At last, a meaningful response to the pandemic gun violence that’s decimating children and teens in Miami. The antidote is called “Together for Children” (TFC), a broad, powerful coalition of public and private institutions who’ve come up a plan to identify at-risk kids and stop them from being the victim or perpetrator of crime. This is long overdue.
TFC is an ambitious undertaking and not without risks But it’s a plan, a blueprint, a path forward. The alternative is more of the same — kids getting mowed down by nihilistic gang bangers and drug dealers who have no regard for human life. They’ve killed some 300 children and teens here over the last decade.
Think about that — an average of 30 kids murdered in Miami every year, nearly all of them black, poor and living in high-crime neighborhoods. If they’d died from a mysterious disease and had lived in Coral Gables or Pinecrest or Aventura you can bet a cure would have been found by now.
Beautiful little Jada Page, who lived in northwest Miami-Dade and was killed in late August, became the latest in a tragically long list of child shooting victims. Like so many other kids she was simply collateral damage as amoral gangsters settled their adult grudges with guns. The adults all too often were the parents, siblings or other family members of the young victims.
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Ten years ago when 9-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins was caught in the cross-fire between warring drug gang thugs as she sat on the front stoop of her home in Liberty Square, we heard the community outcry of “Enough” and “Never again.” And then it happened again and again. Marlon Eason, Amir Castro, Tequila Forshee, Trammell Raymond, Jr. King Carter, among many others. Candlelit marches were held, prayers recited, tears shed, but the slaughter continued. Now, if the TFC plan works, there’s a realistic chance the wanton killing of our young people might be significantly reduced.
Here’s how it would work: The TFC coalition says it will use empirical data — along with the judgment of experienced teachers, principals and counselors — to identify kids most likely to get in trouble with the law. Once identified, TFC will reach out to them and their families, offering a range of community services, including professional counseling. As Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said at the introductory news conference, “What we are trying to do, what I think will be a model for the rest of the country, is actually stop violence before it happens.”
A worthy goal to be sure, but one that will be hard to achieve. Consider these questions: Can kids be picked out as potential criminals without being stigmatized? What happens when the kid in question says he doesn’t need or want the help? And how would TFC convince a leery parent to take part when their interactions with government at every level have been negative?
Therapists and social workers may not be welcome in dysfunctional homes where parents take drugs, drink and commit crimes themselves. Other parents who accept the offer of help may have work schedule conflicts or lack transportation. TFC will have to be nimble to accommodate such problems.
Community meetings will be held next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings in Liberty City, Miami Gardens and South Dade, areas with the highest incidents of youth shootings. TFC needs to listen carefully to local parents, preachers and kids themselves and incorporate their best ideas into the program. Thus far, TFC has necessarily been a strictly top-down affair, but bottom-up buy-in is essential to its success.
There’s no way any ad hoc group of citizens could have devised a plan as comprehensive as the one before us. It’s the product of hard work by the Miami-Dade mayor’s office, the school superintendent and his team, the state attorney, public defender, U.S. Attorney, juvenile court, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Children’s Trust, United Way and many more. That’s some serious political heft.
What makes TFC stand out is the fact that these disparate groups will share critical, often confidential information. School Supt. Alberto Carvalho says they’ve found six key indicators that help determine which kids will get into serious trouble: Chronic truancy, behavior problems in school and out, failing math and reading scores, single-parent homes, gang membership, and young lives characterized by trauma.
“Trauma is the No. 1 factor,” says Morris Copeland, a dynamo who runs Miami-Dade’s Dept. of Juvenile Services. “The kids we see have experienced violence either at home or on the street. They’ve seen friends and family members shot and killed. What do you think that does to a child?”
Well, it rocks their world and any sense of security and well-being. Carvalho says they’ve already identified 2,000 high-risk kids who’ve exhibited at least two of the six indicators for trouble. Copeland says they know 127 others who have most or all six. Those are kids who need intervention immediately and without delay for the others. But first there’s got to be buy-in from parents and the community.
This much is clear: What we have now — a growing list of children and teens dying by gun violence — cannot continue. Wringing our hands didn’t solve it and neither did prayers, although they eased the grief. We needed a systematic, broad-based community plan to attack this crisis. Now we’ve got one. Let’s perfect and support Together for Children.