My career for the past forty-five years or so can best be described as working with at-risk youth. I’ve taught, counseled, lead, lectured and played beside children and youth who had been identified at some level as being at-risk for school failure, teen pregnancy, abuse, suicide, abusing drugs, gang involvement and whatever all the least, the last, and the lost of our communities fall into.
Many of the young people I’ve encountered have had various levels of various disabilities, primarily Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Autism. Some have other mental health issues. Many were healthy enough. They were just poor. Some of the youth were members of minorities.
My job included listening to their problems, teaching them to read, showing them a different way to view reality, and most of all, helping them feel lovable and valuable. Most of the children I lost track of years ago, but some of those who passed through my life, I was able to follow long enough to know that they stayed in school, stayed sober, did not get pregnant and had minimal adverse contact with the police.
Much of my job included working with parents. It seems I’ve said the same things over and over and over with varying degree of success. I call these sayings my mantras. “Your daughter is at high risk for sexual exploitation. Get her on birth control that works and lasts.” Another mantra is, “Women of childbearing years who use alcohol must be on a reliable form of birth control.” I have mantras that include the boys, “If your child is a danger to himself or you, you will have to remove from his environment everything that he could use to do harm, or remove him from his environment.”
I’ve sat through more Individual Education Plan meetings than I want to remember—both for my foster daughter and with other parents. I’ve heard thousands of tragic stories.
After all these years, what have I learned? I’ve learned that interventions may involve nothing more than listening. The word intervention may mean getting a diagnosis. Sometimes interventions involve drastically changing the environment of a youth. I am convinced that interventions save lives and save money. I’ve learned that we can have better outcomes for people with disabilities than a life in prisons, or addiction, or prostitution, or abuse, or premature death. We can give our at-risk youth better options than those they can find for themselves.
Over the years, I’ve watched as safe alternatives and intervention programs have disappeared from our communities while unhealthy elements continue to mushroom. I’ve watched our communities lose the war on drugs. I’ve watched the prison population expand as viable out-of-home placements for the at-risk have dwindled. I’ve watched special interest groups shout down the scientific community’s message about prevention, so despite more knowledge we have more prenatal exposure to a soup of toxins that have no business in a healthy society.
Still, I look at a long line of thousands of individuals who got the support they needed when they needed it, and their lives have had healthy outcomes. Now, I see our communities, our states and our whole country sitting at a crossroads staring in horror at the violence around us and wondering, “what happened and where do we go from here?”
The answer is to look at what has worked. Living in community works. Let’s work as a community to give our at-risk youth the support they need. This may mean that churches will need to fund chaperoned, fun, safe activities for youth. Communities will need to fund counselors who are accessible to youth. Funding is needed for outside-of-school literacy and educational opportunities. I happen to agree with our schools that they cannot do the whole job, alone.
Parents or grandparents need to be available to their children, and they must have the legal right to ground, medicate or restrain their at-risk child. Parents need to be able to earn a living wage that allows them to provide supervision for their children especially their adolescent children.
The steps I’ve outlined must be part of our national dialogue on safe communities. I’m a little sick of those who refuse to fund or take simple proactive steps toward solving our violence problems demanding their right to engage in whatever unhealthy practice they choose. We know how to identify and support the vulnerable. It is way past time to put on our gloves and get the job done.