Drawing on forty years of distinguished service in delinquency prevention, John Calhoun, founder of the National Crime Prevention Council, lays out the essential ingredients for preventing violence. These include strategies for connecting with alienated youth, building community norms of caring, reducing access of weapons of violence, and claiming unclaimed kids.
The Department of Youth Services in Massachusetts, during my term as Commissioner, was reputed to have one of the most effective juvenile systems in the country-24 categories of services from community based through secure care. We built a system of community-based services. If I had the opportunity to do it again, I would also craft a system of community- based relationships.
All effective services are grounded in solid relationships. These bonds are essential to building youth resilience, the characteristic that allows certain kids to make it against the odds. While academics have developed elaborate lists of resiliency factors, I boil them down to five:
- A locus of control. Youth should not feel like pawns in the hands of fate. They need to have a goal and recognize that their success or failure is in their own hands.
- A skill. Whether it is through playing the violin, wrestling, or running a meeting, youth who can point to a skill feel confident in their abilities and secure about themselves.
- An adult who is always there. No matter how severe the existential tornado becomes, youth must have a trusted, dependable adult who supports them through the storms of life.
- Optimism. Whether defined in a secular way (“I have hope for the future”) or theologically (“I am held in His hand”), youth must feel their future is bright.
- Altruism. Believing “I am my brother’s keeper” or “I am my sister’s keeper” gives young people a sense of responsibility for others beyond themselves.
How do youth learn to overcome risk with resilience? Persons who are making a difference in the lives of youth have this in common: they are reducing youth violence by increasing youth engagement. There is no single silver bullet or program guaranteed in effectiveness. While success is based on comprehensive, collaborative efforts, there are many programs that work and work well. Here are four proven principles that are evidence based and value based.
Build Personal Connections
Boston’s Cease Fire and Philadelphia’s Youth Violence Reduction Project serve as good examples.
Cease Fire pairs intense focus on the most violent offenders with seamless provision of help to offenders. Police, probation officers, and ministers patrol city streets together, making late-night visits to homes of the city’s most troubled youth. These teams combine firm, uncompromising expectations with passionate, extraordinary help. These concepts limit setting and support do not stand in opposition. For almost three years following the introduction of Cease Fire, Boston recorded no homicides by teens. ZERO. And these were volatile teens, teens who had seen much, who had experienced many difficulties. Most of the youth had witnessed violence, had been in trouble at school, and had few marketable skills. Some had been abandoned, most feared adult relationships, and many had mental and physical health problems. In some ways limit setting-enforcement-is not hard; the provision of effective help is.
Isolation-disconnection from those entities that shape family, neighborhood, school, and future can frighten and kill. A juvenile, charged with murder, at the Department of Youth Services in Massachusetts said something unforgettable: “Commissioner, I’d rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all.” Si Johnson, a Native American from Sells, Arizona, who works with tough kids, describes the shooter from Red Lake, Minnesota, this way: “He was outside the circle. Being outside the circle is death.”
Police Chief Jim Bueerman from Riverside, California, clashed with the city’s mayor over whether to build a shelter for returning offenders and homeless citizens. While the mayor’s philosophy is to exclude the “bad,” Chief Bueerman stood firm in his opinion: “It’s not one side of the fence bad and the other side good. The mayor thinks she can fence off the bad people. It doesn’t work that way. That’s what the mayor doesn’t understand. We’re in it together.”
So many policies further isolate. Keeping violence off area streets offers protection, but it also seems to further isolate young people. What promise is extended to youth? To the extent that public policy is a promise, young people are given shelter, education, schooling, and health care for $50,000 in jail.
Is this all that is promised to the next generation?
Crime creates fear, and fear further isolates. Fear has shaped adults’ message to kids that, “We are ready for you. We know you will be bad.” Why do predictions and preparations for young people anticipate failure? Rather than investing in, let’s say, failing school systems, some of which graduate an appallingly low 50 of their students, many are intent on bemoaning investment in the prison system and other hugely expensive responses. A great deal of policy is forged in hysteria, in the crucible of fear. Former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales has celebrated the fact that 997 kids out of 1,000 are okay, good, or wonderful. But who drives public policy? The remaining three. Why is this minority allowed to dictate the actions of public policy?
The United States is winning a worldwide competition whose trophy no one wants, that of locking up roughly 700 people per 100,000, while Canada locks up about 150 people, and Holland and Japan fewer than 50 each. Despite the much higher incarceration rates of the United States, residents of these other countries feel safer than most Americans.
