washingtonpost.com
Still without a safety net

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, November 21, 2009

We have been down this road on youth violence many times, each trip leading to the same dead end. Why bother, some of you have asked. Believe me, judging from the city's response, I have asked myself the same question.

But if I don't continue this journey, how would you know about the damage? The dead can't speak, city workers are too scared, the D.C. government won't talk and civic leaders don't care.

We should care, however. The young men I'm writing about are not animals to be feared and avoided, or cold statistics for research projects.

They once laughed, played and dreamed as children about what they would be when they grew up. Somewhere along the way these young men in our city, mostly black, were badly broken by hands that should have handled them better. Hands at home. Hands on the corner. Hands in the schoolyard.

Some of those hands belong to the government of the District of Columbia.

This week you may have read about 17-year-old Jeffrey Britt. He was arrested on Friday, Nov. 13, and charged with the premeditated murder of George Rawlings, a 21-year-old who was boarding a bus on H Street NE.

You also may have read that earlier that day, Britt and Rawlings had separately attended the funeral of 19-year-old Ashton Hunter, who had been shot dead on Oct. 31.

What you did not read, and would never know if it were left to the city, is that at the time Hunter was being gunned down and Britt was allegedly pulling the trigger on Rawlings, both were under the legal supervision of the D.C. government.

I sought a comment from the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, which supervised Hunter and Britt. I received the department's standard response: "As you are aware, by law, we are precluded from commenting on cases involving individual youth."

With Hunter dead and Britt arrested, the only interest served by secrecy is that of the D.C. government.

I also sought comments on Hunter and Britt from Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the D.C. Council's human resources committee, which oversees DYRS.

Wells replied by e-mail that DYRS Director Vinny Schiraldi had called shortly after the crimes to say that the youth were involved with DYRS. (The disclosure was "an improvement," noted Wells.)

Wells said he was sending his staff to review the records rather than rely on DYRS summaries. He had been given an oral briefing on Britt, Wells said, but added: "We are looking at how the cases were handled."

Who knows what the staff will find or what DYRS will let Wells see?

I have city documents that show Jeffrey Britt was sent home in January from secure detention at since-shuttered Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel; that he was rearrested in August; and that another plan was whipped up to send him home again.

Each time Britt was returned home, he was told that he would be held accountable for his whereabouts. He was supposed to enroll in a GED program and get screened for drugs, at the department's discretion. A third-party monitor, paid by DYRS, was supposed to help keep track of him.

So where was the third-party monitor when, according to The Post, witnesses at Ashton Hunter's funeral allegedly heard Britt and others say that George Rawlings was involved in Hunter's murder?

Was the monitor around when one of the witnesses reportedly heard Britt say he "should kill" Rawlings as Rawlings entered the funeral home?

Those are rhetorical questions.

A question not asked simply for effect is whether those government contracts worth millions of dollars that the city awards to nonprofit groups to "monitor" DYRS youth in the community are doing any good?

An article of faith upon which DYRS bases its deinstitutionalization philosophy is that young D.C. offenders can live at home if they get "support services" and supervision in the community. But that's exactly what Britt wasn't getting. Neither was Hunter or the other so-called DYRS-supervised youth I have written about over the years. Many are, in fact, being returned to circumstances that, in terms of personal safety and disorder, are as bad or worse than the institutional settings they leave behind.

The notion of paying people in the community, some of whom can barely take care of themselves, to "monitor" DYRS youth ("because they speak the same language," as Schiraldi once told me) is one of those condescending responses to the black and poor that I thought went out with the '60s.

These youth need so much more. They live in the midst of wasted lives and with the specter of violence and early death. They bear scars that we can't see and suffer from pain we can't feel. They need individualized, professional and sustained support in a safe setting. It would be the likes of which this city has never seen, let alone given. It's nowhere in sight.

They deserve to be treated as more than fodder for an ideologically driven social policy.

But the city is allowing that to happen.

Maybe that's why this writer won't let go.

kingc@washpost.com

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