N.O. forum debates root of juvenile delinquency

“Racism is still very much alive in this community — no doubt. But you’ve got to look in the mirror. Until you get your own house straightened, you can’t blame outside forces.” Jerry Settles, juvenile attorney

Panelists and audience members at a juvenile justice forum in Gentilly on Thursday night debated who is more to blame for the youth who end up in the juvenile justice system: The parents, or the system.

Panelists Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Juvenile Court Judge Candice Bates Anderson, juvenile attorney Jerry Settles and Lynette Adams, project coordinator for FINS (Family in Need of Services) gathered with more than 50 community members to share their efforts to keep kids from entering the system.

Gusman explained how youth end up under his watch and detailed the numbers of youthful offenders charged as adults at Orleans Parish Prison, 39; the under-21 population at the jail for whom educational services are provided, 284; and the number of youth in the electronic monitoring program, 58.

Gusman also detailed the improvements and new construction under way at the prison.

Adams explained the role of FINS, a process that works to reduce the involvement of the formal juvenile court through early intervention and helps children and their families access appropriate community services.

Settles said that with youth, the goal is to work it out using resources like FINS, with the goal of avoiding incarceration.

Adams talked about the notion of a “school-to-prison pipeline,” and how what starts as a truancy offense can lead to youth entering the system.

A lot of parents were happy with the idea of “zero tolerance” discipline policies espoused by many new charter schools, Adams said, but then asked how happy parents are with it in practice. “It means just what is says,” she said.

Anderson said that she finds that there are not only issues with kids being “ungovernable” but with parents also refusing to cooperate and take responsibility.

Unless children as well as parents are reached, the children will continue to be in the system, Anderson said.

But something has to be done, Anderson said, of “too many winding up dead — we have to put a stop to that. The children who come before me are 99.9 percent African-American. That’s a problem.’’

Settles noted that often the problem can start with how initial police reports are made and a “dysfunctional” police department.

“Racism is still very much alive in this community — no doubt,” Settles said. “But you’ve got to look in the mirror. Until you get your own house straightened, you can’t blame outside forces.”

Nature hasn’t changed, Settles said, nurture has.

But many in the audience took exception to placing the blame on parents and said they thought the conversation was supposed to be about solutions.

Community members discussed issues of punishing parents when their kids miss too many days of school, and kids being over medicated for things like Attention Deficit Disorder.

“Instead of teaching the internal coping mechanisms, they overmedicate,” Settles acknowledged.

They discussed problems in the education system, discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, institutional racism, a lack of mental health resources, and the need for the community to be active in schools and build up young African-American males.

When community members talked about their efforts and organizations that do exist, Adams and Anderson urged them to provide their information.

What panelists and audience members agreed on was the need for conversation and communication between the public and nonprofit sector so children can be connected to every available community resource.

“My last step is to put them in jail,” Anderson said. “Come to me,” she urged those offering resources. “Any services you have to offer, reach out to us.”