Faith-based juvenile program begins

Friday, April 1, 2005

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The nation's first federally funded faith-based mentor program for juvenile offenders is getting started in Florida, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings announced Thursday.

Participation is limited and requires the consent of the youth and his or her parents. Children and volunteer mentors of any faith may sign up, but the administration is Christian-based.

The $3.5 million, three-year effort will serve 200 youths per year at six residential programs across the state.

Each mentor will be trained to work with a detainee and the child's family during detention and until at least one year after the youth's release.

"The reason to do this is not to convert these kids," said Tom Denham, a Florida Department of Juvenile Justice spokesman. "The reason to do this is because the faith-based community has in place the tools and the kind of people that can help these families mend. A lot of these families are broken."

Faith-based groups nationwide received $1.17 billion in grants from federal agencies in 2003, part of an effort by President Bush to open federal money to religious social service organizations.

Proponents of church and state separation have questioned the constitutionality of such programs, but organizers say the voluntary nature of the program makes it legal, and that religious mentors are ideally suited to help juvenile offenders rebuild their lives.

Florida also is home to the nation's first faith-based adult prisons for men and women, both opened in the last two years.

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