Though it is counter-intuitive, working through fear and myths and making every effort to include and assist the aberrant and the hardened is a necessity. They must be included in the social contract. The toughest of tough work is relationship building, especially with the wounded and the wounders.
They fear relationships because past relationships have hurt. They do not feel worthy of relationships.
These youth must be approached, not avoided.
One way to achieve the proven strategy of “frequent, intensive personal contact” is community-oriented policing-placing police officers in store fronts, public housing, and schools as school resource officers.
These officers would not be in position as an occupying force, rather as enforcement, relationship builders, and role models. In Burlington, North Carolina, the police department needed an additional training facility but could not afford one. The elementary school had available space. The principal of the school offered the space to the police chief in exchange for a commitment that each law enforcement trainee would serve as a mentor to her school’s most troublesome children. Not only did incidents in the school almost stop, but the kids bonded with young officers as surrogate parents.
Ways must be found to engage young people whose transitions to adulthood are most difficult, those who might otherwise turn to violence or become victims. There is a need to have in place a solid plan and set of programs for young people re-entering from juvenile justice and those re-entering from foster care settings. Both groups need strategies that attend to “multiple domains” housing, school-to-work transition, work habits, financial management, and relationships.
Build Social Norms
Communities must support the developing and nurturing values of civic behavior. The government cannot solve the youth violence issue alone. Liz Glazer, former assistant U.S. Attorney for Crime Control Strategies in New York City, said she is willing and able to prosecute people and send the guilty to jail, but she is disheartened when she sees them coming back in the system again and again and sees new people taking their places on the street. She states, “I intend to help citizens build a community that is resistant to crime so that I don’t have to keep returning as a prosecutor.” If this problem is to be solved, the government must change how it does business, and citizens must change how they live their lives.
Tony Earls, at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Robert Sampson and other researchers in the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods compared neighborhoods in terms of social, economic, and demographic traits, as well as crime rates. It became clear that those communities with high rates of “collective efficacy” experienced lower crime rates, regardless of their social and economic makeup. This verifies that which is affirmed by common sense a community in which neighbors care about each other and are actively involved with various civic entities, such as schools and police, is a safer neighborhood. Earls found stunning anomalies: in places where data suggested that crime should be high, he discovered low rates of crime because of collective efficacy.
In Winston Salem, North Carolina, the U.S. Attorney instituted a program called “Notification Sessions.”
In these sessions, an offender returning to the community from prison meets with probation workers, parole officers, and a member of the community. During one of these sessions, an older African American woman addressed a heavily-muscled, heavily-tattooed prisoner saying, “You’re the reason I can’t shop. You’re the reason I can’t sit on my porch on hot nights. You’re the reason my grandson can’t ride his tricycle on the street. If you cross the line, I’m reporting you and you’re going right back to jail.
But I’m here to help you too. Call me any time day or night. I’ll be there for you.” She wrote her phone number on a piece of paper and slid it to him across the table. Here again the twinning of limit-setting and caring is evident.
Reduce Availability of Instruments of Violence
Potential instruments of violence include an abundance of guns, liquor stores, and drugs. Are Americans inherently more violent as a people? Certainly not. It is disconcerting when other nations suggest Americans are somehow more evil or more violent because of higher murder rates. United States citizens are not a different species, but when people become overwhelmed by anger, depression, or fear, the results differ greatly if guns replace words.
Kids do not come out of the womb with Uzis. Compare crime statistics between Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia, which are only a few hours’ drive apart. The demographic and economic similarities are striking Pacific Rim economies, watching much the same television. The cities’ crime rates are almost identical until one examines violence by guns and Seattle leaps ahead. Actually U.S. crime rates for non-lethal crimes-robbery, burglary, simple assault-are lower, in some cases much lower, than those in Western Europe’s major cities-Berlin, London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Yet, for lethal crimes, the United States leads by a large margin.
Name and Claim All Youth
Kids are not to be viewed as hunks of pathology ready to explode. Policies for youth tend to cluster in two areas: control and repair, each of which, at some time, may be needed. But the opposite of disconnection and isolation is passionate reconnection. Youth can help and should be invited in as part of the solution. There are three ways of formulating this:
- Civic. Youth will be signatories of the social contract positive actors in society. Service learning, community service, and restitution serve as program examples.
- Psychological. Youth have access to positive bonding to the community.
- Theological. Youth adopt the attitude: “I am my brother’s / sister’s keeper.”
Various programs can help wed kids positively to the community. The National Crime Prevention Council’s program Youth as Resources asks youth to identify social issues that concern them and then design a project to address those concerns. Almost 500,000 youth of all types-from honor society students headed for the best colleges to high school dropouts caught up in the criminal justice system have been involved. Said one youth, a probationer named Earl, “It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been thanked.”
