The Forgotten: Confronting the Struggles of At-Risk Youth

Kyla Giffin | Cowboy Life Editor, Galleria Editor

Credit: The Washington Post

Recently in Washington, D.C., and across social media, the hashtag  “missing D.C. girls” began spreading when police decided to publicize missing children’s cases over social media, causing panic over the cases suddenly reported in large numbers, and leading to a false statement about fourteen teenage girls going missing over the course of twenty-four hours. In reality, the number of missing people in Washington, D.C. has gone down from 200 people per month in 2015 to 190 people per month in 2017, and 99 percent of missing persons cases in the city are resolved. Since 2012, 16 of 19,000 reported missing people have not been found.

This misunderstanding brought up a lot of finger-pointing and anger. Some were enraged by the perceived racism and sexism in the missing children’s cases, some by the falsity of social media, and others still by a believed lack of justice and responsibility in our capital’s police.

However, sorting through the chaos that occurred, besides the aforementioned topics, an important issue lies, too often forgotten. Ina Earlene Fisher, co-founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, describes them on her blog as “the forgotten children of our society”: at-risk youth.

At-risk youth are children undergoing circumstances that may threaten their schooling, home environment, and overall role and success in life, which includes factors and situations such as mental and chronic illnesses, and maltreatment. “These youth may be homeless, facing extreme poverty, and/or living in an abusive or neglectful household,” added Jennifer Harper, Director of Developing and Marketing at Alternative Family Services, a foster care and adoption agency located in California. According to Harper, more than 60,000 foster children reside in California.

At Risk Youth Programs, a website containing information on at-risk youth, has also collected various statistics that helps to highlight what at-risk children struggle through.

Credit: At Risk Youth Programs
Credit: At Risk Youth Programs

For instance, based on a June 2011 study by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 90 percent of high schoolers were “seen to have met the criteria for addiction and had already started drinking, smoking, and [taking] illicit or prescription drugs.” Additionally, 46.1 percent of kids in the United States, equal to 34.4 million, “usually live with a risky substance abuser.” One would think that, with such extreme numbers, more people would be jumping into action to keep children from falling into drug and alcohol addictions, and from ever beginning to use them in the first place. However, 77 percent of movies and shows are connected to teenage drinking and substance abuse, and most teachers believe that staff members at their school are unprepared to deal with teen substance abuse.

At Risk Youth Programs also gathered mental health data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, shows that 10 percent of kids, aged 12 to 17, in America are impaired by severe mental disorders, but only less than 20 percent of them are treated.

Those are merely two areas in which our youth suffer. Said Harper on at-risk youth, “It is a very prevalent problem. If we don’t invest time and resources into at-risk youth, they have an increased risk of becoming homeless, victims of crime, having chronic mental and physical illnesses, and difficulties becoming independent members of society.”

Perhaps our failure to take this problem as seriously as we should, and in responding to calls to action, lies, not just in understanding the severity of the situation, but in confronting and clearing up assumptions made about at-risk youth. As commented by Harper, “There is a myth that ‘at-risk’ youth are bad or not willing to try in school. That is not the case.” This statement rings true when one goes back to the case of the “missing D.C. girls.” The disappearance of a woman’s pre-teen daughter who consistently ran away from home was, according to The Washington Post’s Aaron C. Davis and Peter Hermann, met by the police with, “‘Oh, Ms. Thomas, has your daughter run away again?”

While it may seem that one need not ask the almost obvious question of whether or not the girl was running away every time she was reported missing, that is not the point that advocators for at-risk youth are trying to make. Their point, rather, is that something is forcing these children into feeling the need to disappear. Or, in cases where they did not run away, some other outside force is threatening their safety. Either way, the risk is evident.

“They are dealing with incredibly difficult situations that make it hard for them to study, participate in activities like sports, and form traditional relationships with peers,” said Harper. “It is important to think about what the situation of others may be before passing any judgement.”

The scariest thing about the idea–no, the actual existence–of at-risk youth might be that the possibility of them living in your very region, city, or neighborhood, is immense. So why don’t we notice? Is it because we choose not to? Or because we don’t know how to? Or, maybe, is it a little bit of both?

Optimistically, Harper said, “There are many at-risk youth who have the drive and determination to succeed in life. These individuals are able to break the cycle of violence, neglect, and poverty.” Still, she continued, “Other at-risk youth may become victims of homelessness, violence, human trafficking, teen pregnancy, addiction, and chronic illness. Some may end up in the criminal justice system.”

Credit: Houston Chronicle

It is easier to consider ourselves separate from the issue of at-risk youth, to judge such a thing as not being our problem. But it has been understood by various people, from Whitney Houston to John F. Kennedy to Albert Camus, that our future lies within the younger generations, the ones that will come into place when others are long gone, and such a thing deserves value and guidance. Our well-being depends on them as much as theirs depends on us.

Because, not only does “helping at-risk youth [increase] the chances they will succeed academically, socially, and economically,” as Harper remarked, but “investing time and resources in at-risk youth is better for the youth and society as a whole. It increases their chances of becoming successful, independent adults….”

Who do these children become? A distinct part of that depends on who we allow them to become, by making sure these kids are in an environment in which they can thrive. And by extension, through helping or not helping at-risk youth, what becomes of us?

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