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Zenitha Prince, NNPA, Afro-American Newspapers
Published: 01 April 2009

WASHINGTON (NNPA) — It is a staple on the six o'clock news: A man shot. A girl raped. A boy stabbed. A woman abused.

Violence is everywhere. But increasingly, experts said, the faces of these chilling tales—both victims and perpetrators, usually from minority communities — belong to the young.

"Every two days we lose a classroom full of children from gun violence," said U.S. Rep. Edolphus Towns.

Yet, the powers-that-be seem not to care, said Kenneth Barnes Sr., founder and director of Reaching Out to Others Together (R.O.O.T.), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

"Gun violence is at epidemic proportions," he said. "It's the leading cause of death among African-American males in the United States of America, today. Yet, it's not even on the radar screen, even for our president."

Barnes had his own brush with violence in 2001 when his eldest son, a storeowner, was gunned down by a 17-year-old robber, who—it was later found—had killed two others.

The personal loss taught him two things, said Barnes, who has a master's degree in clinical psychology. One, the effect of violence is "perpetual" and two, addressing the mental and emotional health needs of young people is critical to reducing violence and enhancing public safety.

"He was just as much a victim as my son [because] if you have a violent child, and you do nothing to help that violent child, you can't expect him to change," Barnes said of his son's murderer.

Barnes and other community, government and academic experts comprised a panel at a March 26 congressional briefing on the correlation between mental illness and violence. The meeting was convened by Congressman Towns.

"We cannot sit back and allow our young people's lives to be wasted. We must do something about it," the New York Democrat said of his reason for the meeting. "[But] we have a lot to learn because people don't quite know why some of these things take place."

One explanation is mental illness.

According to panelist, Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Child and Adolescent Action Center at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, research shows that 70 percent of youth involved in state and local juvenile justice systems have a serious mental illness.

Yet, "too many kids are being labeled as bad, lazy and dumb," she said.

In terms of behavioral problems, Dr. Westley Clark, director of the Department of Health and Human Services' Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, said adolescents are already given to impulse behaviors such as violence and drug abuse due to their level of development.

But Clark and others agreed that when children are steeped in a culture and environment of violence—as they tend to be in urban communities—those behaviors can become endemic.

"Violence is a disease," said Ronald Moten of the District-based advocacy group, Peaceaholics. "What we see every day in our urban communities is countless youth who have been subject to violence; [or] have siblings who were victims of violence—often homicide—more often become violent, deal with depression, become drug addicts or are bipolar [and] do not receive treatment until they perpetrate a violent crime themselves."

Referring to the well-publicized accounts of violence at Colombine High School and Virginia Tech, Moten pointed out the counseling and other services they received.

"Now visualize that the high-risk youth we see who witness these vicious and heinous crimes, their loved ones and family maimed on a daily basis yet, they have virtually nothing to help them heal from such trauma…. So what you have is a community that is desensitized and violence continues to be perpetrated," Moten said.

Given those markers, Barnes said, violence is both "predictable and preventable" but politicians tend to "react to" rather than "prevent" violence.

"None of these people just got up one day and said, 'I'm going to kill somebody.' There were signs all along. And what do we do? We sit back and let them do it," he said. "…Most politicians want sound-bite and photo op opportunities; they really don't want to deal with this issue because it takes time and effort."

And the easy way out for many officials, Dr. Clark said, and especially in cases involving African-American and Latino youth, is to lock them up.

"Diversion programs are going to Whites and incarceration programs are going to minorities," he said.

According to testimony submitted by NAMI's Gruttadaro, youth of color represent two-thirds of the juvenile justice population. And, while many of them have untreated mental illness, "youth with mental illness in African-American and Latino communities receive less mental health care."

Many children of color are also misdiagnosed and placed on drugs like Ritalin when counseling would have worked just as well.

"How many children are labeled as [having a] learning disability and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) when it's not a learning disability at all but post traumatic stress disorder?" Barnes said. "In fact…instead of calling it post traumatic stress disorder, we should call it chronic traumatic stress disorder because 'post' means it's over when these children have to deal with (trauma) on a daily basis."

All the panelists agreed solving youth violence must involve a comprehensive approach that involves community and government agencies and addresses both mental/ emotional problems and social ills like poor education, little access to health care, lack of family planning and life skills development, slow community progress and more.

That's the approach offered by HR 1303, the CAN DO Act (Communities in Action Neighborhood Defense and Opportunity Act of 2009), which was introduced this year by Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois.

To get legislation like that passed, however, we need to "convince our colleagues that if we invest money now, it will save us later," said Towns, a co-sponsor of the measure. "But trying to make the case for that is not easy."

Having more briefings like this one, however, where youths like Maurice Benton can share his story is important, the lawmaker said.

Benton, who lived in the infamous Barry Farms projects, saw tragedy after tragedy: in 2004, one brother was incarcerated for murder; later, another brother killed and then, after Benton was shot in the stomach, he almost died four times.

"I had to learn to walk, eat and talk all over again," he said of the main incident that led him to eschew a life of violence and pursue a degree at the University of the District of Columbia.

Said Towns, "I was sitting there in the room thinking, 'I wish we had all the appropriators here to hear this story. Because, if they heard this young man's story, they'd give the resources to turn this around….' If you're not close enough to hear the stories, they think there's not a serious problem out here."

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