Task force to examine Youth Advocate position
The Select Board voted at a meeting on January 27 to set up a task force examining proposed changes to the town’s Youth Advocate position, following impassioned pleas by community members to keep the role.
Dartmouth’s Youth Advocate works to support young people in vulnerable situations, such as abuse victims or those whose families are affected by issues like addiction, homelessness and poverty.
The position was formerly held by Jennifer Cabral. Although fully funded in the budget, it has not been filled since Cabral left in January 2019.
At issue are changes to the job description for the role to support families as well as youths.
Any new positions must be approved and funded at Town Meeting before the hiring process can begin. However, it is unclear if the changes to the job description constitute a new position.
According to Youth Commission Chair Jamie Jacquart, in its expanded role the Youth Advocate would provide stop-gap help, information, and outreach, act as a liaison, and connect families to outside agencies and resources for the long term.
Jacquart asked the Select Board to approve the job description so the Youth Commission could move forward with the hiring process. “Every single one of us is a heartbeat away from a crisis,” he said.
But Town Administrator Shawn MacInnes suggested the position was redundant, as there are outside programs with more resources that provide similar services, such as The Bridge center in Padanaram.
He noted that the position “did not appear to be well utilized.”
“The workload wasn’t there,” he said. “The school groups that were supposed to be established weren’t well attended...The demand frankly wasn’t very high.”
“It’s about providing the best services we can, and not being redundant,” he added.
However, educator Kathleen Simmons disagreed.
“I can tell you that this need is immediate,” she stated. “I work in the middle school...We have three guidance counsellors for over six hundred students. They can’t possibly meet the mental health needs of our early teens today.”
Simmons noted that the position may have been under utilized in the past due to a lack of communication and outreach. “I don’t think the community knows what is out there,” she said.
“So I’m asking you tonight, make the decision to do what’s best for our young community children,” she finished. “You need to hire somebody.”
Other community members took to the podium to support hiring a new Youth Advocate as soon as possible.
Youth Commission member Jennifer Dutra read a letter from a 16-year-old girl in Dartmouth whose family struggles with addiction, and who found the Youth Advocate groups to be “safe spaces” where she could vent, exercise, eat, and make friends.
“When I heard that the group may no longer exist, my heart sank,” the letter read. “Not only for me, but for the children who are going through the same things that I went through. I honestly would not be the same person if I did not have that support system.”
Resident Kevin Kertscher noted that the position was “overwhelmingly” voted through at Town Meeting last June.
“And here we are nine months later, and we still don’t have a Youth Advocate,” he said. “I’m really concerned about the kids who have dropped through the cracks in the meantime.”
“It seems to me to be a desperate need,” said Select Board Chair Stanley Mickelson. “If we can’t save one kid tomorrow or the next day because we were trying to save 50 grand or 100 grand, then we’re in the wrong business.”
The task force will examine whether it is possible to change the Youth Advocate position description as requested without going to Town Meeting for approval.