By Taesha Poteat
Only two exist in the entire city of Baltimore. There is one on the east side, nestled in the heart of the Broadway East neighborhood, and another located roughly 5 miles away in the Sandtown-Winchester community on the west side. They are recreation centers by day, but on Friday and Saturday nights they become the integral tools for the enforcement of Baltimore’s new strict curfew law. They are the curfew centers.
On August 8, 2014, city leaders in Baltimore unveiled one of the toughest curfew laws in the country. The day also marked the official grand opening of the curfew centers. Collington Square Recreation Center is the curfew site for the east side and the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center operates on the west side. A stark contrast between these two centers as the east side boasts a lively group of kids from the community that have been dropped off by family members, while the west side center is somewhat of a ghost town with a few stragglers and some curfew violators brought in by an officer.
A night at each center gives a glimpse of just how these sites are run.
Eastside center. Friday night. Nine p.m.
“What’s the matter, Augustus? Why is your face all broken down like that? You always got that sad face on when you want something,” said Corey Turner. He is the on-site youth connector at the east side center. Although it is rare that he is called by his first name, he is sometimes referred to as Big C, Big Mac, Big Daddy, and on special occasions Mr. Turner.
“Cus’ Tay has been playing the game with Mr. Chris all night and is hogging the controller,” cried Augustus Willis.
Turner said Young Augustus comes here every weekend, ever since the youth connection center opened back in early August.
The boy, like an overwhelming majority of the kids at the east side center, has been voluntarily dropped off by a parent or relative. Typically, the kids are dropped off at the center at 9 p.m. and picked up at about 11 p.m., at the latest 11:30 p.m. Sometimes, curfew violators are brought in by a police officer, but that is very rare for the east side center.
Mostly, the children play.
Young Augustus’s favorite thing to do here is play the PlayStation with his favorite person Mr. Chris, who is one of the recreation and parks coordinators.
“Aww c’mon Little Man. You know you’ve been playing that game ever since you got here.
Why don’t you give somebody else a chance,” Turner said, giving the boy a noogie on the head.
“It’s not fair!”
“You’ll be alright. Why don’t you go play checkers with Mrs. Tonie?”
Augustus mumbled something under his breath and stomped in the direction of Mrs. Tonie and the black and red checkerboard.
Mr. Turner moves around the room with bubbling energy as he interacts with the kids. He knows them all personally and has a few nicknames of his own for each kid. Little Man. Mini-Beyonce. T-Mac. Thirty Cent. Miss Hollywood.
It’s a small room, with bright red walls plastered with colorful posters. Tonight, fifteen kids are present, ranging in ages from six to fifteen. They are a lively bunch, laughing and playing with one another. Whenever Mr. Turner steps out the room, the kids get a little rambunctious but settle down upon his return. The center is far from a gloomy detention center as it is portrayed by some media outlets. These kids seem comfortable and they want to be here.
“At first, when my grandmother brought me here I thought I wouldn’t like it but it’s actually cool,” said 13-year-old Zakuria Darby. She sits on a black metal fold out chair, hunched over carefully reading an application for a boarding school in Pennsylvania.
“You know you have to have a lot of money to go to a school like that,” said Jade Taylor, who had been looking over Darby’s shoulder.
“Don’t pay her any mind, she’s just my nosey cousin,” Darby said smirking. She snapped her head around and peered at her younger cousin, “First of all Jade it’s not all about money!
They look at your grades too and mines are looking good this year.”
“But you not that smart, though,” Jade said jokingly before running out of the room.
The application is for Pine Forge Academy, a co-educational seventh-day Adventist boarding school in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Darby’s goal is to get good grades in school so that she can become a lawyer in the future. She said she loves to debate and argue, which is one of the reason’s why she is at the center every weekend.
“It’s less stressful here,” she said, “ Somebody is always arguing at my house…I just come here so I won’t get in any fights or trouble at home.”
Children like Darby are the ones Councilman Brandon Scott hoped the curfew centers would reach. “It’s not about rounding up thousand of teenagers but rather providing the much needed services to families.
The mission of the curfew centers is to connect youth and their families to some resources and services that may be helpful to them. Turner says it’s also about building positive relationships for kids that could really use a positive light in their lives. “A lot of these kids have had some traumatic experiences already for example being exposed to gun violence, sexual assaults, and some other violent crimes. This is definitely a great outlet for them. This is a place where they can just come and kick it. They don’t have to worry about anybody coming in here to cause them any trouble or harm.”
Occasionally, police bring in young people who are out on the streets too late– but that is rare.
“We had a few curfew violators, but that’s just hit and miss. I think the police officers are doing a good thing by saying hey I’m catching a violator and I’m taking them home. The officer files a report and what we do is basically follow up on that report,” said Turner.
This is contrary to what has been reported by some media that the curfew centers are open on Fridays and Saturdays until about 4 a.m. and that police bring in violators by the busload. The center is proving to operate more as a babysitting service than anything else.
