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Frustration Builds In Miami-Dade County Over Youth Gun Violence

The faces of 90 victims of gun violence in South Florida, done in black-and-white sketches by PAMM Teaching Artist Chire Regans, presided on Thursday night over a parent forum and resource fair to address youth violence and prevention. They were a stark reminder of the lives at stake if violence and youth outreach isn’t addressed more around Miami-Dade  County. 

The ‘It Takes A Village’ resource fair was organized by the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board's Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Committee in association with commissioners Daniella Levine Cava and Dennis Moss. It was hosted at the Goulds Parks Community Center and attracted close to 100 participants. 

Many panelists were frustrated by lack of support for impoverished communities plagued by gun violence and lax Florida gun laws. Speakers included representatives of  Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the Miami-Dade County Hispanic Affairs Advisory Board, Catalyst Miami, Be Smart Miami-Dade and the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment.

Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Committee Chairman Gus Barreiro said he's tired of witnessing these horrific, senseless killings. He wants to organize commissioners and community stakeholders alongside parents from neighborhoods where children are more likely to witness gun violence. He grew up in South Miami where he was "that kid." 

"My background is juvenile justice, and like I said, kids are not inherently bad," Barreiro said. "They're not born into this world thinking, 'when I turn 15 I'll go cause havoc on somebody.' It's a systemic problem, and I constanly push for, particularly males, to be surrounded by strong male role models." 

JL Demps Jr., president of the Greater Goulds Optimist Club, held up his firearms license during the meeting. Even though he’s a licensed gun owner, he has spent decades advocating for gun safety and providing resources to children from areas where they may see violence just walking to elementary school.

"My heart is out to all the school shootings, all those families, all those parents who lose their kids," Demps Jr. said. "But we’re worried about getting shot going to school. Not necessarily in school. And I’m speaking really in the black community, after school, even just playing in the yard."

Many other panelists at ‘It Takes A Village’ also discussed how the stigma of mental health and bullying can psychologically lead to gun violence if the thought of suicide is on a child’s mind. In the 26 years working for the Optimist Club, Demps Jr. said he’s worked with close to 500 kids.

“I tell kids something they may not hear at home,” he said. “The very first thing, especially young men, is I tell them that I love them. A lot of times they don’t hear that because they have this cover that says you have to be hard, you have to be tough. And sometimes they’re just crying out for help.”

Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN
Miami-Dade District 8 Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava and JL Demps Jr., president of the Greater Goulds Optimist Club during the 'It Takes A Village' parent resource fair in the Goulds Parks Community Center on Thursday, June 14, 2018.

Santra Denis, vice president of Community Prosperity at Catalyst Miami, says she has witnessed young people using violence as a way to prove themselves, as a way of status and to keep themselves safe.

“Youth growing up in impoverished neighborhoods come into contact with violence at an earlier age,” Denis said, whose organization aims to fight poverty by education the public, especially the youth, on the systemic causes of it. “We provide public support to deter people from violence in a non-judgmental way.”

Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava said that Miami-Dade is still losing too many kids, and gun violence and keeping youths out of the juvenile justice system really starts with outreach and in the home.

“We know that suicide, mental health are all issues that affect the misuse of firearms,” she said. “What is essential, what is fundamental is reaching out.”

Other participants in the forum included the Miami-Dade County Juvenile Services Department and the Honorable Judges Orlando Prescott and Fred Seraphin.