Standing in the gap: Parents in violent communities stress about keeping kids safe

Standing in the gap: Parents in violent communities stress about keeping kids safe

Fifty school-aged children died so far this year in Chicago. And in at least one case, the child was killed while playing inside a friend’s home—a setting that most parents would think is extremely safe. But for many parents living in neighborhoods where violence is a reality, even the most benign settings can feel unsafe and out of control.

Parents worry. Most never stop worrying about their children. It’s a parent’s job to protect and provide for their child; to help them grow and develop as individuals. So when a parent’s abilities are compromised by things out of their control, it can be overwhelming.

On the far South Side of Chicago, in Roseland, crime and violence add to parents’ worries. Parents bite their fingernails in the summer months, when idle time leaves young people vulnerable to dangerous community elements.

Fifty-five people have been shot in Roseland so far this year; in the last month, there’s been more than three dozen batteries and assaults in the neighborhood. The majority of the violent crimes in the neighborhood take place on the street or a sidewalk, which is why many parents say they’re leery to send their kids outside to play.

James Brown, 44, keeps a close watch over his 12-year-old son Semaj. Brown says stories about stray bullets hitting innocent kids is a known factor in the community—and that the people pulling the triggers don’t care who or what they’re shooting. And so, Semaj isn’t allowed to ride his bike unless his father’s outside.

“I just want to be out there…” Brown explained, “not saying I can protect them from it, I just want to be out there.”

Brown wants to be everywhere when it comes to his only child. And he keeps Semaj very busy.

“Right now, we playing baseball, then after baseball we play basketball…we play football. I have to keep him occupied..hanging out on the block is not an option at all, he knows that,” Brown reasoned.

We. We play basketball, we play football: It would be hard for Brown not to feel like a member of the team, considering he goes to every game and practice.

“It’s hard, it’s hard…but I can’t give my son to the streets. I can’t give him to to the streets. I can’t give him to people that act like they care but really don’t care,” Brown said.

Brown cares; not just about his son but about all the young men in Roseland. He’s worked as a high school football coach in the community for the last two decades.

“I coach football to save lives. I don’t coach to be popular to be liked, I could care less if you like me. But it’s an option for kids…to change their life,” Brown said.

But Brown felt there weren’t any good little league options for his son in Roseland. So he spent the summer driving him to and from Englewood to play on its baseball team. His youngest sister, Victoria Harper Peeples, chose to do the same with her two boys. Both parents recognize the irony in taking their kids from one violent neighborhood to another to play little league.

“People are immune to gunshots nowadays—as opposed to run for cover, they just sit there and act as if nothing happens…” Harper Peeples lamented.

“Well kids know ‘hit the deck,’ wait for the shooting is over with and then get up and walk away. They know that. That’s what we teach them. ‘Cause you can’t keep ‘em in the house, you can’t shelter them…” Brown added.

Clinical psychologist Brad Stolbach, with the University of Chicago, has focused his entire career on children affected by trauma and violence. For nearly 20 years, he ran the Chicago Child Trauma Center at La Rabida Children’s Hospital on the city’s South Side. Stolbach said the constant, real threat of violence in communities like Roseland can be extremely stressful and disruptive.

“If that’s your top priority, is watching out and knowing when to hit the deck, it’s very hard to attend to the normal tasks of daily life,” Stolbach explained.

Moreover, Stolbach continued, parents really struggle when they feel like their child’s safety is out of their control.

“It’s just the way we’re wired, especially moms, that protecting their children is a biological imperative. It’s the number one priority in a lot of ways. And so feeling powerless to do that, can be not just frustrating but can really affect how you feel about yourself as a parent and as a person.”

And when your kid turns out to be the perpetrator of violence…well, that’s tough too.

Diane Latiker raised eight kids in Roseland. She described her parenting style as overprotective, relentless even.

“I have four sons and when they were growing up, they were in gangs and I knew it. I mean, I tried my best to spearhead them other ways…I mean, I was relentless. But I had to get them away from here…literally, all four of them, to save their lives,” Latiker recalled.

She sent the boys to live with their father in a nearby suburban Bellwood. She thought her worries were nearly over when her youngest daughter was about 13. She could almost see the finish line—her days of worrying about kids hanging out around the neighborhood were numbered. But it was around that time when Latiker realized, it wasn’t just her kids who needed looking after.

“My mom worked; so when I came home from school, the block watched me when my mom was gone. Someone would see me out on the street and say, ‘What are you doing Diane? Where you going Diane? Shouldn’t you be in the house?’ So, you know, I never asked where their parents were or why they weren’t doing…I just wanted to know what I could do to help fill in,” she remembered.

Her foundation, Kids Off the Block, began with 10 of her daughter’s friends. She invited them into her home and encouraged them to safely explore their interests and potential. Soon there were scores of kids in her living room and off the street. The kids no longer gather in her home, Latiker acquired a space next door. And while the network and foundation has grown, Latiker says the sense of community she remembers from her youth, or the “neighbor - hood” as she calls it, is still noticeably absent.

Latiker isn’t the only person who thinks so.

Robert Douglas grew up in Roseland, on 114th and Prairie, in the late 80s and early 90s when the murder rate was double what it is today. Still, Douglas said he felt safer back then.

“We had these backyards, right? That’s where the neighbors got to know each other…now, they can’t sit on the porch to get a breeze…because of the violence,” Douglas said.

Douglas was a self-described “gym rat” growing up, which kept him out of trouble…for a while. But then his oldest brother was killed by gun violence.

“My oldest brother was like…daddy. When he left, it was like…you know, hungry…where do we turn now?” Douglas recalled.

Douglas never imagined what that kind of loss might feel like.

“You don’t know what it’s like until you’re burying someone to gun violence. You wouldn’t…you could never imagine it,” Douglas said.

He never imagined his response would be to turn to the streets. Douglas said the temptation was unavoidable.

“Violence came to my front door,” Douglas began. He rapped a few friendly but firm knocks onto the surface in front of him as he remembered his journey to a life of crime and violence. “[Violence] said, ‘Bob, what’s up?’ And I opened the door and I went outside and I played.”

Douglas doesn’t want the same fate waiting for his children outside their door…no gangs, no drugs, no violence…none of it.

“Ain’t no way in the world I’m gonna allow that to happen…and I’m not moving out of Roseland. My wife want to go so bad…and she right…my children don’t deserve it…they deserve better,” Douglas said.

But Stolbach said it’s important to understand that the idea of “stopping the violence,” is a fantasy until the reality of what causes it—poverty—is addressed.

“If we continue to look at how horrible it is but that doesn’t result in us trying to change what we’re doing about it…that can be demoralizing,” Stolbach explained.

But when parks and playgrounds are considered an unsafe place to play, when jobs and resources are limited, when neighbors have stopped looking out for one another, giving your kids better is hard.

And mom Harper Peeples said, it’s already pretty tough.

“We like superheroes for our children. Our kids look at us and be like, ‘nothing goes wrong, we don’t have any problems, we don’t have any worries…’ But we be stressed out just trying to make sure, did I put them in the right school, did I let ‘em hang with the right friends, did I put him on the right baseball team? There’s just so many things that we have to do as parents, and we always put on the spotlight. I mean, it’s no chance that mom or dad could make a mistake. We have to be almost like perfect individuals, at least in the sight of our children.”

Katie O’Brien is a WBEZ reporter and producer. Follow her @katieobez.