It was a dramatic turn of events for a program that has served generations of Island youth.
On March 1, sitting before a crowd of emotional Island parents, many of whom had come out to show support for the youth organization they had grown up with and then sent their own kids to, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation Board of Directors voted to withdraw its operator grant for the Island’s Youth Center.
For several heartbeats, the packed room stood silent.
“I’m not sure the public understands what just happened,” said Board Member Margie Smith.
“Oh, yes we do,” came an angry reply from the back of the room.
For the last decade, the Roosevelt Island Youth Program (RIYP), run by Executive Director Charles DeFino, has received RIOC funds to operate the two-story, 7,000-square-foot Youth Center at 506 Main Street. But the group has been providing youth services on the Island for far longer – nearly 40 years, in fact – including an almost 20-year contract to run a City-funded Beacon afterschool program at PS/IS 217.
In August, however, RIYP lost its Beacon contract after the school’s principal declined to work with the group further. And now, citing alleged wrongdoing by DeFino, the RIOC Board of Directors has effectively stripped the organization of its only remaining source of funding – as well as its home at the Youth Center.
Collage by Lauren Blankstein. Instagram: @laurenblankstein
As recently as January, RIYP’s future as the operator of the Youth Center had appeared secure. At the beginning of the year, the group’s proposal for the operator grant – a $380,000 annual contract to provide free youth services – was awarded the top score by an outside panel in a competitive bidding process. The group narrowly edged out its only competitor, Island Kids, which also runs youth enrichment programs and a summer camp on the Island.
But, following a wave of accusations from Island parents and other community members alleging years of inappropriate behavior by DeFino, the RIOC Board delayed a decision on the grant at its January meeting to investigate allegations made there.
The results of the month-long investigation, conducted by lawyers from Bond, Schoeneck & King, a firm specializing in sexual harassment and workplace misconduct investigations, were presented to the Board in a closed meeting on February 27.
According to an executive statement summarizing the results, the firm interviewed over 20 people in addition to DeFino and found “sufficient evidence to conclude that Mr. DeFino did in fact make inappropriate comments on several occasions... These included: screaming, yelling, or cursing at Roosevelt Island residents; whistling or making offensive comments to women while walking on the street or in public areas; using racial epithets when referring to children of color; making inappropriate remarks to or about children concerning their sexuality.”
As to allegations that DeFino had been intoxicated while on the job, the report concluded that, because it was unclear to them what his work hours were, they could not say with certainty whether he was intoxicated while working.
Several Board members appeared troubled by the finding.
“We need to think about character,” said Board Member Fay Christian, who voted to withdraw the grant. “Sexual harassment is very important and it’s something we have to think about. I think the children will say they’re happy. The children are happy with the staff; it’s not just Charlie running it. Their happiness has to do with other people who are directly dealing with them.”
“The main question here is do we have the right operator for these programs,” Michael Shinozaki said before casting a vote to withdraw the agreement. “The question is not whether we need these programs, it’s whether we have the best programs we can.”
Smith, however, questioned whether a sufficient investigation had been conducted. “I can’t call this investigation due diligence,” she said. “I think we did it quickly because we wanted to come to a decision. In effect, what this investigation did is say you should look further.”
In the end, the Board voted 4-3 to withdraw the award completely. Smith, David Kraut, and Howard Polivy were the three dissenting votes.
Islanders wait for a verdict at the December 1 RIOC meeting.
Immediately following the vote, dozens of Islanders walked out, some chanting, “Gentrification.”
“I feel bad for the kids,” said Claudio Pratts, whose three offspring – all adults now – had been a part of the youth program as children, “not because of Charlie, no offense to him, but because the mothers rely on this program.” He said Islanders should have a voice in who operates the center in the future. “If people don’t like Charlie, then let’s do it properly. Let’s get a vote and all be involved and vote for who the next person should be.”
Although RIYP received funds from RIOC to operate through the end of the month, the program announced it would shut its doors the following day citing a lack of money.
“RIYP was paid $50,000 to operate through March 31,” said RIOC General Counsel Jacqueline Flug on Sunday, speaking to a room of Island parents. “They did not fulfill that contract. They walked away.”
RIOC has said it will take over operation of the Youth Center, including its afterschool program, through the end of the school year. The Corporation has hired many of RIYP’s former employees to run the program, including the program’s director, Roy Magsisi.
For Island parent Eneaqua Lewis, one of the biggest concerns was losing a program she and other Island families had grown to trust. “I’m a working single mother. When I’m not able to pick up my son at 6:00, I know he can stay there in the center. I grew up there. Charlie gave me my first job. I worked there three summers in a row. Now my son goes there… Sure anyone can probably do it, but will we feel comfortable with those people?”
But Miguel Pincay, a parent who spoke at the public session before the meeting, hoped that a change in leadership would help create a more positive atmosphere among families on the Island. He says too often parents who offered legitimate criticism were blacklisted, and in many cases bullied, to get them to not interfere. “My role as concerned parent was not understood by RIYP supporters,” Pincay told the RIOC board, “This is the type of behavior you have been rewarding for over 40 years.”
But Lewis expressed surprise at the allegations brought against DeFino, a reaction echoed by many lingering outside. “When I was a kid, they used to say bad things about Charlie. But I’ve never seen it. Personally, I’ve never heard him say anything racial to me or anything sexual to me and I worked with him. I was a student. And now as a parent I deal with him all the time. If there was misconduct around kids, why didn’t they inform their parents?”
RIOC has said it will not release further details of the investigation, citing privacy concerns and legal limitations.
“The dream is over, I guess,” said Andrey Chichagov, director of RIYP’s sports program, after the meeting.