I know murderers. I've eaten dinner with them. I've watched them giggle while they shoot hoops in the backyard and bicker over shoes in the living room. I've debated music with them and laughed at their jokes. Before the act of "murdering," they act like any other child. They complain about going to school. They want to watch DVDs and go bowling on the weekends. Surprisingly, there is no stamp on their forehead that says, "This one will kill." There are often other, smaller signs.
They have a tendency to get angry and have difficulty managing that emotion because they've never learned how to appropriately express it. If I contact their family because they need something, often someone will not answer that call. I can plot their address on a map and see their neighborhood is full of crime.
I've learned in more than a dozen years working with mentally ill and behaviorally challenging children that the same three predictors of negative outcomes are, as John Coie, professor of psychiatry at Duke University and an expert in the field of children who become violent, states: low family involvement, community violence and a history of early trauma.
These kids hurt because they see hurt. They were hurt. Most people know the phrase "Hurt people hurt people."
Omar stayed with me for two months. He was the only child at our facility during the 2004 Christmas holidays. We bought him presents, but that never made up for no family calling Christmas Eve. There was no place he could wake up to breakfast and a loving family. His family was scattered. An aunt was located in January 2005, and Omar was discharged. His parting words, "Ms. Lori, if I go to that house, I will end up back on the streets," would haunt me.
Two months later, I woke up and turned on the news to hear Omar's prediction come true. Omar had carjacked someone. In response, JPD Officer Thomas Catchings chased Omar, who drove the stolen car in a ditch. Omar shot Catchings. Then Catchings shot Omar. That day was the end of both of their stories. Somehow, the one starting with a kid who never received enough love and attention bled onto the grown man's story and whose kids will never know more of his love and attention. And that is why we are all responsible for the "Omars" of the world—because their stories will never stop bleeding onto ours in the most reprehensible way if we do not help change them.
I tell that story and people's first question is, "What do we do?" But then they don't like the answers because they aren't short or simple. People want these children's parents—often unequipped to deal with a life where money is always short, jobs are hard to keep due to parenting obligations and few community supports exist—to become the parents they were never ready to be in the first place. To be honest, the "community" part is the only part in the process where the rest of us can have an effect. This means supporting these kids in their own community with programs that provide the services they and their parents require.
Resiliency studies of at-risk youth concluded years ago that "one caring adult" in a kid's life can make the difference between jails or a productive existence—one caring adult. Doesn't sound that difficult, does it? And when that child's parent is unable to be the caring adult in their life—despite how much we may want them to be—we, as a society, have an obligation to ensure someone does. We should take that obligation seriously, as it will affect our very own children and families if we don't.
I'm not going to pine for Omar. I can't. There are too many other children that we can save. I can tell his story. I can hold his likeness in my head so I remember there are precious few things we do in life that make a difference except holding a child's hand. Holding a child's hand is an investment we make in our own children, in our own community, and in our own hearts. The lesson I take from Omar's story can be confusing and difficult for me. I want to be angry at what he did. I want to hate him for it.
But Omar was a child I saw sleepy with that straight-out-of-bed hair asking for some juice. He was a child whom I saw laugh and cry and ask for more from us. When we didn't give it to him, he took it from someone else. After Omar, I learned that each of us deals every day with youth where we can do as Gandhi asks of us: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." It is in that obligation that I stand firm. I've eaten dinner with murderers. But maybe one day, if we all wake up, I will not have to eat breakfast with them.
Lori Gregory-Garrott, LMSW, is director of Hope Haven Adolescent Crisis Center operating in south Jackson for the past 16 years. If you are or know a family in crisis who needs support or help with a mentally ill teenager, contact the Hope Haven Crisis Line 601-376-0500.
I've seen two different posts on FB underneath this article from people (Who have no idea I'm obviously stalking the comments) starting to have conversations about getting involved with kids. Seriously. So, I'd like to thank you guys for the forum. That's really what I wanted to happen with this.
- Lori G
Thank you, Lori. Keep saying it. You know what you're talking about.
This is a fantastic column. I hastily read it before and didn't completely get it. Perhaps I was blinded by the fact that I see many of these same individuals after they have made the big times with a capital murder charges. As I research the backgrounds I often find a caring but ill-quipped and poverty-stricken mother that is inadequate to raise and control boys living in a crime-infested area with no viable legal options or opportunities, and too few mentors or heroes beyond the street level. Sometimes that one caring person is never found or doesn't exist.
And it doesn't take long to find a history of trauma and low family involvement. I'm surprised anyone expects a child from those environments to succeed and flourish. Actually, I'm beginning to believe there isn't any expectations of that from the powers that be. The powers that be, and others who had to traverse a different and far safer route in life, claims the failure is a preference for the dysfunctional, the quick fixes, the lack of delayed gratification, the failure to seek and embrace a more advantageous culture, the hatred of education or school, the failure to perform, the refusal or inability to dream of things not seen, et al. I wish I could make everyone of those detractors, haters and pretenders relive their childhoods under the circumstances of those children they lack understanding and empathy for. To them, the few successes are the model rather than the exceptions. All those other people choose to live a life of crime, dysfunction, poverty and chaos.
Where I can always bring them home though is to talk about where they live, what they ran from, what they fear, why are they so involved as a parents, why are they working so hard to provide for their children, what their neighborhoods look like and possess versus those they look down on, etc.. CHILDHOOD MATTERS, ladies and gentlemen. Only a fool, a liar or complete moron disagrees.