the mentors focus on nine “research-based core assets” that encourage kids’ social and emotional development. Assets include “Problem Solving”, “Growth Mindset” – and “Hope.”
FOC’s Chicago location didn’t open until 2018 and has just 63 clients now ages 6 to 9. But it’s operated for 27 years overall with branches in 22 cities, including New York and Los Angeles. FOC says its statistics are impressive: just 7% of kids were involved in the juvenile justice system, though 50% have parents with similar involvement. And 83% earned a high school diploma or GED, though less than 40% of their parents did.
Patterson himself endured a harsh childhood and later served time for robbery. He began a career in violence prevention after his prison release and joined FOC last year.
In previous jobs, he worked to stop retaliatory shootings and persuade young men to leave the criminal life – and sometimes he succeeded. But each time he knew there was “a small army of people following in their footsteps,” made up of youngsters who are “exposed to way too much.”
Now Patterson works with children “before hope is snatched from them.” And that, he said, is a beautiful sight.
Professional mentor Keenan Palmer with one of his mentees at Friends of the Children.