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WILD in the STREETS : FOR A LOST GENERATION OF DELINQUENT KIDS, THE WORLD IS FULL OF DOPE AND TROUBLE

December 15, 1991|ELIOTT CURRIE | Eliott Currie is a sociologist and the author of "Confronting Crime" (Pantheon) and other works dealing with crime and delinquency. These interviews were adapted from "Dope and Trouble," 1991 by Eliott Currie, to be published in January, 1992, by Pantheon Books.

ON ANY GIVEN DAY IN THE UNITED States, around half a million children and adolescents are locked away out of sight--in juvenile detention facilities, adolescent mental wards, residential drug-rehabilitation programs and group homes. Vastly more pass through those institutions at some point in their lives; every year more than a million are admitted to juvenile institutions alone. And their numbers are growing. In just four years--1985 to 1989--the proportion of the adolescent population held in public juvenile facilities rose by 20%. In the 1970s, national legislation was passed designed to keep as many youths as possible out of the juvenile justice system. But in the past few years, that system has increasingly become the youth social service agency of first resort, not just for the violent and the predatory, but for the parentless, the homeless and the addicted.

In the following pages, five "at-risk" young people speak about their lives, their fears and hopes, families and friends, frustrations and dreams. They talk about drugs and violence and the terrors and lures of the street, and, perhaps most importantly, about how they came to be where they are. They are representative of the larger army of young people who flow through the child welfare and youth control systems.

Each of these young people volunteered to tell his or her story; each was willing to have his or her real name used, but the law requires that their identities be protected; thus the events of their lives as they tell them are real, but their names are fictitious.

They were interviewed in an obscure county Juvenile Hall with one schoolroom for the 300 inmates and a concrete play area with high, wire-topped walls. The hall serves a county much like others across the United States, with comfortable suburbs and deteriorating ghettos, older working-class neighborhoods and struggling communities of the rural poor. The hall holds children from 10 to 17 years old. Some have been convicted in juvenile court of theft, drug dealing or gang violence. Some have been returned to custody after violating probation. Some have been picked up off the street or removed from abusive homes. A few have turned themselves in, seeking shelter. Many are awaiting "placement"--in a group home, drug rehabilitation or some other part of the youth system.

All of the adolescents who speak on these pages are emphatically distinct individuals, but their stories reveal several common themes that are crucial to understanding the condition of youth and families in America today. They show, in particular, a larger social tragedy that goes beyond deepening poverty and economic insecurity. That economic disaster figures powerfully in most of these histories. But the crisis of families and children in America is also a crisis of culture and purpose: the crisis of a society savaged by a growing social Darwinism, increasingly content to leave many children and their parents adrift, thrown back on their own resources; a society that routinely shrugs off even the most rudimentary responsibility for the healthy growth and development of its young.

Not surprisingly, the kids have often bought into these values themselves. By the age of 14 or 15, many have already come to understand and accept the world as a place where you must scramble relentlessly to survive, harden yourself against emotions and be constantly on guard. However, many of the kids have resisted that acceptance, countering the pervasive neglect and self-absorption of the adult society around them with an impressive capacity for engagement and concern.

It is terribly important to pay attention to what they have to say. From their stories we can begin to comprehend the depth and meaning of the disaster that has afflicted youth and families in the United States. We talk a great deal about that disaster, and we have even begun to promote legislation to do something about it, but most Americans simply do not understand how bad things have become for the kinds of people whose lives are described in these stories. As long as we keep their stories hidden, we will continue to fail these young people and others like them. We will continue to jeopardize their future--and ours.

SEAN O'FARRELL, AGE 16

He's slender, anxious, moody, doing serious time for having stolen several thousand dollars from the fast-food restaurant where he worked as a cook. Before that, he dealt small amounts of methamphetamine and LSD, and got kicked out of high school for cutting classes. He lives with his mom, a waitress, hairdresser and housecleaner. He speaks softly, and he says he's depressed a lot of the time.

THE REASON I GOT MYSELF INTO THIS SITUATION IS MY MOTHER was having problems with bills, keeping up with all the phone bills, and mainly our rent, and we were about to be evicted. We had the eviction notice and nowhere to go but to the nearest curb. Nobody cared. It was just, kick them out.

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