News » Commentary

Everybody's Success Story

Community leaders must help at-risk youth in their challenge to stay off the street.


The news came as a tremendous shock. On the night of June 2, someone shot and killed 21-year-old Grover Arbuthnot (see "Interrupted," this week's cover story). Melissa Sawyer, a youth advocate at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), recalls the reaction in their office. "We said, ŒOh my God, if it can happen to Grover, it can happen to anybody.'"

One block down Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, the staff and customers at Cafe Reconcile were similarly stunned. For the past year, Arbuthnot was everybody's success story. He was well known among the judges, attorneys and justice-system people who regularly eat at and support Cafe Reconcile. He adored his job; he didn't hang out on the streets. He was starting GED class that next week and had just gotten the keys for his own small apartment.

Almost daily, we're losing other success stories to this city's homicide epidemic. Civil rights activist and youth leader Jerome Smith has worked with local kids for three decades at Treme Community Center and at Hunter's Field in the Seventh Ward. He recalls sitting on Hunter's Field and counting the number of funerals at which he knew the dead children, the kids who'd committed the crime, or both. He stopped at 70 or 80. These experiences weigh down children, he says. "That's what they're carrying -- there's a tremendous amount of misery wrapped into their persons."

Kids in the juvenile justice system may carry more than their share, says Cecile Guin, who directs social-service research at Louisiana State University and has, for 30 years, interviewed inmates to determine what factors lead to delinquency. In 2003, after Guin's researchers conducted a series of interviews with kids held at the now-closed Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, they added a new section titled "Loss and Grief" to their research. "So many of the New Orleans kids had seen their parents abused, some had seen them killed," Guin says. "Almost everyone we interviewed had a sibling or a friend killed." Faced with these losses, Guin explains, children often feel hopeless and find it hard to see any future for themselves.

Arbuthnot's story bears out this sad fact. As a child, he had seen murder victims lying on the ground near his grandmother's apartment in the St. Thomas housing project. He had been orphaned before his first birthday and began running away from his grandmother's house before he left middle school. As a result, he had come through both the FINS (Families in Need of Services) and juvenile justice systems.

Certainly, early intervention with at-risk children should be a priority. But attention also should be paid to the adolescents and youth in their 20s who -- like Arbuthnot -- came through this state's juvenile justice facilities. Their "re-entry" process differs from that of older inmates: adolescents and young adults "typically will be expected and want to become independent," noted a January report from the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center. Limited education and work experience often make that independence unattainable.

The Urban Institute report estimates that, of all inmates experiencing re-entry, nearly one in three are between the ages of 10 and 24. That's approximately 200,000 youth, age 24 and under, who are leaving this nation's juvenile facilities and prisons and returning home each year. (The state Department of Public Safety and Corrections was not able to provide corresponding Louisiana numbers.) Too many young people return to prison. Others are pulled to the street when they can't connect to anything positive. "I'll shovel dirt, I'll wash dishes, I'll do anything," said one kid who'd spent time in juvenile lockup. "But no one will give me a job."

Upon release, Arbuthnot had started out gung-ho, circling every possible job in the want ads and then driving around with a JJPL youth advocate to complete applications. That generated nary a phone call. "I didn't have no job and I was just roaming the streets during the daytime," Arbuthnot said. First he was arrested on a few petty charges, then caught with a stolen car. This is a common experience, says Smith. "A lot of these kids just feel like it's over -- they have no future."

Arbuthnot experienced this, too. "That was the hardest part when I came home, the job part," he said. For him, Cafe Reconcile was a godsend. The program provides job training and connects kids to necessary services, such as GED classes and counseling. Arbuthnot also found an apartment through the Volunteers of America transitional housing program. He truly became a success story. The idea for JJPL's new Youth Empowerment Project came from staffers who had watched many former juvenile inmates struggle after their release. The project will eventually provide intensive re-entry support to 40 local kids each year. But social services alone won't solve the problem. The entire community must step up, reach out, and give these youth hope. City and business leaders should connect them to available jobs and help them in their challenge to stay off the street. Every young person is a success story waiting to happen.

Add a comment