When the wind blows, the city tries to reach out to children trapped in violence

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Rockford, Illinois. – The teens were arrested so many times Assistant Secretary Kurt Whisenand knew their names. Accused of shootings, carjacking and armed robbery, they became one of the most violent young criminals in Rockford, Illinois.

But it was a report a few years ago that gave Wisenand the most suspension.

Police believed most of the five (13 or 14 at the time) had been sexually assaulted by the same man one of the boys met on social media. The man bought them gifts, left them alone and mistreated them. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.

Reading the report was “kind of a light bulb moment.” This did not surprise investigators for many years, but Wisenand reconsidered how he and other law enforcement officials tackled violent crime.

After close scrutiny a few months later, Wisenand had data to support his premonition. About 70% of criminals under the age of 17 involved in violent crime in northern Illinois between 2016 and 2019 were exposed to domestic or sexual violence. For some, the abuse began before the age of one and lasted for years.

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It’s the overhaul of Rockford using part of an estimated $ 54 million federal storm after a pandemic year when violent crime rates in Illinois’ fifth-largest city soared to the alongside many other cities. A short version of the method you have decided to do. Approach to juvenile delinquency. This means hiring data analysts to improve the way the city as a whole interacts with young people, from police and schools to welfare agencies. Perhaps finding these younger victims early will prevent crime from happening for years to come, they say.

About $ 2 million invested by the city comes from the American Rescue Planning Act. This is a $ 1.9 trillion package that injected billions of dollars in economic stimulus directly into local governments. Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said it was a “lifetime amount”, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic shattered the finances of many communities.

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With so much money and so much room for spending, communities across the United States are experimenting with new, long-term ways to fix what’s broken in cities. For some, that means dealing with an increase in homelessness, replacing the lead pipes that make children sick, or finding other ways to tackle high crime.

There is no guarantee that any of the experiments will work. And in Rockford’s case, it will be years before anyone can say that for sure. But a year after the number of people injured in killings and shootings doubled, city leaders are taking a calculated risk.

“Overall, we’ve been committing crimes the same way for 30 years,” McNamara said. “We know we can’t keep doing things the same way.”

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The US bailout package, approved by the Democratic Party in March due to Republican opposition to spend heavily on projects unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic, was President Joe Biden’s first legislative result. It was a. The large-scale plans included money for the COVID-19 vaccination, a check for $ 1,400 for individuals, an increase in unemployment benefits and tax credits supposed to reduce child poverty. It also provides $ 350 billion to state, local and tribal governments.

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With violent crime on the rise this summer, Biden advised local authorities to use some of their missions to deal with shootings and murders. In some local communities, this meant hiring more police officers and offering bonuses. Others have turned to non-police initiatives such as summer jobs and mentorship programs.

In Rockford, a town of about 150,000 people just south of the Wisconsin border, the mayor and city council have not demanded a president’s proposal.

Crime has been a constant challenge for the old manufacturing centers, once known as the “Screw Capital of the World” for millions of fasteners manufactured. The city lost its job when the plant closed beyond the Rust Belt and a pandemic ensued. Rockford currently has the highest unemployment rate of any metropolitan area in Illinois, leading to foreclosures, housing deterioration and nearly a quarter of the population being poor. According to FBI statistics, the violent crime rate in 2019 was more than three times the national rate for cities of similar size. Not all police forces report criminal data to the FBI.

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McNamara, whose father was mayor of Rockford in the 1980s, studied criminology and sociology at university. Shortly after taking office as mayor in 2017, his office began analyzing criminal data. In the findings: About 40% of the city’s violent crimes were domestic violence.

McNamara has set up a special office to help set up a Family Peace Center in downtown Rockford. There, victims of domestic violence can receive urgent protection orders, find counseling and help with food, shelter and other services all under one roof. Rockford Police are also working outside the center. This is a multi-agency approach that municipal authorities wish to use for juvenile delinquency.

Between 2016 and 2019, the number of violent crime in the city declined every year, according to Rockford Police. As of November 2019, the city has progressed for four straight months without a murder, and McNamara expected Rockford to continue to decline year over year in 2020.

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“Then a pandemic broke out and all hell seemed to collapse,” he said.

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Most of the shootings the following year were part of what then police chief Dan Ossia called “tit for tat” between the two factions of street gangs. They were mostly concentrated in low-income areas where the city was home to many black and Hispanic residents. According to O’Shea, too many boys ran around town with guns and “inadvertently detonated.”

Police said some of the issues could be that the children were out of school or that the police were unable to come out in the neighborhood and interact with locals because of COVID-19. .. They say family life, which young people could lack support before the pandemic, has become more difficult.

A 37-year-old man has been charged with shooting at a bowling alley, killing three people and injuring three. And both murders were domestic matters, including the strangulation of a woman who said she abused her boyfriend days ago.

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The eruption of violence among those trapped at home came as no surprise to Delicia Harris, an abuse survivor who worked for the Rockford Youth Program.

“You need to spend more time at home with these fools,” Harris says of violent people. “I can’t go anywhere, so I can’t say ‘go to grandma’s’ or ‘go cook at aunt’s house.'”

The violence often involved young people who grew up surrounded by violence. Between 2016 and 2020, 79% of murder victims and 81% of known murder suspects were involved in police-reported abuse cases, according to Wisenand.

In a city review of a boy accused of violent crime, a typical young man, as a victim or witness, had suffered more than 12 cases of domestic or sexual violence by the age of 18. Some have seen parents and siblings shot and attacked with knives. In one case, the girl was the victim or witness of 26 separate assaults between the ages of 9 and 13, including 10 when she was sexually assaulted. At the age of 17, she was arrested for assault.

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“My idea at the time was, ‘Well, sure it was,’ Wisenando said.

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Camp Hope is one of the programs that Rockford has already offered to child victims, as well as children who are present when abuse occurs.

The big bus that brought the first group of 8-11 year olds to camp at the end of August was like a spaceship, nicknamed the “Ship Hope” for its seats and luxurious lighting. It was the first time that a park, hundreds of acres of forest and river trails outside of town, some of them left town on their way down to Atwood.

The group walked through the woods for three days, tried their hand at archery, and talked about people who have overcome adversity. Annie Hobson, responsible for youth services at the Family Peace Center, aims to help them believe in themselves and learn to deal with their difficulties.

For Hobson, it makes perfect sense that exposed children could commit violence themselves.

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“That’s what they saw. That’s what they know, ”she said, adding that campers will leave with better coping skills and mentors who will connect them all year round.

The Associated Press was unable to interview camp participants due to the city’s policy of keeping minors confidential. Other programs attempted at Rockford specifically target girls and adolescents.

In the case of domestic violence, “I’m not sure if I can explain correctly how children should see such things happening,” said the mayor’s office on domestic violence and community violence prevention. Jennifer Katchapaglia, who runs it, said.

She said if nothing was done for these children. I’ll pay now or later. “

Copyright 2021 AP communication. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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