As President of the National Crime Prevention Council, I sat on Attorney General
Janet Reno’s U.S. Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Thirsty to learn, Reno would hold meetings in places where she could witness what was
going on in local communities. At one of our meetings at a school in Southeast
Washington, D.C., a minister described what his church was doing to help prevent
crime, referencing Head Start, mentoring, family counseling, and after-school programs.
He concluded: “We also go out into the streets to get to know the kids by name.”
How powerful! For underneath the bravado of so many kids is the ache of not being
claimed, named by anyone. So many youth act on their loneliness, their almost
primordial need to belong. How simple, but how basic to be called by name: it is
parental. We name our kids. It is love; it is protection—“you are mine.” It evokes the
God who names. One finds wonderful social policy and theology in Isaiah: “Oh Israel,
fear not; for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by name; thou art Mine.”
While serving as Commissioner of Youth Services in Massachusetts, a convicted juvenile
murderer said something I will never forget, “Commissioner, I’d rather be wanted for
murder than not wanted at all.” Si Johnson, a Native American who works with tough
kids, described the young murderer from Red Lake, Minn., as being “outside the circle.
Being outside the circle is death.”
It seems worse than alienation, for many troubled youth have never even been initially
attached to family or society. Perhaps the word that comes closer is anomie—
rootlessness, lack of purpose,” or anonymous—without name.
I worked with one of the nation’s “anonymous” kids, Erin Jacoba, who was jailed in the
Indiana Girls’ School. I met her through our Youth as Resources program I designed.
YAR asks youth to identify social issues that concern them, design a project to address
that issue and, if funded, run the project. Thousands of youth joined YAR; but would
YAR work with youth who felt they had little to offer anybody? Erin was in YAR’s
experimental class. While serving time, Erin designed a project to work with children
institutionalized with severe cerebral palsy.
Now finding purpose in life, Erin holds a Masters Degree in social work, shared her YAR
experience with me: “Jack, when I came into the institution to work with the kids, they
would fling out their arms and welcome me. It’s the only time that I can remember
anyone calling my name positively.” Where has her name been, I thought? On truancy
lists, on stubborn children lists, police blotters, court dockets. How many kids are
without name, or who cannot stand their names? Who names them?
The church baptizes children, names children, “You are Sarah…You are Juan….” The
message? We love you; you are part of our community; you are ours. And then that
exuberant welcoming ceremony later on, which often includes singing and dancing;
the Bar and Bat Mitzvah, which convey three messages to teens: we love you; we will
support you; we have great expectations for you.
Thus the question to all of us who work with children whose families cannot bless and
welcome them: who will name and claim these children?” If we don’t, they will be
named—by themselves or their peers. Gangs are good at it: The Antons, Tanikas, Pauls
and Annies become Whisper, Slick, Gunner, Creeper….
May we never see under our august policies a child crying out for a name, crying out to
be claimed as good, important, needed. The Rev. Rivers of Boston’s 10-Point Coalition
tells of the drug dealer who issued him a chilling challenge: “You go home at 5:00 in
the afternoon. But I’m there for my guys 24/7, rain or shine, day and night. They’re
If we don’t name and claim them as our kids, there is little mystery in knowing who will.