“I was that parent that said it wasn’t my son when he got caught in a stolen car,” Martin, 46, said Friday night during a Violence Prevention Forum at KIPP Collegiate High School in response to the increased violence among youth in Atlanta. “It was me thinking that it wasn’t what it was.”
No relationship holds more weight in a child’s life than that of a parent. It’s that relationship that can be the biggest determinant of whether a child reaches adulthood with stability and purpose.
According to several concerned parents, organization leaders and youth offenders who attended Friday’s rally, one of the biggest obstacles to getting kids help comes from within the home.
“In my experience, unfortunately, the parents have been the biggest barrier. It’s always fix the child,” licensed clinical therapist Carmen Allison told the assembled group. “There’s a minimal level of accountability.”
Friday’s event was held just weeks after the disturbing shooting deaths of 12-year-old Zyion Charles and 15-year-old Cameron Jackson in Midtown. It was aimed at exposing missing resources and what parents and the community can do to curb violence among teenagers and pre-teens.
Less than 24 hours later, more parents were left having to plan a funeral for their children.
At a southwest Atlanta apartment complex, 16-year-old Justin Powell and 14-year-old Malik Grover were fatally shot when a social media dispute spilled into real life, and one group arrived with guns and another opened fire, police said.
In response, officials continue to plead with parents to know more about their children’s whereabouts.
“I hate being here talking about kids and gunfire,” Atlanta police Deputy Chief Charles Hampton Jr. said after the Midtown shooting. “We just ask parents to know where your kids are, know what they’re doing. Check rooms. There’s just too many guns in the hands of our youth.”
Allison said it’s not that simple. If parents would create better relationships with their children and effectively communicate with compassion, it could go a long way to solving the problems, she said.
“Based on what people see on the news, they want to say, ‘These kids are out of control.’ I see kids screaming out for help,” she said.
Martin, who admitted she was in denial when her son was arrested, said she struggled as a single mother to fill the role of both parents for her sons. She felt that “as a woman, (she) couldn’t teach them to be a man.”
Once her older children had left home, her son began acting out. When he came home one day “scarred up,” Martin said she didn’t realize he had just gone through a gang initiation. She wishes she would have noticed the signs — trying to find a sense of belonging, searching for protection — as they happened.
But placing the bulk of the blame on children can still be disastrous for parents even if they notice those signs, said Aparicio Thompson, the director of community initiative at CHRIS 180, an Atlanta-based welfare organization that serves children and youth with behavioral and emotional challenges. The group helped organize Friday’s event.
“What would it look like if the youth was like, ‘What’s wrong with my mom? What’s wrong with my dad?’” Thompson said. “Oftentimes, I get a parent to come (into the counseling center) and tell me something’s wrong with their child. ... but guess who I can’t get to come sign the paperwork for me to talk to them?”
Several teenagers, who chose to use only their first names during Friday’s gathering since their records can be expunged at 18, opened up about what led them to crime. They agreed that better relationships with their parents might have kept them out of the juvenile detention center.
Isaiah said he just wanted to fit in. Wanted to be known among his peers. He said he knew he needed help, but chose to deal with his issues alone.
Now 16, he has learned to open up to those around him. He said his faith in God fostered a purpose beyond just crime. But if he had received more affection from his parents earlier, he feels that things could’ve turned out differently.
“If parents had a relationship with their children, that would stop a lot of trouble,” he said. “It stopped me doing this today, because nobody wants to see their momma cry.”
With one month left on probation, 17-year-old Aaliyah said she now understands what went wrong: she let her anger get the best of her. She had the support of her mother, but said that people becoming parents before they are ready also creates issues with children feeling undesired.
“Parent had a kid at 16, they’re still learning and the kid is still learning,” she said. “It’s not working for neither one of them.”
It’s been more than a year since Paulette Smith lost her son to gun violence. Even as a victim, she said there were choices he made she wishes she could have prevented.
It started with marijuana. She said she caught it, tried to stop it, but it pushed him away from his activities.
On Aug. 31, 2021, Smith found her 22-year-old son Johnathan McWilliams dead inside his bedroom at their Clayton County home. The back door of the apartment was open when she came home. A suspect has not been caught.
She wonders that if she had given him more opportunities to talk about his feelings, would she have noticed any signs leading up to his death?
“I was the nurturer and the person who distanced him. I think I didn’t give him enough voice for him to speak for himself to me,” Smith said. “I was that parent that you listen and do what I tell you to do, and I think it probably caused him to keep his emotions held in.”
A parent who is willing to listen and be involved, Thompson said, can be one of the most indispensable resources a child can have.
“Sometimes, as adults, as parents, we don’t listen,” he said. ”We pass this trauma on to these kids like it’s their fault they ended up this way. It’s their fault they don’t feel loved. It’s their fault they had to go find somebody else to take them in.”