Merlene Davis: Our youth need our help

In recent weeks, there have been a number of killings of young people or killings by young people throughout Kentucky. Couple those statistics with the number of young parents whose children have died in their care, and the number of incidents become quite scary.

But what seems even scarier is how little public attention is focused on the lingering problems of our youth.

I called various groups, hoping to find a clue as to why our youth are fast becoming a lost generation. There are several reasons, none of them definitive.

Some of those I talked with chalked it up to the usual suspects: drugs and gangs. Others pointed to the down economy, a society that emphasizes self-centered goals, and the closing of programs that would have given young people special attention and positive distractions.

"Considering that most of these crimes involve male perpetrators, it is imperative that men in our communities express concern and interest in our young men," Larry L. Johnson of Partners for Youth, wrote in an email message.

Despite the recent rash of killings and violent crimes among our youth, young men and women are not separate entities, he said. We created them. They are reflections of us. In some cases, drug use among youth mirrors drug use among adults.

Stephanie Hong, on her first day as director of the Division of Youth Services, said that if adults use drugs to help deal with stress, children will, too.

"The kids learn that is a coping mechanism," she said.

But that is just a symptom. The problem has more to do with children having access to positive role models from birth to adulthood, from kindergarten to after-school programs, from skill-building techniques in middle school to job- readiness at the high school level, she said.

Any adult can take the lead in a child's life, she said. It doesn't have to be a relative. Those adults can serve as "the village" or the social controls our children desperately need.

When I grew up, those controls were the neighbors who corrected me, the teachers who sent notes home to my mother and expected me to deliver them, and the church members who called my house whenever they saw me or my siblings messing up. They filled the gap that could have developed when our parents were busy with other things.

Some think that is what has disappeared: that gap-filler, the missing middle, the folks who could fill in when parents are struggling.

Mattie Morton, program administrator for Youth and Family Services, said there are several programs that could serve the same purpose, such as the Summer Youth Employment Program and activities at community centers. But there were more than 400 applicants for the employment program, which had space for 150, she said.

One of her goals is to collaborate with other programs providing services and create a list that parents may use. With several programs fading away, that is so needed.

I know it's not easy. As attentive as my husband and I were, we have a son who chose the street life over everything we could offer him. Addiction can do that.

So I can identify with the frustration voiced by Nancy Roberts, a friend of Tommisha Taylor, 19, who was shot and killed May 30.

"Another mother's got to bury her child," she told the Herald-Leader. "I hope and pray I won't have to bury none of my kids before they bury me."

Our children need our help. Are we going to respond?