D.C. police Inspector Lillian Overton was angry. She was at the Boys & Girls Club in Northeast Washington, near the end of another 16-hour day, to talk with juvenile car thieves and the parents and guardians who are supposed to watch over them. Her officers were there, too, many on their own time after a full day of duty.
The group was to include 30 boys and at least as many parents -- who signed up for a court-supervised program that requires them to participate. But only 22 children and 15 adults showed up, and many of the adults appeared only after Overton sent them a letter warning them of the consequences of not being there.
If parents defy the law, then how can children be expected to respect it, Overton asked after the children had been sent to another room. "Because there are no boundaries in your home," she told the adults, "there will be no boundaries in society."
Most of the adults in the room Thursday night were mothers. A couple were aunts or grandmothers. One grandmother came without her grandson. An uncle of one boy was there, as was the brother of another. Most troubling to Overton: No fathers were there.
The meeting at the Boys & Girls Club on Benning Road NE was part of Operation Prevent Auto Theft, a series of lectures, counseling sessions and other activities for young offenders and their families. Started in December, the police-led program is heralded as a promising way to reach children and adults in the city's struggle to halt juvenile car theft and its deadly results.
Just in the past five weeks, four people have been killed in crashes blamed on teenage car thieves, who use the vehicles for everything from joy riding to making getaways from burglaries and other crimes. On Monday, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) announced an all-out effort to end the problem.
The mayor acknowledged that the city fell short in its efforts after two similar deaths last year and said that officials are "redoubling our effort." But the struggles suggest that the scourge is far more complicated than just the juveniles who are the face of the problem.
Proposals for stiffer punishments are moving forward. Plans to upgrade parks and recreation centers are once again on the table. But many people involved in combating car theft and juvenile crime say young people are unlikely to change until adults own up to their responsibility -- and until the government does what it takes to see that they do.
Overton, commander of the youth division and coordinator of the prevention project, made her feelings plain Thursday. "It doesn't take a village," she said. "It takes Mom and Dad."
The group sat in silence.
"We're losing it, folks. We're losing it, and because we're losing it, our children are suffering," she said. "These people are getting ready to hang these kids, and then they're going to come after you."
She was alluding to the tough talk coming from top city officials. A proposal to impose mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles found to have committed a car theft crime more than once is among ideas making headway. Another proposal would limit the driving privileges of parents of chronic offenders.
Overton told the women that it was time for them to put aside whatever differences they had with the children's fathers and wherever possible to bring them or other male authority figures back into the lives of their boys. "You had them, and that requires sacrifice," she said.
Each of the 22 boys at the club, some as young as 12, had been arrested for having something to do with a stolen car in the 6th Police District, the epicenter of the city's car theft problem. Some had stolen a car; others were caught riding in one.
As the night unfolded, the youths talked about their goals. One said he wanted to get off probation. Another said his aim was to "stay positive." And another said his was "to live, to stay alive."
Overton is quick to say that some families need more help than the fledgling program can provide.
Running free carwashes, cleaning up cemeteries and visiting funeral homes and the morgue -- as the youths do in the program -- can help. So can Overton's lectures and the family-strengthening classes, in which adults are coached in how to assert their authority without alienating their children.
But none of that is a substitute for the intense intervention that Overton said some of the families require. Last week, city officials talked about stepping up.
Neil O. Albert, the new deputy mayor for children and families, said the city will spend $1 million this summer to reach out to troubled families that have yet to draw the attention of the authorities -- the sort that too often has 13- and 14-year-olds out on the streets at 1 or 2 in the morning.
"We're asking the parents to take more responsibility for their kids," Albert said. "But in addition to that, we have to show them how to be more responsible."
Some experts worry that the city will lurch toward the most politically expedient solution, such as mandatory minimum sentences, rather than more complicated endeavors, such as intensive family outreach.
Superior Court Judge Lee F. Satterfield, who oversees D.C. Family Court, criticized the push for mandatory minimums, saying, "When you say we need mandatory minimums, you're saying that judges are not exercising their discretion enough in these cases."
In fact, he said, city law leaves judges with limited discretion. It is up to the city's Youth Services Administration to decide whether juveniles are committed to secure detention facilities, unsecured groups home or their own homes. Judges decide only whether they are committed to youth services or placed on probation and for how long.
The mayor and the city's attorney general have touted a new law that limits judges' ability to dismiss juveniles' cases early on. But Satterfield said such dismissals by judges are rare. Far more common are plea agreements by the government in which it agrees to dismiss the charges, he said.
Until the city stops looking for politically appealing solutions and starts sketching out thoughtful, substantive ones that involve all the important people, the problem will linger, Satterfield said. He cited Operation Prevent Auto Theft as the kind of program that deserves more money and support.
One of the youths at the Boys & Girls Club on Thursday night seemed to be getting the message.
Ever since the 12-year-old landed in trouble for riding around in a stolen car, his mother has made him watch the news and see the havoc and death young car thieves are causing in the city. Watching that and seeing what he's seen as part of the program has turned him around, his mother said.
"He's back to his normal self," she said. Last week, as he watched the news and saw a report about teenagers who plowed a car into a house in Northeast, he called out to his mother: "Ma, you know what, these young ones are getting ridiculous."
It is the epiphany that Overton and the other officers would like every participant to have, but some have a longer way to go.
As everyone was leaving, one woman pulled Overton aside and asked her to talk to her son, who insists on hanging out late in defiance of her and his court-ordered curfew. "You are going to be a man or you are going to be in a box," Overton told the boy, who avoided looking her in the eye.
What, she asked, can they do to make him look out for himself?
He shrugged his shoulders.