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Budget cuts add  to youth violence

Updated: June 24, 2011 12:19AM

Pretty soon the sun will be blasting and the humidity will jump on us like a wildcat. Combine that with school letting out, a record high 27.5 percent teen unemployment rate and crippling budget cuts to programs that help keep kids off streets, and it won’t take too long for our children to grow restless and violent.

That’s not an exaggeration. Violence is known to flare up during summer, and children are about to be caught in the crossfire of Chicago’s seemingly unstoppable gun violence and shrinking youth resources.

“I strongly believe this is going to be one of the worst summers ever,” said Hector Escalera, a Cook County juvenile probation officer who covers a police district that includes Little Village. He is worried because grants have dried up for programs that keep kids engaged and safe during the long summer months.

“It’s not even summer yet,” he told me, and Little Village already has seen several murders and “recently a kid got stabbed. We have a lot of issues in the community, and if we don’t provide youth with mental health, education and work opportunities, we are going to lose the battle.”

Escalera and I had initially connected to talk about the larger issue of child and juvenile offenders. Increasingly, they are being treated as hardened adult criminals because of the perception that when kids do bad things, it’s simply because they’re bad and not because they’re dealing with poverty, family drug or alcohol abuse and constant violence. That’s a public misperception that has been buoyed by a dangerous combination of media and politics.

“These kids are just kids — they’re youth who are very impulsive,” said Escalera, who mainly works with 15- and 16-year-olds. “They don’t do a cost/benefit analysis of their behaviors. Unfortunately people are talking more about treating youths as adults but it’s coming from people using juvenile crime as a political platform to get re-elected. I’m not saying we’re not going to lock up kids who commit crimes but we need to treat them with the compassion and love they deserve.”

But that loving treatment — often from community-based organizations that provide children with safe havens from gangs and the effects of poverty — is at risk. Agencies that do this kind of case work are dealing with loss of federal and state funds just as summer begins.

Matt DeMateo, director of the Urban Life Skills program, a Little Village gang intervention and mentoring program, was just as glum as Escalera. The challenges are mind-boggling.

“Little Village has 50,000 youth under age 25 and the least amount of park space in the whole city,” DeMateo said. “But last summer we actually had a strong decrease in violence. We gave kids a chance to be kids by providing fun sports opportunities like softball in addition to help with school, drug counseling, anger management and finding jobs.

“But with three different funding sources all on the chopping block, we’re preparing for what could be the worst summer we’ve seen in a long time,” DeMateo said.

“Summer jobs where we’ve been able to keep youth busy and productive aren’t there, increasing pressure and stress on families who count on their kids to help pay the rent. We need to get ready for a potentially really violent summer,” he said.

DeMateo isn’t one to throw in the towel. He has helped make the organization thrive for the last 10 years through the generosity of unpaid volunteers and kind-hearted donors.

“There are a lot of good people with a lot of good hearts out there, and if they’re interested in helping out or donating anything — sports equipment, computers, money — we’re asking them to contact us at,” he said.

“Whatever happens, we’re absolutely not going to stop the work we’re doing,” DeMateo said. “But any help we can get will allow us to reach more kids.”

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