December 19, 2012
The True Measure of America
The events and subsequent revelations of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre leave us gasping in horror, momentarily speechless. “There are no words…” seemed to be the collective sentiment of so many. But as we emerge from our shock, we realize that there are words. Lots of them. We, as a nation, simply choose not to listen.
"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members," said Mahatma Gandhi.
Our weakest members include our children, our citizens with mental health issues, our poor, our sick, our disabled, our elderly—our friends and families and neighbors.
Those of us who work at Juvenile Law Center grieve deeply for the families of the Newtown children who were so brutally murdered. We are sadly reminded of members of the Juvenile Law Center family who were murdered by gun violence this past year.
In January 2012, O’Neill S., then 19 years old, was shot and killed on the streets of Philadelphia. O’Neill was our client. He was a plaintiff in a federal civil rights lawsuit we filed, which challenged New Jersey juvenile justice practices. He was a young man who spent time in the juvenile justice system, but he was also, at the time of his death, a young man who was continuing his education and working to make a better life for himself.
In April 2012, Shirkey Warthen, then 22, was also shot and killed on the streets of Philadelphia. At the time he was killed, Shirkey had been a valued and productive member of Juvenile Law Center’s youth engagement program, Juveniles for Justice. He too had spent time in the juvenile justice system, but once out, he was committed to bettering that system. Shirkey was thoughtful, articulate, and passionate about working with youth. He had dedicated his life to helping others. [Read more about Shirkey and his contributions to Juveniles for Justice and his community here.]
We doubt that anyone outside of the Juvenile Law Center circle heard much about those murders or the thousands of other youth who are murdered in large cities every year. O’Neill and Shirkey were poor, disadvantaged youth of color whose lives were filled with struggles and challenges. Yet their deaths were caused by the same factors that led to the murders in Newtown and in so many other places across America: access to guns, lack of access to mental health services, and perhaps most importantly, a profound lack of collective will to make necessary changes.
Two days before the Connecticut shootings, a task force appointed by the U.S. Attorney General proclaimed that exposure to violence is a “national epidemic” that affects two out of three children in the United States. In its Defending Childhood report released last week, the Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence estimates that 46 million of the 76 million children living in this country—an alarming 60% of our youth—will be affected by violence, crime and abuse in the coming year. Tragically, most of these children will be exposed to violence in the very places where they should feel safest—their homes, schools and neighborhoods.
This public health crisis inflicts great harm not only on our youth but on our nation as a whole. According to experts who contributed to the Defending Childhood report, “The exposure of children to violence is a uniquely traumatic experience that has the potential to profoundly derail the child’s security, health, happiness, and ability to grow and learn—with effects lasting well into adulthood.” Without early and appropriate interventions, children may experience a wide range of negative outcomes, including cognitive and other developmental delays, difficulties in forming healthy and relationships, and even involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The “astronomical” financial costs of children’s exposure to violence include the burden on public systems such as education, child welfare, and social services in addition to the loss of the youths’ productivity.
The true greatness of our nation will surely be measured in the coming weeks and months as we take a hard look at priorities in this country. The voices of our weakest members are crying out to be heard. Will we listen? If we do not adjust our priorities and demand action from our elected officials, children and families of all colors, of all ages and in all neighborhoods will continue to pay a very steep price.
Juvenile Law Center is known for “advancing the rights and well-being of children in jeopardy.” Our children are in jeopardy. Yours, mine, all of our children are in jeopardy if we do not take action. Find your voice. Find the words—contact your state and federal elected officials today and demand action.