In the row house-lined streets of the East Baltimore community of Oliver, seven children between the ages of 10 and 14 have been arrested by police in the past month on charges ranging from armed robbery to selling cocaine.
The arrests have provoked soul-searching among residents looking for reasons why so many young children are getting ensnared in the drug trade and street crime.
"It's sad to see young children involved," said Officer Ed Bochniak, a narcotics investigator assigned to the Eastern District's "Zone 4" -- the Oliver community and parts of three adjoining neighborhoods. "We're not immune to the feelings of the residents. When we have to arrest a child, we get upset."
The crime statistics of Zone 4 -- one of seven such zones in the district -- are staggering. So far this year, there have been 170 drug-related arrests and 19 shootings.
While the arrests of younger children are seen as a disturbing trend in the war against drug trafficking, many community residents see it as a sign of overburdened single parents losing control of their children at earlier ages -- putting them more at risk to negative influences in communities under siege by drugs.
"We have a lot of social ills in the African-American community, and right now the major problem, more so than drugs or teen-age pregnancy, is the lack of parental sensitivity to parenting," said Hilton O. Bostick, president of the Oliver Community Association.
Mr. Bostick said a major effort is needed by residents, churches, city government and the school board to get parents to act responsibly.
"I'm still optimistic that we have time to turn it around," Mr. Bostick, an Oliver resident for 40 years, said last week. "We've waited too long before confronting it."
Neighborhood resident and barber Faye Williams, a slightly built single mother with a 14-year-old son, said there is no excuse for parents who only watch as their youngsters run the streets and get caught up in crime -- or parents who have a tacit agreement to share money brought home by children paid for holding or selling drugs.
"There is no excuse for these kids telling their parents what they're going to do and what they're not going to do," said Ms. Williams. "They [parents] are constantly letting these kids take control."
She said younger children were being encouraged to follow the example of teen-agers who sport expensive clothing and jewelry purchased with drug profits. "They [the older youths] don't care what they're teaching them. They're not thinking about the future. . . . It's too easy to go wrong. It's hard to go right."
At a police-community relations meeting in the Eastern District's old courtroom Wednesday, police Maj. Alvin A. Winkler told about 40 activists that the arrests of young children were sadly becoming routine.
He also responded to complaints about district policemen allowing a newspaper photographer to take a picture of a 10-year-old arrested for allegedly pointing an unloaded .22-caliber revolver at the head of a 9-year-old boy and stealing his propeller-topped beanie.
Major Winkler said he would not have allowed the picture had he been present. The photo, illustrating a front-page article on the arrest, showed the shirtless suspect from the back -- in handcuffs, with the gun and beanie on a table behind him.
The Sun also received complaints from people who felt that the picture perpetuated racial stereotypes about black youths -- and calls from others expressing frustration and helplessness at the arrests of children on serious criminal charges.
Concerns are especially acute in Zone 4, where, according to the 1990 Census, nearly 99 percent of the 19,821 residents are black -- and a third of them age 18 or under.
"That [photo] hurt," said Major Winkler. "It portrayed a horrifying
picture of black youth, and I think
people were appalled by it. There are more good kids than bad kids, but it's true. It's going on.
"This community needs to make a commitment to its youth. It's bad enough when 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds quit school to deal drugs. Now, they're putting the weight on our 10- and 11-year-olds," the major said.
"The real problem is in the home. How do you go to the home and fix the problem? We've got parents who aren't parents. We've got to accept this. Some of us have got to go out there to be parents to some of these kids."
In interviews last week, the parents of four of the children arrested in the district recently -- all single mothers -- said there was little they could do to keep their children out of trouble on streets where drugs are being dealt in front of their homes and the daily gunfire between rival street dealers is commonplace.
Some area residents felt there were few alternatives for single parents, many of them young mothers trying to raise too many young children by themselves on little more than government assistance. Bombarded constantly by images on the streets, television and movies, children are lured by the drug trade's immediate gratification.