N.C. Communities Strategize To Stem Youth Violence

CAROLINA PUBLIC PRESS—Juvenile crime stats dropped in Robeson County following the 2010 creation of the North Carolina Youth Violence Prevention Center in Lumberton.

Over the following eight years, court complaints against juveniles dropped 58%, juveniles being detained by 86% and delinquency by 54%, according to the center.

Since November 2023, the center also conducted trauma assessments on 33 youth who were referred from district court, and 68% entered trauma-focused therapy. Their recidivism rate was 6%, according to the center.

Paul Smokowski, executive director, started the center in 2010 with funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. He said he chose Robeson County as the location because of the high rates of violence there and diversity of Lumbee and Black communities.

The most common form of youth violence is bullying, he said, and nationally, “we haven’t moved the needle on it in decades.”

Gun violence, abuse, neglect and gang violence are also issues, he said.

The center’s programs include reducing parent-child conflict, therapy for survivors of violence and addressing adverse childhood experiences.

While there has been progress, more needs to be done, Smokowski said, especially in areas with less resources like the Northeastern and Western parts of the state. Besides Robeson, rural Richmond and Scotland counties, also along the state’s central boundary with South Carolina, have the highest rates of violence in the state, he said, defying the stereotype that violence occurs mostly in inner cities. 

Rural areas also have less support and may have less social workers so there’s less capacity, he said.

Almost every county has a child advocacy center that serves kids who’ve experienced abuse and neglect, but the services often vary, he said. Funding is part of why there aren’t more centers like his, he said, as the federal government has opened up a lot of funding related to youth violence but resources are still stretched. 

Preventing Youth Violence 

To address youth violence, it’s important to combine both evidence-based practice with community input, Smokowski said. That’s because the community needs to support the program or it won’t work, he said.

One example is Teen Court, where a child who committed a misdemeanor offense can have a jury of their peers and take responsibility for their actions, such as through community service.

In the center’s beginning, there wasn’t a lot of research about the program, but the community wanted it, Smokowski said, so he had to convince funders at first.

Now, many counties have a teen court program, Smokowski said. According to data from the center, 86% of participants in the program don’t reoffend in the first year. For youth who go straight into the juvenile justice system without participating in teen court, only 64% don’t reoffend in the first year, he said.

Teen court is also cheaper in the long run, he said, because a teen court program costs around $625 per participant, but incarcerating a youth costs almost $160,000 a year for the state.

While every community is unique, trauma is a universal factor in violence that can stem from victimization such as child abuse and neglect, as well as being a bystander to community violence, Smokowski said.

“Across the whole state, you could decrease a whole lot of youth violence and other problematic behavior if you addressed issues surrounding trauma,” he said.

That’s because a traumatized person can flip to become a perpetrator, as “victimization and violence are interconnected,” he said.

But a severe shortage of clinicians who are well trained to handle trauma exists, so the state needs increased training for trauma interventions to address this, he said. 

“There are really good interventions for therapeutically helping a youth heal,” he said. “But many youth don’t get the therapy that they need.”

Addressing youth violence is different from adult violence because there is a better chance for remediation than letting the issues accumulate over time, he said. 

School Shootings

School shootings are another form of youth violence. The national organization Sandy Hook Promise hosted a summit in Charlotte on April 20 that talked about preventing violence in schools.

The organization’s “Say Something Anonymous Reporting System” allows students to anonymously report a safety issue through an app, hotline, or website. In N.C., at least five credible planned school shooting attacks were averted because of reports made to the system, according to Sandy Hook Promise. 

In those instances, the system received a report of a written or verbal threat to attack a school with access to a weapon that the school and local law enforcement didn’t already know about. Incidents were prevented in Lee County twice, as well as Rutherford County, Durham, Alleghany County and Elkin, according to Sandy Hook Promise.

Charlotte Area Youth Violence Effort

The City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County partnered with Youth Advocate Programs, Inc., or YAP, to start the Alternatives to Violence program in the Beatties Ford neighborhood in 2021, using the Cure Violence program model, according to a press release from YAP.

In 2023, the city and county awarded the organization a contract to also manage a new Alternatives to Violence, or ATV, expansion site at West Boulevard, according to YAP.

A 2023 UNC Charlotte study tracked the first year of the Alternatives to Violence Program in the Beatties Ford neighborhood and found a decrease in firearm-related homicide, compared with similar neighborhoods.

Kwasi Amponsa, manager of the two YAP Charlotte ATV programs, said the organization uses data to identify the highest risk communities and views violence as an epidemic. 

“We look at it as a contagion,” he said. “If one person reacts to it or has an emotional response to a problem, then that triggers this repetitive cycle of responding to trauma, using violence.” 

The three-pronged approach to address violence involves first interrupting situations that could be violent or preventing further violence through mediation, he said. The next step is changing behavioral norms so people don’t see youth violence as a normal way of handling conflict, Amponsa said, and then finally creating a culture of unity and collectivism.

As someone who was formerly incarcerated and has been in juvenile residential treatment, Amponsa said he’s seen firsthand how vital this work is. But it’s far from easy, he said, as many of these conflicts stem from systemic issues that go much deeper.

“This is the result of families and communities who have been marginalized, generation after generation,” he said.

“Our families are broken. Our educational systems aren’t functioning to full capacity. And the result is you have families who are depressed and in survival mode, and unfortunately within our Black and Brown communities, you experience these ebbs and flows of all types of crime.”

Systemic issues also make it difficult for families to access help, according to Cheryl Peace, coordinator at Chat Collaborative, a program through Pat’s Place Child Advocacy Center in Charlotte that connects children to mental health care. 

Many of their clients come because of allegations of child sexual abuse, as well as from neglect, abuse and exposure to violence, she said.

The Chat Collaborative connects them to trauma-trained providers, she said, because the center itself can’t handle seeing all the children – it receives about 700-800 clients each fiscal year.

The center follows up with families after referring them to trauma therapy to see whether they’re receiving services, and, if not, to figure out why, she said. That means assessing barriers such as transportation, language and insurance, she said.

“The families that we are connected with are dealing with lots of complex trauma. The majority of our populations that we serve are our marginalized populations, populations of color, low income communities, communities that are affected by systemic issues and have lots of barriers,” she said. 

While capacity at the center is always a question of concern, Peace said she hopes education around body-safety consent and raising awareness about signs of child abuse in the community will bring their number of clients down. 

Youth enrichment in Greensboro

Preventing youth violence also means providing opportunities for youth enrichment, said Latisha McNeil, Office of Community Safety manager at the City of Greensboro. 

Instead of being focused on one area or neighborhood like the Cure Violence model tends to do, McNeil said their focus is city-wide and comprehensive. 

She said some violence can stem from minor disagreements that are inflamed on social media. Less opportunities also exist for young people to be employed, she said. As a middle schooler, McNeil said she had a hard time herself, but then she got a job at the mall.

The responsibility of having people count on her “changed my life,” she said.

Now there are less opportunities for teenagers to get jobs in the mall and at fast food restaurants, she said. When kids have nothing to do, it’s easy for fights to escalate, she said. 

The city contracts with community-based organizations on youth violence intervention and interruption to help address this, she said. Programs include hosting open gyms for youth to play basketball, mediating conflicts, mentoring opportunities, job shadowing and developing a youth led podcast, she said.

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