A Call to Arms to Save Our Youth

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Right now, as the city I love mourns its way through yet another deadly weekend of gun-related violence, our youth far too often get caught in the crossfire. While the national media attention has receded, somewhat, from the tragic loss of life of 16-year-old Derrion Albert, an honor student at Fenger High School who was beaten to death by some of his classmates, I, for one, am fed up with the hand-wringing by public officials, cultural pundits and others. It's not as if the needs of our youth are unknown, what's missing is the will to act to address the obvious ... black youth are hurting.

Of one thing I am sure, it is this.

Far too often the emotional and physical needs of our youth go unmet.

Our youth need an intervention -- a loving, effective mental health intervention -- to help them deal with the anger and the festering effect of post traumatic stress that, I believe, permeates their lives.

For the better part of last year, I went to the floor of the House to enter onto the Congressional Record a series of statements that I called "The Daily 45." That number refers to the fact that everyday in this nation, on average, 45 men, women and children are gunned down, somewhere, on the streets of America. That's a level of carnage that, to this day, still eclipses the number of U.S. military casualties, per week, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined! And, yet, where's the outrage when our youth shoot one another or, as in the case at Fenger High School, literally beat each other's brains out?

It is only after our young people have committed murder that law enforcement rightfully steps in. But what about before then? The men and women from my Chicago community need to look one another squarely in the eye and admit, whether we like it or not, that we, too, share the blame.

Yes, we don't have enough financial resources and, yes, our communities are overwhelmed with joblessness, hopelessness and a terrible economy. But, somehow, we have got to come together to squarely address the needs of our youth before we, literally, lose the best of what this generation of young people has to offer.

I offer a few sobering facts and, then, proposed solutions.

In the 1980s, inner city communities were overwhelmed with the devastating effects of the crack epidemic. But, now, researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center believe that cocaine use during pregnancy can cause subtle but disabling cognitive impairments in offspring. Vanderbilt researchers, writing in the Journal of Neuroscience, note that cocaine exposure in utero can lead to attention deficits, learning disabilities and emotional problems.

Central to the problem is that cocaine causes lasting displacement of dopamine receptors in certain brain cells, which alters their ability to function normally. Research in this area is extensive and ongoing by a variety of leading public and private organizations.

For pregnant women who have abused cocaine, researchers believe that as their child ages, they develop deficits in their cognitive and emotional development. Researchers established that exposure to low levels of intravenous cocaine during a very short window of time during gestation -- equivalent to the late, first trimester and early second trimester in humans -- caused specific alterations in brain circuits that use the neurotransmitter dopamine. Additionally, these cocaine-exposed offspring showed attention problems as well as insensitivity to stimulants like amphetamine, suggesting that cocaine exposure had altered the development of the dopamine pathways in the brain. The evidence suggests that this effect appears to be permanent and implies that cocaine exposure during a brief, sensitive period of neural development can lead to long-lasting effects at the cellular level.

Simply put, the research shows that there is a direct link between violent crime and the inaccessibility of mental health services, especially for children growing up in high crime areas.

These are the facts, so what's the solution? Meaningful mental health intervention, treatment and ongoing support for our youth -- provisions of which, I believe, must be included as a policy priority in our current national debate on health care reform legislation.

There is abundant research that indicates that the best strategy for combating youth violence and keeping students in school must, at minimum, include three vital components:

1. Prenatal care so our children are born healthy and happy;

2. Early childhood education so our children are not entering school already disadvantaged as compared to their more affluent counterparts; and

3. Access to mental health services at an early age and throughout a child's life to help them learn how to cope with the violence that they may witness, or encounter, in their lives and communities.

Right now, there are several pieces of legislation in Congress that attempt to get to the heart of the problems that our youth are facing. Earlier this year, I introduced the Communities in Action Neighborhood Defense and Opportunity Act, or CAN DO, that would employ a community-based and community-oriented remedial approach to addressing the issue of youth violence. The CAN DO bill would bring together local, state, and federal stakeholders to provide resources and strategies to address four main areas that affect at-risk youth by providing: 1) a mental health services network; 2) employment training and opportunities; 3) educational and recreational services; and 4) community outreach and policing.

Additionally, I am a co-sponsor of the Youth Promise Act, introduced by my friend and colleague Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (VA-03). This legislation, if adopted, would assess and develop standards and evidence-based practices to prevent juvenile delinquency and criminal street gang activity. I am also a proud co-sponsor of my friend and fellow Chicagoan Rep. Danny Davis' (IL-07) Second Chance Act, a promising piece of legislation that was signed into law under the last Administration but is still waiting to be funded. This bill aims to provide new opportunities for previously incarcerated at-risk youth, and adults, who have served their time but who are at high risk of returning to lives of crime short of effective interventions and guidance on how to lead productive lives.

While these are just a few examples of policies that stem from the federal level, there are scores of equally well intentioned programs in place throughout our nation but they struggle for the lack of state or federal support. Now is the time for change and that change begins with me and those of us who voted to change our nation for the better last year.

I've said before and I'll say again. If this generation of leaders who placed our hopes on the doorstep of President Obama fail to seize the opportunity to make our communities better for all of us -- especially urban and troubled youth -- then I say history will be right to damn us all for failing to rise to the challenge that a made up mind can bring.

My mind's made up. How about yours?