The Littleton tragedy and others like it highlight the urgent need for an open dialogue and better communication and coordination among community leaders, parents, teachers, clergy, and youth services organizations to identify and help at-risk youths before they commit horrible crimes. At-risk juveniles need to be identified when they first exhibit patterns of unusual behavior and reach out for attention in abnormal ways.
In my 30 years of experience in juvenile services with the state of Illinois and in the private youth services field, I have witnessed countless youths who have thrown their lives away to crime and violence. On the other hand, I have also been involved in the sort of programs that are effective in drawing kids from a life of crime, and I have identified the warning signs that can help us take notice of at-risk children.
We all have a responsibility to facilitate on-going discussions on what causes our children to act out in a violent or criminal manner and how to recognize it. We need to start a process where people with the expertise on how to guide our children spread the word about how to identify at-risk behavior and prevent youths from contemplating criminal acts. Over the years I have formed a checklist of warning signs of at-risk youths. A child may be at risk if he or she:
- Withdraws from family and friends and demands complete solitude;
- Loses interest in old groups of friends, or begins hanging out with a new and different crowd;
- Changes style of clothing or dress drastically;
- Begins reading unusual kinds of literature, or visiting derogatory or troublesome Internet sites; or
- No longer brings friends home or becomes secretive in dealings and social plans with friends.
The above are just warning signs, though. They may not all predict that a child is going to commit a crime, but they should be used to keep a close eye on the child and offer the attention that is necessary to prevent criminal activity.
Oftentimes, juvenile crime results from a need for attention. It is the child's way of "reaching out" and making the world take notice. Youth development programs must address the needs of juveniles by showing them they have a positive purpose and that they can be successful contributors to society. Through highly developed vocational and educational activities, we can counteract an at-risk youth's aggression and desire to be noticed by teaching him or her to get noticed in constructive ways.
Programs that WorkAt-risk youths have to channel their anger into positive energy. The most effective programs help them find their niche in society and divert their minds from contemplating criminal acts by showcasing their intelligence and talents. Some examples of programs that help keep at-risk youths from turning to crime are:
- Parent/child family encounters to help parents learn more about their children and learn to listen to them;
- Vocational awareness programs that focus on the youth's strengths and talents;
- Anger management classes that help children express and confront their anger and rage.
I have found those programs that aim to punish the child or scold them for abnormal behavior work against the child and, in fact, push them towards acting out with subversive or criminal behavior. We must listen to our children and try to see things through their eyes. Building the child's self-confidence and helping them form achievable goals is the direction in which we need to head to ensure our children don't turn to crime.
Youth development programs are not the end-all solution, but they are an effective means to help at-risk juveniles avoid a life of crime. Working and communicating with our kids is an ongoing mission that must be undertaken by all people involved in the child's life to prevent these tragedies from happening in the future.