Claiming the values, passion, and energy of everyone elicits the best and most courageous in everyone. Public policy does not motivate-our values and beliefs do.
Policies do not explain Mattie Lawson, who lost two of her children to gang violence. Parents can hardly imagine a more horrible pain. But Mattie was not destroyed by her staggering grief. Instead she turned to action, saying, “I no longer have two children. I have four hundred. Not one more child in my neighborhood will die.” Why did she not fold up in her grief?
If Martin Luther King, Jr. had begun with policy in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he would have failed. The policy changes that stream from his work dazzle: Head Start, Job Corps, and such monument allows as the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. But he did not begin there. He began with a passionate moral commitment. His framing was Moses’ Exodus-escape from slavery, wandering in the desert, a view of the Promised Land, a dream of equality. Unheard of! Madness! But the story found itself in every living room and every heart. Everyone who has lived has experienced some injustice, some pain, and some desert. The story of Exodus brought everyone in.
So while the language of policy is held as precious, one must be unafraid of another glossary, perhaps the oldest, lurking just beneath the surface, including one particular phrase: “naming and claiming.”
At a meeting of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice during Attorney General Janet Reno’s term, one presenter, a minister, described what his church was doing: Head Start, mentoring, family counseling, after-school programs. He concluded: “We also go out on the streets and simply get to know the kids by name.” He said this almost off-handedly, casually, at the end of his presentation. How wonderful, how powerful! For underneath the bravado of many kids is found the ache, the loneliness, the pain of not being claimed, of not being loved by anyone.
How simple but how basic-to be called by name. This evokes the God of Genesis, the God who names. It is parental. We name our kids. It is love; it is protection-“you are mine.” There is wonderful social policy and theology to be found in Isaiah: “Oh Israel fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by name; thou art Mine.”
How many kids out there are unclaimed, are anomic, without name or whose names appear only on truancy lists, delinquency lists, and police blotters? A young woman named Erin Jacoba comes to mind. Erin had served time at the Indiana Girls School. While still an inmate, she joined the Youth as Resources program and worked with young women who had severe cases of cerebral palsy. Erin said to me once: “Jack, you don’t know what it was like to have these kids throw open their arms and welcome me. It’s the first time anybody had called my name positively.” To be there for someone else, to claim that person as important in your world is essential.
As a core challenge, Gene Rivers, director of Boston’s 10-Point Coalition, is fond of quoting a notorious drug dealer: “I’m there for my guys 24-7. I’m there day and night, rain or shine. You people go home at 5:00.” The drug dealer’s challenge is eminently clear: Who IS there to claim our youth, especially those who are not particularly lovable?
We have got to stop the trouble and release hope. Tanika Riley lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, probably the most violent of Chicago’s public housing projects. We launched our Youth as Resources (YAR) initiative there to see if it would work with kids on the edge who have been in violent circumstances. Ten-year-old Tanika applied for and won a YAR grant. Her gift is song and her project was to have her choir sing to the elderly who were walled in by crime. Tanika slept in a bathtub to avoid gunfire. On her way to school, she had to wend her way through gangs and over the glass and condoms littering the streets. Her head could barely reach the microphone when she got up to receive her check.
When I handed her the check, this young child living in a mess said, “Thank you for giving me the chance to make my community better.” If she can so hope, we have no excuse not to.
Let’s fast forward. That check awards ceremony took place in 1994. Where might Tanika be now? Does she still have that spark? If statistics hold true, she, like the majority of her friends, will have a child, a child born out of wedlock. And the majority of her male colleagues will be in the embrace of the criminal justice system or will be dead. Or is she, somewhere, somehow, living out her incredible, improbable hope?
Tanika has within her the greatest of human treasures-hope. And we have the greatest of all human obligations, a four-fold obligation:
To believe that the spark of hope is there in all kids
To find that spark
To elicit that spark
To nurture and sustain that spark.
Adapted from testimony by John Calhoun before the District of Columbia City Council for the National League of Cities, Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Presented December 7, 2005, Washington, DC.
John Calhoun holds masters degrees in theology and public administration and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Heidelberg College (Ohio). He recently retired after serving over twenty years as the founding president and CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council. Prior to that, he served in the administration of President Jimmy Carter as United States Commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families and as Chief of the Children’s Bureau. He currently serves as president of Hope Matters
*First published in the Spring 2006 edition of Reclaiming Children and Youth: The Journal of Strength-based Interventions.