Though sparse in attendance, the latest meeting of the Port Richmond West Community Action Network focused on an issue of high priority to many in Philadelphia: youth crime and what citizens can do to prevent it.
The March 21 session, held at the Cornerstone Community Church at Frankford and Allegheny avenues, hosted a panel discussion, Hey, what’s the matter with kids today?
The panel, composed of leaders who deal with youth issues, included Robert Lopez and Daniel Hernandez, of Men In Motion in the Community (MIMIC); Officer Cynthia Podia, of the city’s 24th Police District; Angel Flores, bureau chief and liaison to the police department’s East Division for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office; and Jerry Kelly, of Philadelphia Juvenile Probation Office.
The panelists told residents how their offices can have an impact on tackling the seeming torrent of violence committed by, and against, Philadelphia’s youth.
Resident D. Michael Blackie was the moderator. He also noted his disappointment that the church wasn’t packed with residents, especially since, as a community activist, he receives a lot of complaints about juvenile crime.
Flores, a member of the panel, discussed his experiences with young people and also commented on recent episodes of violence around the city.
Flores, whose division handles criminal cases in the 24th, 25th and 26th police districts, previously headed the D.A.’s juvenile division for 14 years. His biggest satisfaction came from steering young people away from trouble.
ldquo;One of the greatest joys I had was in the preventive arena,” the assistant district attorney said.
ldquo;Kids today deal with so much more than kids back in the day,” Flores said.
Those issues, he added, include drug use and lack of father figures or other role models. Flores recalled how disappointing it was to handle cases in juvenile court and realize that no fathers were present to support the children.
In most instances, he said, grandmothers were the caretakers who would attend the court sessions. “I don’t know what Philadelphia would do without grandmothers,” Flores said.
However, even if children lack guidance in life from a valued support system, it doesn’t give them license to hurt other people, he said. Flores lamented that strategies that worked years ago to turn around juvenile offenders — such as so-called “scared straight” programs that involved harsh lectures about prison life from inmates — don’t even faze young people in trouble these days.
ldquo;If that doesn’t work, what works and how do we get through to these kids?” he asked. “It’s not the police or D.A.’s office at the forefront, it’s the community that needs to have a loud voice.”
Officer Cynthia Podia, of the 24th district, who has been part of a city youth-aid panel for two years, thinks it is having an impact on addressing youth violence and also pushing youngsters into more positive directions.
ldquo;I see a lot of young kids going through the program, making changes in their lives,” she said.
The youth-aid panel, a project of the district attorney’s office, always needs volunteers to help make good choices for juvenile offenders, she added. The program is only for first-time offenders who haven’t been charged with serious offenses.
For example, Podia said, the program takes “a lot of school assaults and some auto-theft” cases. Youngsters must take part in a rehabilitation program and learn how consequences result from their actions.
Jerry Kelly, the panelist and juvenile-probation officer, said his primary mission is to treat, supervise and rehabilitate. Each probation officer, he said, is assigned a certain number of cases and must monitor children by knocking on doors, making sure they are in school, drug-testing them — generally making sure they are being nudged onto the right path.
Robert Lopez and Daniel Hernandez, the representatives of Men In Motion in the Community, said they’re part of a grassroots organization that actually got its start from barbershops.
After all, Lopez said, those shops typically are centers of neighborhood gossip. MIMIC tries to make connections with young people and lift them from the trials of their lives, particularly through the guidance of mentors, he explained.
Lopez agreed with another panelist, Flores, that too many young males lack a strong adult presence in their lives. It is the mission of MIMIC to help children with coaching, mentoring and friendship.
“Think like a man of action, but act like a man of thought,” Lopez said.
His colleague Hernandez is a firm believer that MIMIC and its programs can change young lives. “Some of us were in gangs,” Hernandez said, “and we can relate to them.”
Although a responsible leader now, Hernandez recalled his days as a graffiti vandal who even spent some time in jail. These days, his mission is to mentor youths so that they don’t make the mistakes he did. ••