By Lorraine Connelly
Among the many holiday movies streaming this season is “Spirited,” starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. It’s an entertaining retelling of the Charles Dickens tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption on Christmas Eve. It asks the age-old questions, is it possible for one to change course? Is any person truly unredeemable?
After last month’s vandalism at Doolittle Park, I’ve pondered these questions. I was troubled to read about juveniles setting fire to the playscape, assaulting a coach, and other issues including the disrespect shown to Wallingford police officers. One might ask, are these youthful offenders redeemable? Or do we walk away, wash our hands, and relegate them to the “basket of deplorables?”
Wallingford is not alone in the uptick in juvenile crime. In 2020, the Hartford Courant reported that Connecticut police chiefs had concerns about a spike in juvenile crime they believed was related to the coronavirus pandemic, as teens experienced remote learning and canceled after-school activities, losing social skills in the process.
I recently asked Wallingford Police Chief John Ventura if the pandemic was still a factor in delinquent behaviors. He responded, “The pandemic has been very hard on society and especially our young people. Being away from school and the learning environment has negatively affected children both academically and socially. Social media plays a large role in some of the negative behaviors. Incidents and pranks are being recorded and disseminated on various social media platforms to gain likes and follows. A lot of the negative behaviors we are dealing with now can be traced back to the pandemic. What we can’t do is use the pandemic as an excuse. We need to identify the core issues of why these behaviors are occurring and what can be done to address them constructively.”
National juvenile crime statistics indicate roughly half of all youth arrests are for theft, simple assault, drug abuse, disorderly conduct, and curfew violations. Major risk factors for these behaviors include low socioeconomic status, poor parent-child relationships, broken homes, and abusive or neglectful parents.
Wallingford’s Director of Youth and Social Services (YSS), Amanda Miranda was appointed to her position during the height of the pandemic, after serving in Wallingford’s Police Department as a civilian youth officer for 18 years. Says Miranda, “Previously, juvenile cases were handled by the Family with Service Needs (FWSN) program. This program addressed issues of instability in the home and provided consequences to at-risk youth who refused to follow household/curfew rules and other stipulations as outlined by FWSN. Through FWSN, families and youth could access services within the court-identified Family Support Centers or receive either a probation officer or a case worker.” The program, notes Miranda, was discontinued by the state in 2020 and nothing comparable has been implemented since.
The juvenile court system has remanded many of these cases to the local YSS Diversionary program. Says Miranda, “As a local community agency, there is only so much we can do. Wallingford has been proactive, however, by recently adding a part-time counselor and intervention coordinator who takes on school year diversion case referrals from the police department and school system.” Early intervention and education about available resources are key, notes Miranda, adding, “Families who have successfully accessed services report back that things are looking better, and they are hopeful for the future.”
Hopefulness for the future and better outcomes is a message we could all use. A book by the Arbinger Institute entitled, “The Outward Mindset,” offers compelling case studies of individuals and organizations that have achieved better outcomes by shifting their perspective from a self-focused mindset to an outward mindset inclusive of others.
One chapter describes how a Kansas City SWAT team, which had been accused of using excessive force in the community, was able to employ this mindset. During an early morning drug raid, while arrests were being made and guns seized, another member of the team tended to the needs of the remaining household members. The officer found a can of Similac and began mixing baby formula at the kitchen sink, offering a bottle to a crying infant. “This one act of responsiveness,” authors note, “changed the entire scene and brought calm to everyone.”
Which brings us back to the season’s ever-hopeful message of redemption and responsiveness. Scrooge was redeemed by shifting his perspective. The police officer who had the compassion to address a household’s needs had not given up on his community. Neither should we give up on our youth, who’ve suffered their own setbacks and stand to be redeemed. As Chief Ventura notes, “Even in the worst cases there is one intervening event that can set someone on the right path. It’s just a matter of figuring out what that may be and for the youth to recognize and take advantage of it.”
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and longtime Wallingford resident.