In 2016, 764 people were murdered in Chicago — the highest total in nearly two decades. A quarter of those arrested for homicides that year were between the ages of 10 and 19.
But since then, violent crime in the city has dropped three years in a row with a large part of that decline coming from pre-teens and teenagers. Chris Sutton of the Choose 2 Change program (or C2C) is looking to keep that streak going.
"In many ways, we're like Special Ops. We go in very rough neighborhoods and do the work that people are unwilling to do." Youth Advocate Programs Inc. director Chris Sutton said.
The University of Chicago crime lab shared with Newsy not only does this program increase attendance and decrease misconduct but it reduces its participants chances of being arrested for three years.
Sutton and the mentors he works with spend at least eight hours a week with students, usually more, between outside activities, occasional home visits and group therapy sessions.
"The only thing that we do is refuse to take no for an answer. We want kids to peek through the window like 'Aw. it's him again.' You know? If we have to wear you down, we're going to prove to you that we're here, and we're not going nowhere.
The C2C participants are selected based on a set of factors — things like prior arrests, gang affiliation, traumatic violence at home, or homelessness.
"I think the fact that this program chooses individuals who have some type of trauma in their background … gives them a sense of like, 'Oh, wow, like these people actually care about me,'" Jiselle Roman, clinical supervisor of behavioral health services for Children's Home & Aid said.
The therapy component in Choose 2 Change is a bit of a mouth full: Structured Psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress. But all the kids call it SPARCS. These sessions feature cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT to help give kids control of the moments before they make a bad decision.
"What does it look like when you get angry, you know? What are some of your triggers? And then as soon as you're able to identify that, what do you do to cope with these triggers? And that's more, 'Oh, well, I like to drink or I like to smoke.' So there's a lot of negative coping skills," Roman said.
"If you're ever going through something, go to SPARCS. Sit, talk about your problems. Don't hold it in. If you hold it in, you're not benefiting from SPARCS," Choose to Change graduate Aaliyah said.
Aaliyah graduated from the C2C program last year but she still attends the SPARCS therapy sessions every week and some outside activities with the group.
"I've seen so many people come up in here and say we got this program. You know it's fun. Then it's like when you get to the program you never do anything you just talk a lot. So I'm like okay, I'm just gonna do this one time. And I did it. And the first week we went to Dave & Busters. So I'm like, okay, okay I'm kind of feeling it. Then we started doing sessions and that was even more fun," Aaliyah said.
This combination of mentoring and therapy has been tested by the University of Chicago Crime Lab to find out how effective it really is.
"So most social policy programs what you see is that the program actually works while the young people are in the program, which is a great thing, obviously, to accomplish, but what's rare about C2C is that these impacts persist long after the program ends. And so we don't experience this like program fade out, that you typically see in other programs, at least in terms of what we've been able to document to date," University of Chicago post-doctoral fellow Nour Abdul-Razzak told Newsy.
The Chicago Board of Education recently pledged to fund Choose 2 Change through June 2021 to the tune of 2 million dollars. And by the end of this year, C2C will expand from working with 50 kids to 335.
"Like Chris always says, take advantage of it because once it's gone, it's gone. … I actually got help, instead of just sitting around and just waiting on help to come to me I went above and beyond to get it," Aaliyah said.
"The moment you open your mouth to say, 'Man, I got you.' We hope that kids make us live up to that claim. That's what we're looking for." Sutton said.