Niagara Gazette

September 30, 2012

CITY DESK: These kids, our kids

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The girl's mom showed up at our house, pounding on our front door.

She was looking for information about her daughter's whereabouts, suspecting she was out with my 13-year-old stepdaughter.

I wished I had answers for her, but I didn't.

It was roughly an hour earlier when I was on the telephone with an administrator at Niagara Falls High School, making sure our child was indeed in class where she belonged.

She was. And then, she wasn't.

That's the thing with these kids — our kids — they are crafty.

From what I gather, our 13-year-old ditched the tail end of the school day Wednesday, sneaking out a door at the high school, undetected by faculty or on-site surveillance cameras.

She was gone, on the run with her friend and a few other friends for the next 24 hours-plus.

It turns out, these kids — our kids — were helping to hide a young man who was supposed to have a family court hearing earlier in the day. It seems he was expected to be sent to a juvenile detention facility for past offenses and they really didn't want him to have to go.

The whole crew managed to evade probation officers, juvenile detectives, police and regular detectives for about a day and a half before being rounded up Thursday evening.

Yes, this stuff really happens here and when an hysterical mom shows up at your front door asking why, you can't help but be at a loss.

Some may recall the night back in April when a 12-year-old successfully rented a hotel room off Niagara Falls Boulevard for an unsupervised night of teenage fun.

It outraged me to the point where I wrote about it, hoping the community would recognize it as a cautionary tale and respond.

Well, here we are again.

I offer another reminder that these kids — our kids — are still engaging in some pretty dangerous behaviors — sex, drugs, criminal activity.

The latest craze is getting tattoos from some guy who is running an underground shop out of a house somewhere in the city.

Under state law, no one under 18 can get a tattoo, with or without parental consent.

In Niagara Falls, I'm finding, such laws do not always apply.

This sort of behavior might be expected from older teens — 16- or 17-year-olds maybe. These kids are middle schoolers and high school freshman.

This is also the kind of stuff that leads to long-term consequences — teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, prison, disease.

It's horrifying.

Our child is responsible for her own actions, of course. It's not society's fault she's in the position she is in. We, as parents, have a responsibility to try to keep her on the right path.

That's why back in May we sought help from the Niagara County Probation Department's PINS diversion program. They connected us with a great group of in-home counselors from Catholic Charities who provide weekly services as part of a program called Multi-Systemic Therapy. We are in regular contact with teachers and school administrators and attend sessions with a private counselor each month.

It's not working, not yet anyway. But, we know she's worth it and are committed to keep trying.

The same can't be said for the parents of all these kids.

Some of them, like the one scheduled for the family court date, receive little if any parental supervision. They do not find their way to school every day and, in some cases, are too poorly behaved to be able to attend traditional classes. As a result, they are getting lost in the cracks in the system and are having a corrupting influence on others their age.

If we're not careful, they'll all soon be getting ink on the pages of our police blotter.

It's clear to me more can and should be done.

Our school district just got approved for a $67 million capital improvement project.

What good are new science labs if the students can sneak out the doors when no one's looking? Why have surveillance cameras in a school building if no one's watching them?

Again, I'm not blaming the district for our child's behavior, I'm just offering an example of how the system can be strengthened overall.

Real change comes down to two things: Commitment and funding. The first one should be a snap. The second a priority.

My fiance and I have spoken at length to probation officers, police officers, juvenile detectives, social workers, teachers and school administrators — all the people working on the front lines of the city's juvenile system.

They are working hard, earning their money and have demonstrated to us that they genuinely do care about our kids.

They have also told us the same thing time and again: They can only do so much with what they have and need more and better resources.

Having witnessed firsthand how hard these people are working, I have come to appreciate how desperately they need reinforcements — more power to merit out effective punishments, more personnel to keep eyes on unlocked doors and tabs on wayward kids, more alternative programs troubled teens and more recreational facilities and offerings to keep kids busy and off the streets.

There's no easy fix here. It's a complex problem, requiring a lot of work.

Now is the time to renew our commitment.

They may not appreciate it now, but I'm sure in time these kids — our kids — will thank us for it.

Mark Scheer is the city editor at the Niagara Gazette. Contact him at 282-2311, ext. 2250