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Camden's at-risk youth get a wake-up call

The police officers were friendly, but when they appeared suddenly at one Camden mother's door last month, she knew it had to do with her 14-year-old son: the fights in school, the online posts where he used slang she didn't understand, and the call from his principal.

Bryan Morton of Camden is an ex-offender working with troubled youth. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer )
Bryan Morton of Camden is an ex-offender working with troubled youth. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer )Read more

The police officers were friendly, but when they appeared suddenly at one Camden mother's door last month, she knew it had to do with her 14-year-old son: the fights in school, the online posts where he used slang she didn't understand, and the call from his principal.

But the Camden County officers weren't there to arrest him. They asked her to bring him to a meeting with police, clergy, school administrators, and community leaders. "We are concerned about the safety and wellness of your child," Deputy Chief Joe Wysocki wrote in a letter the officers gave her.

"When I saw that letter, it was real to me," said the 34-year-old mother, who spoke only on the condition neither she nor her son were named. "And I was so grateful they were bringing this to me first. Before something bad happens."

She was one of several dozen parents and guardians who brought their kids to Camden's Antioch Baptist Church on one recent night for what city leaders hope will be the first of many interventions with the city's at-risk teenagers.

For two hours the 15 kids listened, some slumped in pews and others staring straight ahead, as members of law enforcement, former gang members, and others told their stories and warned of how easily a few mistakes can take an entire life off track.

Former inmates talked about life in prison and how quickly their fellow gang members turned on them. Bryan Morton, a city native who founded the North Camden Little League after his release from prison, was in his early 20s when he was sentenced to 20 years for armed robbery. He spoke of looking around the courtroom for his friends, his mother, his grandmother.

"I was standing there by myself," Morton, 43, told his silent audience.

"The streets forget you very quickly," added Morton, who served eight years and got two visits the whole time. As for friends from the streets, Morton said, "They will bury you, they will forget you, and they will move on to the next one."

The meeting was part of no official program, though it was similar to gatherings that have been held for more than a decade in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and other cities as part of CeaseFire or Cure Violence programs. The idea came from Wysocki, who had the department work with schools and service providers to identify the city's at-risk teens. Some of the youths have had contact with police, and he said all are associating with members of a gang called "Only the Family." The gang recruits youths from schools, according to police, and has been responsible for about one-third of the city's violent crime this year alone.

"These kids are starting down a very bad path," Wysocki said last week. "I wanted them to hear it from people who were just like them 20 years ago."

Many similar interventions require adult offenders to attend through probation or parole offices. Camden organizers had no such leverage, and only a handful of the 52 teens who were invited actually showed up. Wysocki admitted that he wasn't sure if anyone would come, and was hopeful that more would attend the next meeting once word gets out that attendees aren't punished.

"At the very least, they now know that we're looking at them," he said. "Usually, the first time they know we're looking at them, they've been arrested. . . . And once they're in the system, it's hard to get them out of it."

In Camden, where 50 percent of children live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate last year was three times the national average, Wysocki acknowledged that without offering alternatives to crime, it would take more than a meeting to make large-scale changes. But those with strong support systems may benefit once their parents are involved, he said, and the night could provide chances for some to connect with social services before they get into trouble.

For some in Camden, Antioch is associated with forgiveness. In 2008, the church on Ferry Avenue hosted the city's first Fugitive Safe Surrender, allowing those with outstanding warrants for minor offenses to turn themselves in without fear of arrest. Organizers were overwhelmed by close to 4,000 people, the second-highest turnout in the program's history. When the church hosted a gun buyback in 2012, organizers picked up more than 1,100 weapons, setting a state record.

This meeting was attended by FBI agents, prosecutors, Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson, Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, and church leaders, some of whom took turns speaking at the pulpit.

Deputy U.S. Attorney Nelson S.T. Thayer Jr., who works out of the city's federal courthouse, said offenders can spend decades behind bars on a single federal charge, often in prisons across the country from friends and families.

"That system doesn't care anything about you," he said. "When you enter the federal system, you're exiled. . . . You may as well not exist."

He said that although they were juveniles now, they would be adults soon.

"There are people here who want to see you succeed," he said. "Your life has value. Your life is precious."

CeaseFire-Chicago was founded in 1995 by an epidemiologist who wanted to treat violence like a disease, by striking at the roots and targeting the community members most likely to become offenders or victims. The program became Cure Violence, which has reported reductions of 41 to 73 percent of shootings in areas across the country.

Last year, with help from a federal grant, Camden's Center for Family Services rolled out Cure4Camden, its version of the program, which included recruiting and training community members to identify and mediate conflicts before they escalate.

Since so-called interrupters began canvassing several neighborhoods in July, the program has so far been seen as a success by Cure Violence's national office. Participants have reported more than 4,000 contacts with at-risk individuals, as well as several dozen conflicts that were mediated or stopped before they got out of control, according to the city.

In addition to using community interrupters, Philadelphia CeaseFire also works with schools by engaging with kids in after-school detention programs.

"Previously there was this notion that if you had problems in your school, it wasn't something you wanted to discuss," said Marla Davis Bellamy, director of Philadelphia CeaseFire, which is affiliated with Temple University Hospital. "More principals are recognizing that they need additional support."

The mother who brought her son to the meeting in Camden admitted that a few weeks earlier, her son's principal warned that her child was involved in a gang. She didn't believe it, but after she and her husband confronted their son, he admitted that it started because he was being bullied.

"I told him, my husband and I work every day, we have a nice home for you," she said. "It didn't make sense to me. I didn't understand. But now I do."

Her son, slightly built and with close-cut dark hair, didn't want to talk, and watched his mother quietly. She said she planned to talk with agencies at the church, consider getting her son into therapy, and explore other solutions.

"This was a wake-up call for both of us," she said. "And I am grateful for it."