A few years ago, I was at a middle school teaching the students about the law. I asked the class: "How many of you have seen someone who has been shot or have a relative or friend who has been shot or have been injured by a shooting yourself?" Out of the 40 or so kids in the audience, about 25 kids raised their hands, a number that astonished me.
The violence our nation's children experience is pervasive. Many of our children are exposed to violence in their daily lives. It has certainly had a substantial impact on me, my family and my friends.
I grew up in Mt. Clemens. In high school, street gangs with knives and baseball bats were commonplace. By the mid-1970s, violence escalated, as local gangs graduated to guns and developed relationships with violent drug gangs in Detroit. As a result of violence in the community, I have had so many relatives murdered and friends killed. My friends and I used to count the names on our fingers when I was a young man.
Today, I serve as chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, representing children and youths in Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system. Thirty client files sit on a file cabinet by the window in the corner of my office with the word "abatement" written across the space for the last hearing. Each file signifies the life of a child whom we once represented before his or her untimely death on the streets of Philadelphia.
Community violence is a sickness in Philadelphia. It's a sickness in Detroit. Myriad communities, urban and rural and tribal, across this country are suffering. Research shows that more than 60 percent of children were exposed to violence over one year, either directly or indirectly.
One way or another, we all pay for violence -- child or adult. Some of us pay with our future success when trauma makes it difficult to learn in school or make friends.
We all pay with our tax dollars, which fund systems that strain to accommodate the widespread consequences of violence, including child welfare, law enforcement, education and the justice system. And some of us pay with the ever-present grief that remains when someone is taken from us by violence. No one is left untouched.
But violence on this scale is not inevitable. We can do something about it. We must. We can no longer accept this as a norm. That is why I am honored to serve on the U.S. Attorney General's National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, also called the Defending Childhood Task Force, which I cochair with Joe Torre, executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball and chairman of the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation.
Not only are we highlighting the scope of the problem, more important, we are highlighting solutions.
It is not acceptable for us to sit idly by when we hear reports on TV about a promising young student who was killed by a stray bullet, or attacked while walking home. We need the faith community, businesses and all levels of government to be a part of the solution.
Detroit is hosting the task force's fourth and final hearing, April 24, at Wayne State University. After this hearing, the task force will begin drafting recommendations to the attorney general that will be issued in a report in late 2012. The report should serve as a blueprint for individuals, communities, organizations, businesses and governments to work together to prevent, reduce and treat children's exposure to violence. That is our charge.
It is up to all of us to change this norm of violence. Our children deserve safe homes, schools and communities. This isn't a dream; it's a possibility. I hope you'll join me and the Defending Childhood Task Force in Detroit on April 24, as we listen to the wisdom of Detroit residents and other witnesses. We are committed, and hope you will commit as well, to making safety the norm in the lives of all of America's children.
Robert Listenbee Jr. is chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
More: Join the hearing
The April 24 hearing on protecting children from violence will primarily feature panel discussions from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the Bernath Auditorium in the David Adamany Undergraduate Library at Wayne State University, 5155 Gullen Mall.
This piece originally appeared in the "Detroit Free Press."
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