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Group announces first regional plan to tackle youth violence

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A regional plan to attack youth violence by paying more attention to perpetrators and improving the safety and well-being of children and families was announced this morning by area political and community leaders.

“This violence is not just an East St. Louis issue or a city issue or county issue," said St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. "We know this is a regional economy and that poverty, mental-health issues, health issues and other things that impact youth violence and stability in families and children in our community really are regional issues.”

And regional problems need a regional solution, according to the report, which was released during a meeting of Slay’s Commissionon Children, Youth and Families.

The blueprint of the three-year strategy to reduce violence committed by people under age 24 involves a more intense focus on prevention, intervention, and law enforcement. It also includes more services for mental health and substance abuse to prevent recidivism among those convicted of crimes.

The report says action is needed in part because violence imposes a heavy toll beyond the young perpetrators and victims, diminishing the overall quality of life, curtailing economic growth and sullying the region’s reputation.

“The fear of violence extends deep into the community, imposing constraints on the way people live on a day-to-day basis,” according to the report.

Slay says he’s proud of “this effort to bring the entire community together. It involves a lot of disciplines, health, mental health, prevention, intervention, reentry, and law enforcement. All of these are really needed to make sure we have a safe community.”

To call attention to the urgency of the problem, the report noted:

  • St. Louis ranks second, behind New Orleans, in the rate of young people killed by gun violence.
  • The city’s rate of 50 youth gunshot deaths for every 100,000 people is three times the national average.
  • The 15-county region ranks ninth among metropolitan areas for the number of young people murdered with guns.

The latter statistic reinforces the point made by Slay and others that the issue isn’t solely a city problem. “Youth violence – and the fear of violence and crime perpetrated by young people – is a serious problem in the St. Louis region,” according to the report.
Funding for initiative

The report doesn’t offer new programs, acknowledging that the need to address the issue comes at a time when “severe cuts in public funding have brutally compromised coordinated community action” on youth employment. But it notes that noteworthy initiatives have occurred, such as last summer’s strong jobs program for youth, underwritten through private funding.

The plan grew out of an idea from Slay and is being carried out in partnership with County Executive Charlie Dooley and East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks. The Regional Youth Violence Prevention Task Force worked on the project for a year. Co-chairing the task force were the Rev. Starsky Wilson of the Deaconess Foundation, Bridget Flood of the Incarnate Word Foundation and Matt Kuhlenbeck of the Missouri Foundation for Health.

As for funding, Slay says the region already has some resources and will supplement them with money from other sources, including foundations, mental health agencies, along with federal and private sources.

“We also know that if we are going to go for regional dollars a regional plan is more attractive to Washington."

Dooley says he sees much promise in the report, including as a "first step" to funding. "We will now use it to implement plans and figure out how to fund them. But we first had to develop a plan and a blueprint. That’s what we are announcing today.“

Wilson was asked whether the region had the resources to underwrite the ambitious plans.

“First and foremost, it’s ambitious because we care for our young people and want to put them in a place to succeed,” he said. “The first thing is to realize how we are allocating current resources so that we can invest in children as a priority.”

He said the initial plan or study was funded by about $100,000 from foundations, and that the region will turn again to foundations.

“This is the way we get to implementation through a collaboration of local foundations and realigning public resources. It’s not all just seeking grants from the outside. What we found is that we can realign the way we do things inside to get better outcomes and results for kids.”

He notes that today was the second recent session focusing on violence. An earlier one was convened by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster.

At that session, Wilson said, “a scholar from (University of California at) Berkeley said the best way to stop a bullet is with a job. Yes, we knew that. But we hadn’t had an effective summer jobs program in this community until this past year. It was a pilot project, which grew out of this plan, and it actually got implemented, funded from private sources.”

Helping in that effort, he said, was the Incarnate Word Foundation. “That’s an example of how we’ll get it done.”

Kuhlenbeck of the Missouri Foundation for Health said, “There is some longstanding commitment both public and private to address violence among our youth and helping our youth with better outcome.”

He noted that the agenda announced Tuesday is not “designed to be implemented all at once. As resources become available, we can implement these strategies over time. Having a coordinated plan makes the region more attractive to external resources.”

He said this process won’t be a single organization working on the issue. “It’s the region coming together saying we’ve established priorities.”

Parks says he appreciates the fact that the project reaches across the river to help address problems in Illinois.

“This is going to put more focus on crime,” the mayor of East St. Louis said. “The regional approach to youth violence is actually an approach that’s long overdue. We have crimes issues that go back and forth across the river, so this is a needed situation.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.