Ebony Crosby wonders who will be left to date her daughters. The way she sees it, more and more young men in Columbus are falling victim to senseless violence. If it continues, who will remain in her East Side neighborhood for her three girls - ages 13, 11 and 4 - to get a crush on, marry and someday give her grandchildren?
Ebony Crosby wonders who will be left to date her daughters.
The way she sees it, more and more young men in Columbus are falling victim to senseless violence. If it continues, who will remain in her East Side neighborhood for her three girls — ages 13, 11 and 4 — to get a crush on, marry and someday give her grandchildren?
This summer, Crosby’s 17-year-old nephew, Lamont Frazier, was shot three times, his body dumped on a South Side sidewalk.
That was four months after her 16-year-old son, Lee-Divine McCrae, hobbled into her kitchen, bleeding from having been shot on his walk home from school.
Friends and schoolmates of her son have been buried before they could get their driver’s licenses.
“Every child around him is dying for nothing,” she said from her front stoop, wiping tears from behind her glasses. “It’s senseless. It hurts.
“I wish I could wrap my arms around all these little boys and let them know somebody loves them. Because I think at this point in life, they think nobody cares.”
For the mothers in the city’s high-crime neighborhoods, though, even the widest of outstretched arms and the tightest of hugs won’t be enough.
“If these kids keep killing each other, there will be no more little boys,” Crosby said. “And I don’t think they understand that yet.”
People and programs addressing youth violence do exist. But in many ways, they’re a Band-Aid on a bullet-riddled body.
More than 400 people younger than 20 were victims of gun violence in Columbus last year, according to state data. That’s an average of more than one a day. Most were black males. About half were shot, assaulted or robbed by their peers.
Mayor Michael B. Coleman has hired eight counselors and two case managers on a one-year contract for a program aimed at pulling young men out of gang activity.
On the South Side, CeaseFire-Columbus and Ministries4Movement volunteers work together to mediate disputes in an effort to prevent violence or stop it before it spirals out of control.
Franklin County Juvenile Court judges try to keep children out of lockup in favor of treatment programs and mentorships that will allow them to stay at home with their families. Probation officers monitor social media to see who among their clients might be on track for trouble.
And when teens do end up incarcerated, detention-center classes and therapies aim to keep them from coming back.
But in the neighborhoods, these programs sometimes don’t seem like enough.
“Where can we go as parents to get help for these kids?” Crosby asked.
Her son is in a youth facility because of delinquency assault, and she worries that he could get caught up in something worse.
“I’ve had (my son) in programs. I’ve had him in sports. I’ve had him in counseling. I’ve done everything as a parent that I see fit. And it still doesn’t work,” she said.
For a teenage boy in some neighborhoods, spiraling into a life of beefs and shootings and near-death incidents is easy. Pulling him out of that mindset is much harder, especially when bad behavior is rewarded with attention.
“I wanted to go to parties, have (girls), money, guns — all that,” recalled a 16-year-old South Linden boy who is serving time at the Central Ohio Youth Center in Marysville on a gun charge. (The Ohio Department of Youth Services does not allow inmates to be identified in news stories.)
He found that when he started hanging with a tougher crowd and throwing his weight around, “ everyone started to talk about me.”
After nearly three months in therapy and dealing with the violent trauma he has experienced in his short life, the teen sees things differently now. Before, “I was going down, but I felt like I was going up,” he said.
Juvenile Court Judge Kim A. Browne sees youths like him frequently in her courtroom.
“They don’t seem to have any perception for the true impact of even brandishing a weapon at someone,” she said. “It seems to be some sort of game to them.
“They actually appear shocked when they’re arrested and coming into court. These are not hardened criminals. Most are crying, clinging to their parents.”
The Rev. Frederick LaMarr has a challenge for the young kids in his South Side neighborhood — $50 if you beat him at chess.
The game is not just to occupy their time but also to teach the critical thinking that few of them have, he said. The pastor of Family Missionary Baptist Church hosted about 70 kids at day camp this summer as part of the congregation’s Dream Team Boot Camp.
One of the biggest struggles is teaching them consequences, he said. Poke a classmate with a pencil and get a school suspension. Punch a friend down the street and be charged with assault. Pull the trigger of a gun and end up in jail — or a coffin.
LaMarr shows them what could happen in such situations, he said. “You’ve got to put that into their mind because they don’t got it there. You got to help them think through the situation.
“Chess teaches the kids to be critical thinkers. What’s your next move?”
