Magazine article Policy & Practice

Who Is Naming and Claiming Our Kids?

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Who Is Naming and Claiming Our Kids?

Article excerpt

As president of the National Crime Prevention Council, I sat on Attorney General Janet Reno's U.S. Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Thirsty to learn, Reno would hold meetings in places where she could witness what was going on in local communities. At one of our meetings at a school in Southeast Washington, D.C., a minister described what his church was doing to help prevent crime, referencing Head Start, mentoring, family counseling, and after-school programs. He concluded casually: "We also go out into the streets to get to know the kids by name."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

How powerful! For underneath the bravado of so many kids is the ache of not being claimed, named by anyone. So many youth act on their loneliness, their almost primordial need to belong. How simple, but how basic to be called by name: it is parental. We name our kids. It is love; it is protection--"you are mine." It evokes the God who names. One finds wonderful social policy and theology in Isaiah: "O Israel, Fear not; for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by name; thou art Mine."

While serving as commissioner of youth services in Massachusetts, a convicted juvenile murderer said something I will never forget, "Commissioner, I'd rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all." Si Johnson, a Native American who works with tough kids, described the young murderer from Red Lake, Minn., as being "outside the circle. Being outside the circle is death."

It seems worse than alienation, for many troubled youth have never even been initially attached to family or society. Perhaps the word that comes closer is anomie--rootlessness, lack of purpose, or anonymous--without name.

I worked with one of the nation's "anonymous" kids, Erin Jacoba, who was jailed in the Indiana Girls' School. I met her through the Youth as Resources program I designed. YAR asks youth to identify social issues that concern them, design a project to address that issue and, if funded, run the project. Thousands of youth joined YAR; but would YAR work with youth whom society had written off, youth who felt they had little to offer anybody? Erin was in YAR's experimental class. While serving time, Erin designed a project to work with children institutionalized with severe cerebral palsy. …

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