But, the residents say, more needs to be done to combat the problem of unsupervised youth on city streets.
Four years ago, Janai McDonough moved into a house on the dead-end stretch at the end of Clinton Avenue with her husband Patrick and their three children. The street, where eight single-family homes stand adjacent to a baseball field, a city park and an apartment complex, had always had its share of problems with unsupervised youth hanging out. But, McDonough said, the problem had steadily escalated over the past two years before reaching a frightening crescendo as the weather warmed up this spring.
A group of five youths ranging in age from nine to 14 terrorized the block for weeks, McDonough said. In one incident, she watched four of them hold down another teenager while a fifth pumped four BBs into his back from an air-gun. The incident took on ugly racial overtones as the youths (who are African-American) yelled at their Latino victim to “go back to Mexico.” McDonough said the youngest member of the clique used similar language when she watched him assault another child at a basketball court in the park. McDonough said that the five children, often accompanied by a cohort of young friends, smoked marijuana in the middle of the street, peeked through her windows, fired BB guns at houses and threatened her when she tried to quell their behavior.
“When we first got here it wasn’t that bad, sometimes you’d have riff-raff hanging out but it wasn’t like this,” said McDonough. “I don’t know if the kids have gotten older or the kids have gotten bolder, but it’s been really bad lately.”
Bob Boughton, president of the Knothole League, which uses the baseball field on South Clinton Avenue, said people showing up for the games had been harassed and had their cars shot with BB guns by groups of roving youths.
“I’ve been coming here for 40 years, starting from when I was a kid and used to play here,” said Boughton. “I’ve never seen it this bad.”
Not welcome at club
Joe Faye, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Kingston, said that he was familiar with all five youths identified as the leaders of the mayhem on South Clinton Avenue. All five had been barred from the club, which stands on Greenkill Avenue a short distance from the baseball field.
“It really comes down to five kids making really bad decisions who have no respect for anybody,” said Faye, who called police after one of the group shot a girl with a BB gun as she was walking to the club. “They hang out in the neighborhood and they tried to take that park area and make it their turf.”
Ward 5 Alderwoman Jennifer Fuentes said that she began getting phone calls about the problem on South Clinton Avenue as soon as the whether got warm, a pattern that escalated throughout the late spring and early summer until she said, she was getting two or three calls a day.
“This is not kids out toilet-papering, this is kids mugging people, physically assaulting people, threatening people,” said Fuentes. “And the city’s response, until recently has been lackluster.”
That response picked up last month. McDonough sent a letter to local authorities advising them of the problem and demanding action. On June 22, she hosted a meeting at her house which was attended by District Attorney Holley Carnright, neighbors and city officials. In response, Kingston Police Chief Gerald Keller sent an e-mail message to all patrol units advising them to spend more time around the park. Keller also ordered the department’s Operation IMPACT team, which carry out proactive patrols targeting problem areas to target South Clinton Avenue for enforcement. By the end of the month, Keller said, cops had seized five BB guns and helped place several of the alleged troublemakers into the family court system, which deals with delinquent youth.
McDonough said that the crackdown had shown results, the streets have been quieter and the most troublesome kids had kept a low profile. But, she said, she remained frustrated by what she said was an apathetic attitude by police towards juvenile crime.
“I would call the police, sometimes they would come, sometimes they wouldn’t,” said McDonough. “And over and over again I keep hearing, ‘They’re juveniles, there’s nothing we can do.’”
Chief: We’re cuffed by the system
Keller said the problem was not apathetic officers, but a juvenile justice system that makes it very difficult for authorities to detain, question and, if necessary, incarcerate wayward youth. In New York State, youth aged 16 and older are subject to criminal penalties in regular justice courts. Younger children are dealt with in family court which has the power to issue court orders compelling parents to properly supervise children, ensure they attend school or comply with mandated treatment plans.
But Keller said the difficulty in dealing with juvenile crimes begins on the streets. Officers cannot question juvenile suspects without their parents present, they cannot be held overnight at police headquarters while cops investigate a crime and they cannot be detained on bail at the county jail.
The state maintains a system of secure juvenile detention facilities, group homes and other residential programs to hold youth while their family court cases work their way through the system. But their numbers are dwindling. Gladys Carrion, state commissioner of Youth and Family Services has ordered the closure of 16 secure facilities as part of the agency’s transition from a “custody and control” model for dealing with juvenile offenders to “community-centered therapeutic” model which seeks to keep troubled kids close to home while they receive intensive treatment and supervision. Supporters of the approach say that the old system was inefficient and ineffective, leading to an 89 percent recidivism rate for young offenders, while institutions that held just a handful of juveniles remained fully staffed eating up scarce resources. But for police and family court officials, the change means that it is increasingly difficult to find secure housing even when a youth is accused of a serious crime. For misdemeanor offenses, options are even more limited, Keller said.
“In most cases our only option is to take them home,” said Keller. “And if there’s no parenting going on at home, they’re going right back out on the street.”
Faye of the Boys and Girls Club said the juvenile justice and child welfare system is so cumbersome and ineffective that wayward kids often progress from mischief to serious crime to prison even as caseworkers and courts struggle to get them back on track.
“The system is not working right now. The system takes so long with minors that the problems just continue until you have no choice but to put them away,” said Faye. “The writing is on the wall, if these kids don’t get the help they need, they will become a statistic.”
Shayne Gallo, who is running for mayor on a platform that sees improved quality of life as the key to economic development, said there are resources in place to deal with juveniles in trouble, but they are poorly coordinated. Gallo, an attorney, represents youth in Ulster County Family Court. He said that part of the problem is that different agencies — the court, the school district, probation and mental health — do not always share information on children who fall under their supervision.
Police are mandated by law to report to child services when they believe a juvenile has been neglected or abused. But, Gallo said, cops on the beat may not know that a child is already subject to a family court petition or under the supervision of county probation. Authorities charged with supervising youth in family court meanwhile, may not always learn about brushes with the law that could violate court orders and lead to further action, including removing the child from a home where they are not being supervised.
Let’s have a task force
Gallo said the solution lies in an interagency task force made up of Kingston police, officials from the county’s social services, mental health and probation departments and the Kingston City School District. The task force would share information and coordinate efforts in areas where agencies share overlapping responsibility, for example, ensuring that a child is attending school in compliance with a family court order. Gallo’s plan also calls for more consistent reporting by police of truant or unsupervised youth to Child Protective Services, which can open an investigation and file family court petitions.
“All too often these agencies are operating on parallel paths regarding individual families and children,” wrote Gallo in prepared statement. “The lack of communication results in the duplication of services and unnecessary expense. When information is not shared between agencies, opportunity for productive action is lost.”
Meanwhile, back on South Clinton Avenue, McDonough is enjoying the relative peace, even as she prepares to attend a second forum on youth crime, this one scheduled for Wednesday, July 13 at 4:30 p.m. at the Boys and Girls Club, 139 Greenkill Ave. McDonough said while she is happy to see her street calmer, a summer crackdown on rowdy kids is not a substitute for real change.
“Something needs to be done so that children don’t think they have a leg up on everyone and the police can’t do anything about it,” said McDonough.