‘What’s the matter with kids today?’ asks the PRWCAN

The Port Rich­mond West Com­munity Ac­tion Net­work hos­ted a com­munity pan­el last week to dis­cuss the causes of youth vi­ol­ence and how to turn the tide against this rise in crime.

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. ••

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