Children must be safe in their communities and homes if they are to survive and prosper. Too many children in the St. Louis metropolitan area live in neighborhoods where there are imminent threats to their safety, especially from criminal activity and gang involvement. Many children grow up in a “culture of crime” – one in which criminal activity is a very real and daily concern, one in which crime often seems the most reliable means of self-promotion. For poorer children who have not seen their parents benefit from hard work and the pursuit of “American dream,” the lure of criminal or gang activity can easily lead to involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Teens are a very resilient population, however, and for the vast majority, solutions can be found in caring and supportive mentoring relationships, and in prevention programs that channel their talents and energies into constructive, skill-building activities. For the smaller number of youth who become involved in serious problem behaviors, intervention and treatment services are may be required. Currently the need for prevention and intervention programs outweighs their availability; as a result it is difficult for some parts of the metro area to attain and maintain the kind of community-level impact that results in safe neighborhoods for all community members.
Often it is left to the police and courts to deal with the complex issues related to problem behavior and crime. Almost always, they do so with insufficient staff and financial resources. Intermittently, there are periodic infusions of federal funds to address problems ranging from mental health to substance abuse, gang involvement, and juvenile crime, but such funding is not usually sustained over time, thwarting the maintenance of true cross-system change and collaboration.
The St. Louis community would benefit largely from systemic solutions, spanning geographical and municipal boundaries that connect young people with needed supports and services, deter them from involvement in the juvenile justice system, assist them with high school completion, and successfully connect them to post-secondary training, education and employment.