Catholic perspectives from four who work with at-risk youths

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

April 20 was the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre which saw two Colorado teens slay 14 people including themselves. Coupled with routine local news reports, it serves as a grim reminder that we live in a society where violence is epidemic, especially among young males.

Four area professionals who deal with the problem every day addressed the issue. Judge Kevin Dougherty is the administrative judge for the Juvenile spanision of Philadelphia Family Court, Christian Brother Brian Henderson is the director of St. Gabriel’s Hall, a residential facility for court-committed boys in Audobon, and Francis Swiacki and Robert Dutton are executive director and assistant executive director, respectively, of St. Francis-St. Joseph Homes for Children, which is also a residence for troubled teens and young men.

Swiacki sees the effects of violence in the young men they serve.

“It’s happening in society at large but our path here is from the inner city. It’s the violence, the drug culture. Guns are a sign of manhood. It’s the American West syndrome and a tolerance toward the use of guns and the availability of guns. In Mexico, where they also have violence,” he said, “90 percent of the guns come from the U.S.”

Part of what we are seeing can be traced to the huge impact of the drug culture of the previous generation, Brother Brian suggests.

“Younger people who were addicted have grown up and their children have intellectual harm,” he said. “We are seeing people raising children that are increasingly isolated and detached from supportive networks. The violence proliferates because of the proliferation of guns in the hands of irresponsible people. No one seems to be doing much, including the gun lobby, to see that this doesn’t happen.

“All of the violence magnifies a sense of fear in the community. We used to think post traumatic stress syndrome only applied to the military, but now we see it in certain sections of the city where kids hear gunfire regularly,” Brother Brian said.

Judge Dougherty believes much of the antisocial behavior we see traces back to the fracturing of the family unit, and a first symptom of this is truancy. “Truancy permits the child to be educated on the streets, then unfortunately the courts must get involved and redirect the child’s way of thinking,” he said.

Within the home itself, within fractured families, television and computers become the primary educators. Kids are inundated with computer games like Grand Theft Auto, which Judge Dougherty terms “an absolute disgrace.”

A young person playing such a game can, after killing someone or stealing, hit the reset button and everything is done. The problem is, there is no such option in real life. “Children can’t hit a reset button after they commit a murder,” Judge Dougherty said.

As to television, do violent shows influence violent behavior or reflect reality? Swiacki believes gritty, violent shows such as HBO’s “The Wire” truly reflects the reality inner-city kids face every day.

“Media, especially advertising media, abdicate social responsibility – it’s whatever it takes to make money,” Brother Brian charged.

People are being anesthetized to violence and the media take a narcissistic approach, in which executives say, “It’s not my problem. Making money is what I do,” Brother Brian said.

“Take children who grew up in a home with discipline,” Dutton said. “If they watch a violent show it won’t affect them. But a child without discipline might copy the behavior.”

Many teens and young men at St. Francis-St. Joseph come from a background of dysfunctional families, where they are not taught self-discipline or given goals or a sense of hope. Without goals they don’t have a reason to change behavior or postpone short-term gratification.

Instead of taking an entry-level job at McDonald’s and working their way up, they will go for the quick money of selling drugs, Swiacki and Dutton observed.

By the time young people reach the courts and Catholic Social Services institutions such as St. Gabriel’s or St. Francis-St. Joseph, they clearly need help.

“I believe children are basically good and need positive influence,” Judge Dougherty said. He believes it’s not enough to simply institutionalize a child for a period of time and then send him home.

“If you send the child back to the same environment you are setting the child up for failure,” he said. As administrative judge of Juvenile Court since 2001, he has placed greater emphasis on the root causes for antisocial behavior. “We assess the child, we partner with the Department of Human Services and the school district. We provide social services to the family,” he said.

When love and adequate support are missing from the child’s life, society as a whole must network and step in, Brother Brian contends. “The thrust I look to is what has (happened) in their lives,” Brother Brian said. “What happened to injure their life? They are missing a lot of things we take for granted: the safety of being in a home with heat and food and incentive through legitimate work.”

There is no quick fix, and institutions like St. Francis-St. Joseph are but a spoke in a large wheel, Dutton said. “We are getting kids who can’t stay in their family. Everybody has to work to strengthen families, to strengthen education and to get drugs off the street. Education is key. A young man without education is angry and you have to focus on education,” said Dutton.

“These kids are facing tremendous odds,” Swiacki said. “They don’t understand how important it is to get a high school diploma. The education system is problematic to them and that limits their options to be successful.

“If they stay with us long enough they will see education is the ticket to their success,” Swiacki said. “We try to get them into sports and into education.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.