I have just finished reading a new book about young people that should be required reading for youth workers, teachers and, most especially, policy-makers. Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx, chronicles the fast-paced and heart-wrenching stories of a group of children and youth from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent the better part of a decade in their South Bronx neighborhood, seeking to understand their joys and struggles.
What emerges is a cautionary tale for adults who truly care about leaving no child behind.
The young people we meet in this book – including Jessica, Boy George, Coco and Cesar – essentially raise themselves, surrounded by familial chaos of nearly incomprehensible proportions. The adults in their lives – parents, stepparents and parents’ on-again, off-again romantic partners – are so busy trying to make sense of their own situations that they don’t have the time, energy or inclination to give the kids guidance, support or even protection. Left largely to their own and each other’s devices, the young people set out to find money and love, often in all the wrong places.
What is most compelling about this coming-of-age portrait is its empathic and graphic description of the details of these young people’s daily lives. We hear their conversations, full of worry, fear, exhilaration and hope. We see their street corners and fire escapes, feel the pressure of living in overcrowded conditions, and sense the ever-present danger of crime and violence, both in the neighborhood and at home. Sexual abuse of the young women is commonplace, as is domestic violence of all kinds. Yet the young people carry on, finding reasons and ways to maintain hope and develop meaningful relationships.
Also striking is the total absence of youth workers and the relatively unimportant role played by other mainstream institutions, especially schools. Although Coco and Cesar are in the middle grades when we meet them, school holds little significance for them or their friends. There is no mention of their involvement in Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs, sports leagues or recreation center programs. These young people have one another and the streets as their main influences – and the inevitable troubles mount rapidly.
Random Family is a story of lost opportunity, which makes it particularly salient for adults who work with or on behalf of young people. So much of our public policy makes assumptions that fly in the face of the realities documented by LeBlanc, such as a foster care policy that expects the most disadvantaged youth to become “independent” at age 18, and national education legislation that prescribes high academic standards for all children without providing the requisite academic and nonacademic supports.
And where are the outreach workers who could protect Coco and Cesar from the dangers of the streets and introduce them to options other than selling drugs and having babies?
At age 19, Coco finds help for herself and her three children at a family shelter. LeBlanc astutely notes: “The Thorpe House staff aimed to equip the mothers with independent living skills, to reroute their formidable streetwise savvy toward the less tumultuous routines of the conventional world. But the sets of skills didn’t add up. One was geared for hilly terrain, like four-wheel drive. The other assumed the roads were level and paved.”
Policies and programs that assume “level and paved roads” are sure to fail with our most vulnerable youth. Programs that work – such as Quantum Opportunities, YouthBuild and Carrera Teen Pregnancy Prevention – recognize the formidable challenges facing young people growing up in high-risk environments, and provide intense services and unconditional care over long periods of time. They build on the strengths of young people, including their ingenuity and social intelligence.
We now have research results proving what we’ve always known intuitively: that our most vulnerable youth can achieve excellent outcomes when offered such intensive and targeted interventions. Critics shortsightedly point to the high cost of such efforts ($4,000 to $10,000 per year per child) rather than to their cost-effectiveness in reducing school failure, crime and early childbearing.
Random Family provides invaluable insights by clearly describing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats inherent in the lives of many very poor youth. Policy-makers who are tempted to mandate quick fixes for such youth should head instead to their local libraries to visit with Coco, Boy George and company.
Jane Quinn is assistant executive director for community schools at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.