Kids at risk

June 04, 2006

It's a statistic that can't be easily explained: A dozen kids in Baltimore have been murdered so far this year. There is no pattern or common culprit. Most of the victims were teens who were shot and killed; two toddlers were victims of child abuse. This year's victims exceed by five the juveniles murdered last year at this time. It's a disturbing turn because the city, after recording 35 juvenile murders in 2003, set out to identify and safeguard youths who are most at risk of violence. Teens in the city's Operation Safe Kids program have been spared, but many more out there are just as much at risk.

Statistics can't convey the need or the urgency to deal with the underlying problems that endanger kids. Twelve-year-old Kayla Baker was shot to death Jan. 21 by her mother's boyfriend. Martell Brown, 16, was riding in a friend's Cadillac on Feb. 2 when shots rang out; he died the next day. Raymond Reveley, 14, was shot dead in April during a dice game.

Dysfunctional families, absent parents, street violence, drug use -- they put kids in harm's way. That's why city health officials are exploring ways to provide temporary shelter to problem kids who feel threatened. They also plan to expand a specialized treatment program for troubled kids that has been working successfully in Baltimore County for the past four years. It's called "multisystemic therapy"; it works to keep families together and repair the individual problems that undermine them. Therapists work with just four to six families for six months, meeting daily and remaining "on call."

Another program, you say? But supporters, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, say it has proven results. Young people involved in Baltimore County's program, sponsored by its Bureau of Mental Health, have committed "significantly fewer" crimes, officials say. The city's $1 million pilot program is worth the investment. How can it not be?

On an average day, about 2,200 kids are in the custody of Maryland's juvenile justice system. For years, these systems have been turning out youths who often graduate quickly into the adult system. Innovative programs that try to break that cycle and have shown results need to be supported and expanded -- because kids who are stealing cars, dealing drugs and assaulting others are often on a fast track to committing violent crimes.

If the fact that a dozen kids have been murdered in Baltimore so far this year alarms you, consider this: At least nine youngsters under 18 have been charged with murder.

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