February 13, 2012
Rev. Matthew J. Watts: Abandoning our most troubled youth

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- What if when every child in America turned 18 years of age their parents were to put them out of the house? And what if no employer would hire them because they had no marketable skills? And what if one-third were high school dropouts? And what if they were not eligible for the military? And what if they did not have basic education skills to do college level work? And what if 80 percent had a substance abuse problem? And what if some had committed acts of violence and continued to show a propensity toward violence?

As desperate as the scenario appears, it is not as farfetched as it might sound. In fact, in West Virginia and in the rest of the nation, each year the most at-risk, most undisciplined, most challenged and least equipped youth are unleashed in communities to fend for themselves. They are the youth who age out of the child foster care system and the juvenile justice system at age 18. In the words of the former Kanawha County juvenile probation chief, these youth are given the opportunity to sink or swim. Many sink, and unfortunately take someone else down with them. This sink or swim philosophy regarding these youth is one of the most disturbing aspects of the juvenile justice and child foster care systems.

Each year, nearly 7,000 youth appear before a judge or probation officer, and nearly 300 age out of the foster care system without a permanent home. Some become part of the supply pipeline that fills West Virginia prisons. The destruction that some of these youth create in the communities and for themselves was highlighted by Gazette reporter Gary Harki in several newspaper articles in February and March of 2010 after a rash of violence involving Charleston teens.

In one article, Mr. Harki wrote after a juvenile was arrested for a double homicide about the apparent disconnect in the sharing of information by the West Virginia Division of Juvenile Services and the Kanawha County Juvenile Probation Department with Kanawha County School personnel regarding juvenile offenders who return to school from a secured juvenile detention or correctional facility. Several Kanawha County principals expressed serious concerns that they often do not receive prior notice or information on juvenile offenders returning to their school.

In a second article, Mr. Harki pointed out the "web of violence" that connected 10 African-American young adults. Four of them all under the age of 20 had been murdered. The nexus connection that Harki didn't know to point out was that at least eight of the 10 in the "web of violence" that he described had all come through the Kanawha County Juvenile Justice System, and some of them had actually been incarcerated at the same time in the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem. Let's be clear that these youth's involvement with the juvenile justice system did not contribute to their infatuation with guns, drugs and their propensity toward violence. Those were the reasons that they were under the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system. However, their involvement in the juvenile justice system did little to deter them from destructive life styles.

It is irresponsible, inexcusable, unwise and it should be unacceptable to knowingly release the most violent, the most destructive, and in some cases the most unstable youth into communities without providing the maximum support to the youth and protection to the community. We can do better than this and we should do better to support troubled youth and more importantly to protect public safety.

Watts is senior pastor at Grace Bible Church in Charleston.

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