Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com
At age 15, Dante Cunningham was in trouble, and in danger of getting into more.
He and a friend robbed another boy of a cell phone near the Franklin Field Apartments in Dorchester, where Cunningham lived with his parents.
“I guess we was bored and decided to rob the guy,” Cunningham, now 20, said in an interview. “Beat him up, robbed him, and ran straight home.”
Someone quickly notified police, and the boys were arrested. But as Cunningham entered the juvenile justice system, Debbie Costello entered his life, bringing changes he could not have anticipated.
While Cunningham was locked up at a Department of Youth Services facility, his parents got a call from Costello, a social worker from YouthConnect, a 17-year-old advocacy and intervention program offered by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston in cooperation with the Boston Police Department.
By the time Cunningham returned home, his parents had spoken with Costello several times and begun building an enduring relationship. But Cunningham was wary when the two first met.
“At first I thought she was like a probation officer … but then she explained to me how the program was working,” Cunningham said. “[She] asked me if I wanted to continue working with her, and I said yes.”
Costello, 36, said most young people initially have reservations.
“They’re really checking us out and figuring out, Can I trust this person? Can I talk to this person?” she said by phone.
Cunningham’s father did most of the talking on that first visit, Costello said, explaining what his son should do to improve his life. Cunningham sat close to his mother and nodded in response to the advice.
Costello said it was clear Cunningham was close with his mother and felt remorse for his crime and the problems it caused his family. But to change his life, he had to deal with a lot of trauma, including exposure to many who were involved in crime or had been victims of violence, and a close friend who died young, though not violently.
Over the next four years, Costello provided therapy for Cunningham and support for his family. She helped him get back into school and secure a summer job cleaning vacant lots to help beautify the city.
Along the way, she helped him build relationships with other service providers, teachers, athletic coaches, even police.
When Cunningham’s father died two years ago, Costello said, she asked who she should tell so they could support him through his grief. One name Cunningham gave her was an officer from the B-3 station in Mattapan.
“I think one of the things [that makes YouthConnect successful is] we really are collaborative with so many people in the city,” Costello said. “It’s really not just about me and Dante. It’s how do I create a network of people with supports for him in the city.”
Andrea Perry, executive director of YouthConnect, said this team approach provides multiple positive influences and networks that support young people through a constellation of issues.
YouthConnect operates out of police stations in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Roxbury, and the South End, as well as school police and the gang unit, working with officers to identify young people in need of intervention and to provide support services for them and their families.
Perry began her work with the program in 1999 as a social worker assigned to the Mattapan police station. She said most of the 650 to 700 young people it serves each year are teen boys from financially struggling families who have experienced trauma, but the specifics vary.
“It’s not just kids who are involved in gangs; it’s not just kids who are arrested,” Perry said. “It could be a family struggling with parent-child communication issues. It could be a victim of violence — a shooting, a stabbing, a serious assault. It could be selling drugs; it could be using drugs.
“It could just be any issue that’s going on for a young person that an officer is aware about and knows that they need some type of intervention beyond what the police can provide.”
Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said the department is fortunate to be one of few in the US that can offer an intervention program at the point of arrest.
“YouthConnect is right there on the front lines with the officers, day in and day out, dealing with the issues that officers have when they respond to calls,” Davis said by phone.
He said the program helps police build positive relationships with residents by offering help with family issues, not just arresting members who step outside the law. Seeing behavior in context and examining its roots can be the beginning of changing that behavior, he said.
“A lot of times, the dysfunction we find in families, it goes from father to son and from the older boys to the younger boys in the family,” Davis said.
Support from his mentors enabled Cunningham to break ties with friends having escalating run-ins with the law and to be the young man his parents wanted him to be.
He has now completed high school through a home-school program and is awaiting his diploma. He plans to attend the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in the South End, with an eye on an engineering certificate and a job working with automobiles or technology.
“I took advantage of the opportunity to better myself because I seen where I was going,” Cunningham said. “I probably would be dead right now.”