Crime: Heal The Hurt and Value Young Lives

Ricky Duncan, the director of the NOMO Foundation, stands outside the foundation building on Nov. 11 holding a sign that reads “It’s About Us.”

Text by Haajrah Gilani. Images by Natalie Kerr.

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When La’Cinda Trotter asked the teens who committed carjackings in her In-Home Supervision Program if they would still steal someone’s car if they had a license, they all said no.

“Their mindset is different and I don’t think people take the time to actually talk to them,” said Trotter, the program supervisor for ISP at the Institution for the Development of African American Youth. “I think they talk at them.”

In ISP, Trotter serves as the supervisor and case manager for court-ordered youth, many of whom have been arrested for carjacking. Similarly, the majority of arrests made this year for the crime have been people under the age of 20, according to Philadelphia Police.

Whether it’s with the intent of economic gain or pure joy riding, Philadelphia youths’ increased participation in carjackings and other auto-related crimes serves as a reflection of their disconnect from adults and lack of education on the consequences.

During his seven years at the New Options, More Opportunity Foundation (NoMo), an early initiative intervention program, Rickey Duncan’s goals have been to cultivate and educate the city’s youth while designing a safe space for them.

Duncan, the chief executive officer and executive director of NoMo, defines youth violence as collective misguidance in uneducated immature minds. To him, children and teenagers inflicting harm upon others is a symptom of possible trauma they may have experienced.

“They’re emotionally hurt,” he said. “They could be hurt because they’re homeless. They could be hurt because they can’t read or write. So we try to adjust all those issues here at NoMo to try to heal some of the hurt.”

NoMo’s prevention efforts include financial literacy programs and driving classes to provide more nonviolent opportunities for the youth, Duncan added.

Two teens from Southwest Philadelphia were arrested for driving a stolen vehicle. They weren’t racing or joy riding. They were returning from getting a phone fixed.

The 15-year-old driver didn’t learn to operate a car from a person. Instead, he learned from the video game Grand Theft Auto. He didn’t know it was stolen, he just bought it for $200 and began driving the vehicle, he said.

While they were in the car, the driver and his 17-year-old friend didn’t have a strategy or even a fear of getting caught. Their motive was “just trying to get from A to B.”

The errand ended with a police chase and the duo crashing into a house. After the crash, the teens separated, with one running on foot and the other remaining in the car.

“I don’t like running from cops, they’ll catch you and fuck you up,” the 17-year-old added.

The teens aren’t entirely sure of what to make of the entire experience.

“I feel like everything happened for a reason though,” the 15-year-old said. “That’s why I wasn’t really tripping.” 

Now, they owe somewhere between $15,000 to $18,000 in restitution.

A man gets into his car on Park Avenue on Nov. 5.

If youth were provided more education and a deeper understanding of the consequences of their actions, carjacking rates would likely decrease, Duncan said.

The participants in ISP often don’t consider deductibles, gap insurance or any of the hardships a victim of carjacking undergoes. Instead, many of them are under the assumption that if they take a car, the person’s insurance will automatically replace it.

“They think it’s just that easy,” she added. “But it’s not.”

As the rates of youth violence increased in Philadelphia, there have been a variety of conversations on the proper approach to curbing this influx. The city has taken measures like an increased police budget and curfews for teenagers.

Duncan maintains that education and understanding are more effective ways of addressing this issue.

“We gotta heal the trauma and change their way of thinking, pull the layers back and find out why are they out there,” he said. “We say curfew — what is a curfew to a kid that’s homeless? He has nowhere to go, so where would he go?” 

Despite the risks of illegally driving a vehicle, the youth in Trotter’s program find cars to be the safest form of travel.

For the 15-year-old, driving without a license is lower risk than relying on public transportation. The last time he took it, he was shot.

“I really got a lot to my story,” he added.

Many teens become targets for violence because of their social circles or geographic locations, especially when they use public transportation to go through neighborhoods forbidden for them, Duncan said.

“So the best way to get around would be driving because the wrong bus stop could cost you your life,” he said.

Trotter experienced the gravity of youth violence firsthand when her brother was murdered by a teenager. It was important for her to understand the conditions that caused a child to commit murder, to know whether it’s caused by home life or outside influences.  

While much of the programming is on drilling the severity of the actions that brought the kids to ISP, Trotter still tries to be playful, to treat the youth in the program as if they’re her nieces and nephews.  

“Once you commit a crime, that’s not who you are,” she said “You’re not a carjacker. You’re not a pocketbook snatcher. You did it but that’s not who you are.”

Trotter wants to understand the versatile passions and responsibilities important to the kids in the program, whether it’s rapping or caring for their younger siblings.

At NoMo, Duncan also believes in the importance of treating the youth he works with value and respect.

“I look at our young people not as clients but as partners,” he said.

This emphasis on value becomes especially important when not all of the youth value their own lives.

When Trotter asks the kids enrolled in her program questions like how long they will live, they don’t usually expect they’ll live very long. They often say they’ll only live until 17 or 18.

“And when you ask them about getting locked up, some of them don’t even care,” she added.

In her five years with the program, only five kids out of the 1,700 she worked with were reinstated in the program. Others that finished the program went on to graduate high school or some attended college.

Educating youth, preventing violence and reducing crime is an ongoing process that requires investing and enthusiastic advocates, Duncan said.

“At the end of the day, this is not a matter that requires a liquid stitch, easy fix,” he continued.” This is not something that requires just a Band-Aid. We can’t put a Band-Aid over something, so I don’t want people to think it’s gonna go away overnight whenever there’s a new mayor, new DA, new police commissioner.”

A man walks past the Institute for the Development of African American Youth on Broad Street near Dauphin on Nov. 11.

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