In addition to the long-term challenges of reforming the major city and state systems for New Orleans’ youth, some specific problems won’t wait long for resolutions. They’re all interrelated.Places to play.
The city had nearly 150 playgrounds before Katrina, says Gina Warner, director of the Greater New Orleans After School Partnership. She was told by the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) that only nine will be open this year. That’s hardly a surprise, considering that NORD’s budget was cut 89 percent this year, according to Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Cary Grant. “In 2007 there will be a big increase, but probably not all the way back” to NORD’s 2005 allocation, Grant says.
Following a rash of shootings in the spring, the city reinstated its 10 p.m. curfew for youth 16 and under. Violators are taken to the third floor of an administrative building patrolled by sheriff’s deputies.
New Orleans Juvenile Court Judge David Bell doesn’t see it helping much. “The kids they’re arresting on curfew are not ones that would end up in court,” he says. “Ours are too savvy to get caught on curfew.”
Some, such as Youth Empowerment Project Executive Director Melissa Sawyer, believe the point is largely to protect youth from adults, not vice versa. “The crime rate went down because nobody’s here,” Sawyer says. “But as people come, the killing will come back, too.”
Bell would prefer to occupy kids rather than detain them. “The city should be looking at establishing evening soccer leagues, baseball, etc.,” he says. “It gives the police relief and the kids a safe haven.” That would be difficult to carry out, considering the budget cuts at NORD.
By the 11th day of the curfew, police had brought in 55 youth violators. At least 19 of them, officials discovered, had returned to the city without parents or guardians. “They’re living in gutted houses or with friends, coming back to hang or finish school or work,” says Warner, of the after-school partnership.
These nomadic teens have already crossed paths with all the youth-serving agencies you don’t want to meet. After some protest from leaders at the state Office of Community Services (OCS), it was decided that the teens picked up from curfew would be placed in OCS care.
Bell and his fellow judges had different plans for the teens that came before the court for actual crimes: “We’re attaching a warrant for the parents’ arrest and giving them 48 hours to appear,” he says.
The juvenile crime rate in New Orleans is down 96 percent from last year, largely because of the far smaller youth population. That could change if a lot of youth are banned from school and wind up roaming the streets with little to do, which looks like a possibility.
Bell says judges were notified by administrators at charter schools – which account for more than half of the active schools in the city – that “kids who were previously suspended, expelled or in trouble with the law would not be admitted into some of these schools.” Warner says she has not heard of any barriers to school admittance.
Bell also says the city- and state-run schools informed judges that they will employ a zero-tolerance policy this year, expelling youths on the first violation of rules under that policy. New Orleans Public School officials say they will be opening an alternative school for those youths.
Juvenile judges have attached orders to all juvenile cases before them, mandating each youth’s immediate registration in school.
International charity Mercy Corps provided a small family trauma program in the city last year, where families with children who screened positive for mental health problems were allowed to participate. Mercy Corps had spots for the first 65 youth who qualified. It took 68 screenings to finish filling the program.
Things might get worse. “Despite the current desperate situation of Louisiana’s mental health system, it was near implosion even before the hurricanes touched ground,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness concluded in a report released in March.
Add to that the fact that the state cut its Medicaid program in 2005, and it’s easy to see why people like Marketa Gautreau, assistant secretary for the Office of Community Services, anticipate a serious problem. “We’ll see more acting out by kids because of mental health issues,” Gautreau says. “All of us have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, at least second-degree.”
If adults suffer the consequences of depression, particularly in a notoriously substance-friendly metropolis like the Big Easy, cases of child abuse and neglect could pile up far faster than the depleted OCS infrastructure can handle.
Travis Lyons sees many city youth falling by the wayside. “A lot of parents done gave up, they can’t handle these kids,” Lyons, a founding member of Crescent City Youth Against Violence and a victim of gun violence, told the city council in July. “The future is devastating here, and we ain’t gonna have a future in a minute.”
He believes there may never be a better time to create a pipeline to jobs for youth. With construction going on all over the area, contractors are scrambling for laborers. Fast-food restaurants offer signing bonuses and high hourly wages.
Lyons has helped to create a grassroots employment program for teens. By phoning a call center he set up (504-416-1758), teens will be picked up at their houses and transported to weekend job sites, mostly on construction jobs.