Kids with Guns

How agencies have made strides to get guns out of the hands of juveniles.

In May of 1996, the first gang forum was held. Two groups, from Vamp Hill and Bowdoin Street gangs, were brought in to a courtroom, with 10 partners of the police and probation divisions seated up front. "I was the Phil Donahue," says Stewart. "We said, 'OK, here's the deal. You guys want to screw around — this is what's going to happen. Why? Because you don't stop. You just don't stop.'

"We sent a very explicit message to a very small percentage of offenders in the neighborhood. It's over. The violence stops now."

Within six weeks of the meeting, of the 36 kids in the courtroom, 18 were locked up. "We threw a blanket over those two streets like you wouldn't believe," Stewart remarks.

The number of kids on the street decreased immediately. Felon Final Jeopardy, is what he calls it. "The answer is home or jail. The question: where do you want to spend your time?"

What you see

Cracking down on gun violence wasn't the only thing the Boston Strategy can take credit for. It also allowed officers to see the kids involved in a different light, as a victim, not just a criminal.

"If you grow up in a garbage dump, you don't know what a tree looks like," says Stewart. "A lot of these kids experienced neglect and abuse."

The reality, he says, is that the police and probation officers can force the kids off the street, but they need to be checked on two hours later, because they'll have snuck out. Like Stewart says, the kids are forced home, but what is home? "Would you go back to a place where your mother's boyfriend beats you? Would you go back to a house where there are rats running around the kitchen?

"After you get there and see what these kids see, what you do is put your arm around them and say, 'I have a lot of respect for you because you've survived, every day, and because you're a survivor, I think we can do this a different way, but you've got to meet me halfway.' "

Sitting in Stewart's office, broken kids can be found. They are able to be real with him and not live up to any reputation given to them on the streets. "They're beaten kids," this mentor says. "Their body language tells you that life has beaten them."

Stewart works to provide assistance through jobs and social services, for them and their families. In one instance, a grandmother was left to raise her four grandchildren, one who was on probation. Stewart went to check on the kid's curfew and found his grandmother at the door. She asked why he was there, and he responded that he came to check on her grandchildren, whose mother was locked up as a crack addict.

"I want to keep them safe," Stewart told the woman. "She put her hand on my cheek and said, 'God will bless you for doing this,' " says Stewart. "That was the greatest gift I ever got, was her blessing, her acknowledgement."

Challenges of today

"We did our job so well that we created a power vacuum on the street," says Stewart. The children of the people put away in the 90s have grown up without anyone to keep them in check. Also, they are products of crack mothers and fetal alcohol syndrome. "They're a lot more difficult to deal with because they are more wanton and ruthless," he adds. "They're cold."

The youthful offenders locked up then are now being released into the public, but stronger and wiser. Jail has not always given them the "correction" they needed, but more often, contacts and insight into a bigger gang population. "They go do time with the guys from Los Angeles and Chicago, and come back having learned how to organize," says Stewart. "Now all of a sudden they're harder to get at."

It's the "Godfather" method, as he calls it. The original gang members are there, but running the group from behind the scenes. "Because now they've got a 17-year-old kid running the street for them," he says. "They'll wear this kid out, telling him to run up the street to the courthouse and cap off a couple rounds at the other crew, just as they have done recently."

Not only are the people more challenging, but economics has also changed the landscape in Dorchester and for the Boston Strategy. "The money has dried up," explains Stewart. "It wasn't replaced or the focus was shifted."

In 1999, there were 31 homicides in the city of Boston, compared to 152 in 1990. "I didn't lose a kid under the age of 17 to gun violence for more than 30 months," Stewart says.

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