The Struggles Of Forgotten Youth
Hampton, Matt. Queens Chronicle, Aug. 21, 2008.
Jamel Robinson is a 20 year old black man. He has spent most of his youth in foster care, shuttled between group homes and living with his own grandmother. He has spent nearly a year incarcerated for arrests which occurred while he was driving stolen cars. Next month, he’ll be jettisoned from New York City’s child welfare system with no prospects, and no idea where he’ll end up.
His story is by no means unique, and while not every child spends time in jail, many young people, both inside and out of the foster care system, struggle to find direction — ending up hopelessly lost, even to their own families. A recent New York Times article, citing a study by the Urban Institute, issued an alarming statistic: by the time they reach their mid-30s, roughly 60 percent of black men had spent time in prison.
There is a disconnect somewhere in society. A circuit is broken, and perhaps has been for a long time. But for young men like Robinson, who have the desire to stand up and fight for a brighter future for themselves and others — that circuit stands a chance to be whole again.
“All I know is foster care, and I depended on this system to take care of me. It failed.”
Robinson has testified before the New York City Council on the failings of the city’s child welfare system. He knows it all too well.
He was placed in foster care at the age of two months, in November 1987. He was born to a drug-addicted mother who was also an alcoholic. He still bears the physical and emotional damage of his mother’s addictions, suffering from cerebral palsy and a battery of learning disabilities, including ADHD.
When he was in high school, he fought for himself to get into special education classes, and was rebuffed often, told that everything from individual tutoring to group classes were filled. Failing to make any headway in the college preparatory classes where he was placed, he dropped out of high school, admitting that he “walked out of the building and never went back.”
Robinson’s problems worsened once he left school. Responsible only to his grandmother, he would stay out nights, disappear for hours at a time and often end up alone, sleeping on the street or in train cars. He says that when he was arrested the first time — for being in possession of a stolen vehicle — he almost felt a sense of relief that someone was finally paying him some degree of attention.
“I was crying out for help and I went unheard. There were nights I went hungry,” he said. “When I was in jail, I knew that I didn’t have to deal with the struggle of a dysfunctional household while I was serving time.”
For Robinson, every act of desperation, from finding his way into abandoned subway trains, to joyriding in stolen cars, was a plea for help from a city that was ignoring him.
“I felt like I didn’t have a voice, I just felt like I couldn’t get one,” he said. “So I thought, I’m going to do everything I can to get attention.”
Sugar Wright, of the southeast Queens group Keep Our Streets Safe, has known Robinson since he was 15. She considers him to be a strong advocate for change, because he knows better than most what can happen to a child who slips through the cracks.
“He’s been in the system,” she said. “For us, we sit outside it, so we really don’t know what’s going on. He would be the only one who actually knows it.”
Wright said that she considers Robinson to be a bit of a rarity among young people who have seen the hard times that he has in so few years.
Now, at age 20, with his discharge from public care looming, Robinson has had a revelation.
“I just want to increase the awareness of the multiplicity of problems of children in foster care and in the criminal justice system,” he said. “What happens is that most of these children go unheard and unsupported. For me, the struggle was too much to deal with.”
Finding Answers In Others
Mackenzie Brooks is a St. Albans artist. In 2006, she started From Cardboard To Canvas, an organization that reaches out to children from around her neighborhood, and gathers them together to sit and paint.
It’s a simple operation. Just paints and supplies, but Brooks said the group has been a vital component in the lives of roughly 20 kids, from the ages of 7 to 19, who don’t have a place to go on weekends.
“Not all kids want to do basketball, or do karate, some of the kids, like me, just really want to draw,” she said.
Without her group, a number of the young people she helps would be left to their own devices, and while the art supplies are a big expense, Brooks considers it a public service.
In southeast Queens, organizations like From Cardboard To Canvas spring up all the time out of sheer necessity. Brooks said she believes that when young people are given the opportunity, they will always turn their backs from a life lived on the dark side of the street. The problem is that authority figures — everyone from parents and teachers to clergy — don’t always have the energy to keep up, or they lose interest.
“You’d be amazed to see,” she said. “It’s awesome how young people can learn if we don’t give up on them. It makes me feel good when a child can figure out the artistic process, it makes me feel that I’m doing something important in the community.”
A group that started as just five children has more than doubled in size over the last year and a half, becoming as big as Brooks can manage.
Down Merrick Boulevard, at I.S. 8 in Jamaica, Calvin Whitfield and the group Ella’s Place take a different tactic to get the same results.
Whitfield had a strong belief that subtle guidance and lending an ear would make all the difference in a child’s life, and he used Ella’s Place to test his theory.
A kind of independent pilot program which started in February, Ella’s Place is a group connected to at-risk and troubled youth through the court system and gives them a place to have open discussion with mentors and youth their own age.
Shakeria Little, 16, and Bernard Harrison, 17, were referred to Ella’s Place by their probation officers. Both were guided to the program because they had gotten into altercations with other people their own age, which had resulted in criminal charges being filed.
Now, instead of becoming a casualty of the juvenile justice system, Little and Harrison have turned around their attitudes, and their lives. The two spent six months in the program, which has seemingly made a world of difference.
“There’s a lot more self control in our behavior now,” Little said. “We’ve learned to be optimistic. We talk about what we want to do when (we) grow up, and that’s not stuff we really thought about before.”
Harrison, who said he found a great deal of use out of conflict resolution workshops, agreed. “This is the kind of program that helps you look inside yourself, and find your passion. They help you and they give you guidelines.”
Whitfield, who runs the program along with coaching football at Jamaica High School, said that they rely on input from the young people themselves to dictate how their workshops go.
“We engage in a lot of role-playing,” he said. “We might put them in a situation to look at their options.”
In addition to the workshops, the group takes time to open up mentorship opportunities to put the youth in different environments, including field trips to Manhattan —all tailored to follow the interests of the young people involved.
As with From Cardboard To Canvass, in many ways, the money that comes in facilitates the content. Art supplies and theater tickets aren’t free, even for charitable organizations, and Whitfield said that by far the biggest struggle is finding the funds to maintain the program, even when less than a dozen young people are regular attendees.
Whitfield feels vindicated by the first six months of the program, secure in the belief that the act of letting young people engage in a simple dialogue has improved their quality of life exponentially.
“Our goal is to give every kid an opportunity to be supported,” Whitfield said. “We all have social problems. We just said we would do whatever we can do to help them achieve.”
For all this work, Little said that it’s easy to tell which young people are getting the most out of the program. “You can notice who’s really into it with the attendance. Some people, if they just come a couple of times, they’re not getting it.”
Those that don’t show up, of course, are added to the growing number of young people who slip through the cracks. The kind of young people that Robinson is trying to convince to stay motivated in their own lives.
On Oct. 6, Robinson is holding a press conference to introduce what he calls the Jamel Robinson Child Welfare Reform Initiative, the first stage in what he hopes represents change for the programs which he believes have failed so many young people like himself across New York City.
Robinson named it after himself to highlight his own story, and to give others valuable context when it comes to looking at the way youth services are presented.
“It makes a powerful statement when you use a name, because behind that name is a story,” Robinson said. “This is about my peers, the ones who are still in foster care, and in the criminal justice system. Those systems are not interconnected, but there are solutions to these problems. We just have to put them together.”
Robinson has faith that through his example, people will be able to see the importance of reaching out to youth.
“I believe we need to change things,” Robinson said. “I believe real leaders incite change.”
Anyone wishing to donate to the programs listed in this article should e-mail Matt Hampton at firstname.lastname@example.org