May 25, 2012

For the past year, I worked at a D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) juvenile detention facility, as part of my master’s degree program in social work at Catholic University. I provided clinical counseling for the youths who have been assaulting you, stealing your cars, shooting guns in your streets, vandalizing your homes and dealing drugs in your neighborhoods.

We need to have a serious conversation about what we want for District teens. Right now, a failure to clearly articulate goals for all our young people, especially the youth of DYRS, is leaving everyone at risk.

And the fault lies with all of us.

When a youth commits a serious crime, our responses generally fall into three categories. One, there are calls for the police to make more arrests; two, there are complaints that the city government is not doing enough to protect the public; and three, there are questions about what caused the perpetrator to go so wrong.

I support the Metropolitan Police Department being proactive, and I agree that the city could do more to address youth violence, but I am not confused as to why young people are committing crimes. The majority of these teens are not psychotic or mentally disturbed; very few of them actually have disorders. It all comes back to their environment.

Whenever I first met with youths at DYRS, we would draw a visual map of how they came to the facility. At first they usually talked about their charges. We drew pictures of guns, drugs, stolen cars, etc. But then I would ask them to describe their lives before these crimes. We drew pictures of broken families, graveyards filled with teenagers, drug deals, sexual assaults and other horrors. One youth just wrote “FATHER” in big letters, underlined it three times and set the pen down.

The environments that these youth experience take their toll. Have you ever wondered why mental health staff exists in juvenile detention facilities? It is not to discuss the youths’ crimes. Mental health staff is there to help them deal with all that they have experienced. Forced prostitution, abandonment, rape by a family member, homelessness and death of friends through gun violence are just a small sample of the realities these young people have faced.

Consider the psychological and emotional effects of such experiences. These youths have difficulty trusting anyone, articulating goals and desires, feeling that they have any worth and believing that the future holds something better than the darkness life has shown them. They act out of anger, hurt and fear. Without a doubt, if I had grown up with their experiences, I would be committing the crimes they have. With all due respect, you would, too.

Yes, there are children who grow up in the same environments and do not commit crimes. But I submit that this is because they have people in their lives who can offer a positive vision of what life can be. People who encourage schoolwork, excellence, responsibility and the idea that that young person has knowledge and skills the world needs. Prior to going to DYRS, I worked at H.D. Woodson High School in Ward 7. I can think of numerous students who faced intense adversity but never went toward crime. The reason: People in their lives who put forward and demonstrated a vision of what each youth was capable of.

This is what the kids at the DYRS facility lacked. They did find encouragement and role models at the facility, but sadly, none of this was replicated when they returned to the community. One staff member said it was as if we were treating kids for the flu and then throwing them right back into the sickness.

This sickness is not just in specific wards, or in specific apartment complexes. It is in the whole city, and the whole city must respond: If DYRS youths are not getting a positive vision for their lives in their immediate surroundings, we as fellow citizens must be the ones to articulate that vision. Go mentor, volunteer at a school, coach a football team, or simply say good morning when you walk by the youths in your neighborhoods. I sat with the toughest kids with the ugliest charges as they cried about what they were afraid of their lives becoming. Believe me, they want your attention.

We cannot demand that agencies like MPD solve the problem, nor throw it all on Mayor Vincent Gray or the schools. We as citizens need to make sure these youths know that they matter, that they can be excellent and that we need them at their best.

Please know that if I, or someone I love, ever gets mugged or attacked, I will be furious and want revenge. Working with the youths of DYRS did not make me a kinder, more forgiving person than anyone else. But if it does happen, I will not be wondering what led the youth to do such a thing. I know why. And now so do you.