Violence in the streets can start in the home

May 17, 2013

WBEZ/Bill Healy
A resident flashes a gang sign near young kids playing outside. Experts say when youth in high crime areas experience violence in the homes and lack parental support, they are more likely to get violent on the streets and join gangs.

Ubaldina is a mother of six, who works the night shift at a packing company so she can be there when her kids come home from school.

She’s raising her kids alone now. She said her husband abused her verbally and physically almost every weekend.

“He came home drunk one day,” Ubaldina said. “I was pregnant with my 12-year-old. And the police came home and arrested him because they found him hitting me. I was on the floor with my face covered in blood.”

Ubaldina said she didn’t have the strength to end the relationship, until her husband tried to abuse her oldest daughter.

“I woke up,” she said. “I didn't make any noise or turn on the lights. I was going to the bathroom and everything was dark. I went back and heard my daughter’s bed moving and that’s when I opened the door and I found him there, but my daughter had no clothes on.”

All of her children slept in that bedroom. They watched what happened next.

“I took him out of the room,” Ubaldina said. “ I slapped him in the face twice and pushed him out. I was so angry that I remember going to the kitchen sink and grabbing a knife. I wanted to kill him.”

Ubaldina took her kids out of their house and waved down a cop car. Juvenal, her oldest son who is now 16, was terrified.

“That really got to me. I wanted to like, already be grown so I could beat up my dad. I wanted to beat him up, and I got so mad.” Juvenal said.

His dad was arrested, convicted and is still in prison. Ubaldina said her kids got some counseling at the time, but nothing to deal with all the domestic violence they witnessed at home. 

Today, eight years later, Juvenal and his younger sister still struggle with anger. They’ve both been arrested for getting into fights at school.

“My anger is like when you feel the blood is coming up to your head and is not working back now. You get this nervous feeling and your hands ball up,” Juvenal said.

Experts say that anger can lead to violence on the streets if youth, like Juvenal, have ties to local gangs. They’re finding a link between domestic violence and youth involvement in gangs that goes largely unreported.

“Domestic violence is basically at the root of much of the violence that we see here in the streets,” said Father Dave Kelly of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. He teaches at-risk youth -- even rival gang members -- how to resolve their disputes peacefully.

“Most of the kids whom we deal with, youth who are locked up, speak of the violence they had to endure a big part of their life,” Father Kelly said.

Several other agencies say they’re seeing the same pattern.

CeaseFire Illinois, the local branch of Cure Violence, tries to “interrupt” violence before it erupts in the streets. More and more, leaders there say, they’re being asked to intercede in homes, too.

But there’s no single way to measure how big the problem is in Chicago. The Chicago Division of Domestic Violence said it doesn’t collect data on the number of minors who witness violence at home. They referred me to the Chicago Office of Violence Prevention, which doesn’t collect such data either.

“The primary challenge is to find a unique way to count children,” said Chicago Office of Violence Prevention Director Marlita White. “That is going to continue to be a difficult thing, because you are dependent on internal resources of very different departments. And often times you have a child who may be exposed to domestic violence, but also to community violence or to child abuse or neglect.”

The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority collects some data from state-funded domestic violence programs. They said of the 22 state-funded domestic violence organizations in Chicago, more than 11,000 victims of domestic violence sought services last year. Those clients had a total of more than 20,000 children, but only 1,348 of them were identified as witnesses of domestic violence, and also received some type of supportive service.

Domestic violence groups said victims of domestic violence like Ubaldina are often afraid to come forward themselves. They’re also hesitant to acknowledge their kids witnessed the violence and are in need of services. The leaders of those groups said there is no uniform intake form that asks that information.

Some of those agencies like Mujeres Latinas en Accion are starting to identify and treat these young people, but they lack resources and can serve only small pockets of the population. But even when the resources are there, it can be hard to fight the influence of gangs over kids like Juvenal who have seen violence at home.

Juvenal said if he has trouble at home or if he’s being bullied and no one is around to protect him, the gangs are there.

“It’s easy man. It’s really easy. If what you need is protection, they are gonna throw it at you,” he said.

His mom said the gangs have been after him since he was 13.  He also has cousins who are already gang members.

What stands between Juvenal and the gangs is the aid of one cop.

Officer Rafael Yañez mentors Juvenal and other at-risk youth. He founded an organization called Union Impact Center that provides after-school sports and mentoring.

On his own time, Yañez picks up Juvenal and his sisters every Saturday and drives them to a local gym.

“He is running away from the problems and the male figures and the real role models that he has are not the most positive ones, but are the only ones there,” Yañez said.

Juvenal sits up front so they can talk. Juvenal tells Yañez his plans of building a recording studio in his room. At the gym, they talk about the importance of keeping good grades for college and, as usual, they play ball.

Yañez said it’s hard for Juvenal to control his anger and that gets him in trouble. 

“There was a time where I had to be in his high school, I was called by the principal maybe every week. Sometimes every other day to come and talk to him about his behavior,” he said, adding that’s slowed down since the pair started working together.

And he said Juvenal’s mom, Ubaldina, calls him when her son comes home late or breaks the rules.

“I prayed to God so my kid would not accept to join the gangs,” Ubaldina said.

Despite all of this support, there are ongoing pressures for Juvenal. His family lives in a crowded apartment. The TV is always on, and his younger siblings play everywhere.

At home he loses his temper easily. Ubaldina worries because her son is growing up without a father. And if he wants to go out, the gangs are right there. 

“My perimeter is where I live and how I get to school, that’s it. You know like sometimes I get mad because I can’t go places that some of my friends can go to,” Juvenal said.

He lives with a constant reminder of the looming violence just across the street. It’s a memorial made of stuffed animals and beer cans.

A young man* who lives nearby stooped to clear garbage away from it and said the altar’s there to remember a friend who was shot three years ago, on Thanksgiving.

“All his friends gathered up before going back to their families for Thanksgiving and I guess they thought they were gangbangers and started shooting at the group, and he is the one that got shot,” the neighborhood resident said. 

So Juvenal sees this every day. And he said he stays inside as much as he can. He’s trying to figure out how to build that recording studio in his bedroom using foam and cardboard.

But the lure of the streets is evident even in his favorite rap tune, “Knuck if You Buck.” He likes the song because he said it reminds him to always stand strong.

But even though Juvenal’s trying to stay out of a gang, he knows one more fight could change everything. If he joins, he said he’ll have to get tattooed, carry their guns and sell their drugs.

When I ask Juvenal where he sees himself in five years, he said he isn’t sure if he’ll even make it that far. 

*Name withheld by WBEZ to protect the family’s confidentiality. And WBEZ isn’t using the last names of the family in this story to protect their confidentiality, given the nature of the abuse.