So the next time there’s a conflict, he hopes, kids will think: What’s my next move when someone bumps me at a party, talks to my girlfriend, calls me lame? Pull out a gun or choose a different path?
“The magic of the work is convincing them to pause,” said Ohio State University professor Deanna Wilkinson, who has studied youth violence and works on the South Side with LaMarr and others.
Instilling that pause is difficult. Ask the kids.
“You could change, but it just depends on why you’re shooting, why you’re doing what you’re doing,” said a 17-year-old Cleveland boy who nearly died in a shooting and is now locked up on felonious-assault and escape charges at the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility.
“There is other ways to handle stuff, but if you’re going to stop that, you have to stop the way you think, the way you react.”
The 16-year-old at the Marysville detention center said he’s ready to see if he can pull himself off the path he has been on his whole life.
“I don’t know exactly if I’m going to get all the way turned around,” he admitted. “I get out, and trying to do the positive thing might be boring.”
The problem is more complicated than a few organizations working in isolation can fix, many advocates for young people say.
“The real bottom line — it’s poverty,” said Cecil Ahad, the president of Men for the Movement, a Columbus organization that mentors youths.
Ahad, who works with Ministries4Movement on the South Side, has counted the empty houses in the 42-block area the organization focuses on, knows how many youths live in chaotic households, sees kids going to school hungry and cold.
“It’s a lot of people that’s just been worn down, beat down,” he said.
If you’re a kid — or for that matter, an adult — it’s hard to see a world outside of that.
“Soufganistan,” some kids call their South Side neighborhood, “South of pain.”
Asked to consider neighborhoods where children don’t feel the need to carry a gun, where violence isn’t a near constant, many kids seem puzzled about where that might be. All they know is that they don’t live there.
Ask them to consider not turning to guns, and they give you an answer such as this one:
“There’s consequences to every choice,” said a 17-year-old boy from Dayton, who also is locked up in Circleville.
“If you’re going to have a gun, then you shoot somebody, you kill them, you might go to jail. You could get caught with that gun and go to jail. You could rob someone and go to jail.
“If you don’t have a gun, you get shot, you can get robbed. Every choice has consequences, good or bad.”
Children in hostile neighborhoods carry a heavy load. Even young ones know something’s wrong when they see police tape on the corner.
“They don’t know how to deal with it,” Wilkinson said. “They don’t know how to make sense of it, other than just more stuff stacking up in this pile of ... cumulative baggage that they carry around with them.”
That trauma-filled backpack goes with them through adolescence and into adulthood, if they make it that far.
“Developmentally, they’re impaired because trauma affects their development,” said Emily Giametta, a licensed therapist and clinical administrator at the Central Ohio Youth Center in Marysville.
Kids who end up in detention and in therapy with Giametta are agitated and numb, she said. She and her staff work to address the trigger that causes bad behavior and to provide them with avenues for self-control.
“On the surface, it looks like really defiant, oppositional behavior,” she said. “But their behavior is rooted in the trauma.”
What kids witness also forges their view of the future, Wilkinson said. If a boy in the neighborhood was shot dead at 16, another boy approaching his own 16th birthday wonders what might happen to him.
“It starts to set up how they think about their own survival,” she said. “Are they going to make it to a certain age?”
Too often, the first role model a child finds, other than his mother, isn’t a good one, but he latches on anyway. And when a traumatic event happens — a killing, a shooting, a robbery — he turns to his peers to vent.
“When there are no adults available, the kids are going to go back to their group,” Wilkinson said. “They’re going to talk about those things, ruminate, get numb with alcohol or drugs to cope."
Retaliation and violence could be next, but inserting a caring-adult relationship into the picture can interrupt the pattern.
“It’s not as hard as it looks to change, as long as you have someone guiding you through that process,” Wilkinson said.
That’s something that many mothers in struggling neighborhoods have figured out.
“These kids have to have a sense someone else cares about them,” Crosby said. “If they don’t, they turn to the streets, and the streets ... will eat them alive.”
The nation has found ways to curb smoking and increase seat-belt use, but gun violence is the public-health crisis that remains unsolved.
“We’ve made amazing progress in other areas but not guns,” said Dr. Jonathan Groner, the trauma medical director and a surgeon at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Researchers and officials say turning off the spigot of violence involves more than just responding to individual crises. Time and money must be spent to create long-term relationships with kids and communities.
In the meantime, chances are a kid in Columbus will face a gun today, tomorrow, next week. And mothers such as Crosby will continue to carry the fear that they can barely put into words.
“That he’s going to get hurt again,” she said. “And this time he might not make it through.”