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Hartford Youth Violence: A Failure Of Hope

June 25, 2006
Commentary By ANDREA COMER

We human beings like explanations, especially when it comes to destruction. We want to be able to pinpoint the root cause for things we don't comfortably understand. We want a boogeyman.

That's been the case with the recent spate of youth violence that has spiked crime stats and prompted collective hand-wringing in Hartford. It seems a day can't pass without someone asking "What's to blame?" "Why is this happening?" We need to know there's a cause, because if we can't find it, there but for the grace of ...

Those of us who work with young people are often deemed the equivalent of experts on the subject, asked to ease the collective fears of a community. Give a reason, zero in on the cancer so we can biopsy it, chemo it - or remove it altogether. And with every child who pulls a trigger, every child who's laid to rest, the last becomes a more popular solution.

The reasons cited for youth violence are the usual suspects: poverty, teenage parents, single parents, substance abuse, poor education. Some of these I buy to an extent, but most of them not. None of the young people I've ever worked with ever blamed their single, undereducated teen mother or their incarcerated, drug-addicted father for their decision to assault another person. And I know plenty of folks who grew up in those situations or worse and never saw the answer in violence.

From where I stand, this is all about false hope. Children come into this world with their eyes full of promise and their hearts full of dreams. And we let politics, greed and misguided good intentions slowly tear away at them until they're so disappointed and numb that they're willing to do anything to feel something. And that anything is usually a violent act. So the question should be: How do you restore hope?

First, we have to be willing to admit that there has been a failure of magnificent proportions. We have failed these children by deploying people to deal with them who know that when the problem is fixed, their livelihood is done. Not much motivation to do your job well, is it?

The state child advocate and the attorney general recently described the revolving door of the juvenile detention system, and the same deplorable stats exist on the street level. We have lists of so-called at-risk youth who are receiving services. Yet if we did a "Whatever Happened To ...?" I'm willing to bet the majority of those children have been lost, figuratively or literally.

Second, a child can't be what he or she doesn't see. And if they can't see hope in the faces of those around them, what's left? All around this city, we're building buildings - new schools, new offices, new churches. If you gauge how a city is doing by its development barometer, you'd think Hartford was in fact a rising star. But if the people who live in this city cannot get access to those jobs, if they jump through all the assigned hoops and still can't get to the table, you've destroyed their hope.

And if they can't feed their children, that hopelessness is exacerbated. Hopelessness begets anger, anger begets violence. And violence runs in families.

Lastly, there have been systems put in place supposedly aimed at making things better for our young people but having the opposite effect.

The state Department of Children of Families issues edicts about child-rearing, creating mothers and fathers who are afraid to discipline their children. Some of those empowered children now strike fear in their parents. The Hartford Housing Authority, deciding that projects weren't such good experiments after all, tore down those places that housed our neediest residents.

But without addressing the conditions that put them there, and with welfare reform not doing well, the issues were dispersed, not dealt with. Moreover, while those back-in-the-day public housing complexes were less than perfect, they were communities. I often hear adults talk about growing up in the Square (Bellevue Square), the Ville (Stowe Village) or the Point (Dutch Point). Once those communities were removed, you were left with a generation of young people looking for someplace to belong.

Now you have kids who've decided to claim the streets they live on or near, to try and re-create that sense of identity. And with so much out of their control, they will fight to the death if necessary to control that.

About a month ago, I went to visit one of the children who'd come into my life. He'd been out of school since April, when he was shot on his way to a store. We talked about when he was going back; he said his leg hurt too much to sit still in class. I told him we could get a tutor to come to his house so he could keep up with his studies, but he shook his head. "I'm not gonna need a tutor, Miss."

The next day, he died of complications from his injuries. I'm not sure if he knew he was leaving that soon or if he figured that furthering his education wasn't a dream worth pursuing.

Either way, something's wrong with that picture.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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