When gunfire erupts in Bloomington-Normal, odds are good that Andrew Held will receive a call to help with the aftermath.
With 50 shootings reported locally last year, the ministry director for City Life Bloomington routinely responds to incidents involving teens and young adults. The chaos that comes with gun violence quickly spreads beyond the shooter and victim, said Held.
Keeping a lid on the violence is key and involves meeting with friends and family members of the victim.
“We will try to do house visits or contact whoever we can, and talk to them and start this process of some type of healing, some type of connecting them to counselors or talking them out of the immediate response, when nobody is thinking and emotions are high,” said Held.
Reports of gunfire reflect “a culture of acceptance” among teens that violence is commonplace, said Held.
“What we’re really dealing with now is young people raised by generational adults involved with violence. And so there is a huge issue with PTSD, which we don’t talk about in the neighborhoods, when young people see violence and it’s normalized,” said Held.
Without counseling, youth who experience trauma may fail to develop a sense of empathy for others, according to Held. Add the lack of male role models in a teen’s life and “it’s like a powder keg situation,” said the youth minister.
A review of teen photos by Held from his 10 years of ministry illustrates the challenges.
"Dead, arrested, arrested, dead, life in prison,” were among the failures experienced by some teens, despite Held’s efforts.
Lawyers with the McLean County public defender’s office are handling a growing number of cases involving young adults on weapons and gun violence charges. For many young offenders, the reality of their actions sets in after charges are filed, said Public Defender Carla Barnes.
“They may not see it initially, but once they’re incarcerated, and we’re talking about Department of Corrections sentencings with 18 and 19-year olds, that’s when the emotion and fear comes in,“ said Barnes.
The work to stem violence among young adults is a complex and expensive proposition, Held and Barnes agree. The first step, they say, is a collaboration of mentors, community leaders and law enforcement partners. Similar coalitions operate in Champaign and Peoria with a focus on reducing gun violence.
The move by the McLean County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to explore interventions to violent crime is a positive starting point, said Barnes. The council monitors jail population and includes a membership of criminal justice stakeholders and community members.
The current approach of programs scattered among different agencies has proven ineffective, said Held.
The new model takes dedicated staff, volunteers and consistent funding to sustain the effort, he said.
With a team of seven adults to mentor each teen, “your chances of success skyrocket,” said Held.
The community also must be committed to the hands-on approach to working with teens, said Barnes. The perception that most young adults involved in local crime migrated from Chicago and other places is “a myth,” said the public defender.
“These are our children. I think if more people saw them as ours, and part of our community, then maybe they would invest more in their future because they’re going to be here and make our Bloomington-Normal population better,” said Barnes.
For Barnes, the easy access teens have to firearms adds to their challenges in the courtroom.
“They do need to put the guns down,” said Barnes.
Many gun incidents occur between acquaintances, young people who attend school together and come from the same neighborhoods.
“But they have those pivotal moments where they may have to change their environment and that’s hard to do for some of them,” said Barnes. When their best friends are carrying guns, it becomes easier to mirror the practice.
“There’s the first step of having a gun and then you carry the gun on you,” said Barnes.
Then, in the heat of the moment in the life of a 19-year-old, “it’s going to be a lot easier to use the gun.”
Positive and consistent involvement of parents in their children’s lives is a major contributing factor in keeping youth off the path to the criminal justice system, said Barnes.
“We have to teach our children the consequences of their actions. They need to be well aware because once you’re involved in a violent crime and once guns are attached, it’s hard to change the minds of the average citizen about who this person really is,” said Barnes.
The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is expected to continue its discussion Jan. 23 on the issue of criminal activity among youth.
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