“The kids come in, we talk, they play, they eat, then they play some more, and then get picked up,” said Turner, “I wouldn’t advertise it as a babysitting service but essentially that is. There is not set schedule of activities for the kids at the center. Sometimes they meet as a group or individually to talk with youth connectors or rec personnel. Then, they are free to engage in activities, such as arts and crafts, board games, or PlayStation. Usually around 10 p.m. staffers give the kids snacks or a packed lunch.
“The food is okay. We get Lunchables, or a turkey sandwich with fruit and juice. Mrs. Tonie is really nice though because she brings us cookies and candy,” said Jade Taylor, who is dropped off by her grandmother along with three of her cousins. Taylor said that she likes coming to the center because it beats staying home and being bored with nothing to do.
“How was your audition Miss Hollywood? I would’ve asked you earlier but you snuck right past me,” asked Turner.
Neyce Smith, known throughout the center as Miss Hollywood, is a 14-year-old aspiring actress. She is brought to the center by her grandmother or uncle with eight of her younger cousins. She sits quietly in a corner braiding her younger cousin’s hair. Smith had an audition with the Baltimore Actors Academy in Towson, Maryland last week.
“It was good Mr.C. I wasn’t nervous but I think other people did better than me.”
“That’s good that you weren’t nervous. Now you just have to have more confidence in
yourself,” said Turner, patting Smith on the shoulder.
Some organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union, believe that the curfew extension and youth connection centers will add to the tension between cops and the community.
Councilman Scott, on the other hand, feels that the relationship is bad but better.
“Certain people like to paint a broad stroke that every interaction with a police officer is
negative. You have to look at it by a case-b- case basis. Young people and cops are going to
interact. What we have to do is change the framework of the conversation,” said Scott.
Turner is aware of the tension between cops and the community and think the curfew
centers will change the dynamic of youth and cop relations.“The communities are often exposed to the problematic sides of law enforcement, he said, “When an officer approaches them, that person will think “What did I do wrong?” I also think it is a societal thing. It’s nothing we can really change with a curfew law or a few curfew centers… but the kids having these opportunities to interact with cops to see that they are normal regular people and they are tangible really helps them to see officers in a different light.”
West side center. Friday night. Nine p.m.
The melodic tunes of an old Mary J. Blige album played in the background as on-site youth connector Sabrina Wright browsed through a selection of ebooks on her Kindle. Two recreation personnel were on the other side the room trying to get a floor buffer to power on. There was a ping pong table, some soccer balls and basketball in a black crate, a television powered off, and some metal chairs folded up against the wall. The only thing missing in this curfew center was the kids.
“Tonight looks like it’s going to be a slow night,” said Wright as she pops a few almonds in her mouth. Beside her is a half eaten bowl of Chipotle and a bottle of water. She has a bag next to her foot overflowing with chips, cookies, and candy which she calls her “snack bag”.
“Where are the kids?”
“It depends,”said Wright, “Some nights it’s a ghost town in here and other nights we have some voluntary drops off or violator drop offs.”
Although the turnout is much different from the east side, the process for when a kid arrives at the center is much the same.
“When a kid comes in the center, first they speak with a counselor, then they are given snacks, and then they play games, watch TV, or do homework until they are picked up by their parents.”
Wright said the traffic in the west side center fluctuates because many parents in the community don’t have reliable transportation to drop or pick their child up from the center. She calls them “walk-ins” rather than “drop-offs” because the children often come to the center by foot. Very few children are brought in by police officers, they are most often then not escorted back home, even on the weekends.
These “youth connection centers” are somewhat different from the old “curfew center” which was discontinued in 2013.The old curfew center operated out of Success Academy on North Avenue in Baltimore. This center was open from Thursday to Saturday from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. Youth who violated curfew would be brought in by vans, evaluated by social workers, and interviewed by representatives of Baltimore City Schools who would look up school and truancy records.
The centers have a fiscal budget of $195,000 that will extend until June 30, 2015 and is funded by the mayor’s office. The old curfew center’s budget was funded through the Baltimore City Public School system.
The main issue with the old curfew law was that it was punitive and wasn’t focused on getting families connected with resources and services.
“The difference with the new curfew law i that it is not meant to be punitive,” said Tanya Williams, facilitator for BCPS, “Bringing students to the centers was not working because it wasn’t getting families and kids together to find a better solution.”
Since there was such negative feedback and criticism for the old curfew center, it made many parents and community members apprehensive about the new youth connection centers, Williams said. The skepticism of parents can be seen in the few kids that are voluntarily dropped off by parents.
“Sometimes parents get pissed off when you call them at 2 o’clock in the morning and say ‘Hey we have your child’. We found that adding the aspect of kids being able to get dropped off will ease off some of that tension,” said Williams.
Wright says that the center is extremely useful in identifying kids who are in need of help.
“In the second week that the center were open, I met a kid who was being bullied by his half brothers at home. I was able to sit down with the boy’s mother, who had no idea that thesituation was that bad. We talked about some solution and family counseling centers that she could take her sons to help resolve their problems at home,” said Wright.
It has been an hour since the center has been open, and there still aren’t any kids in sight.
At both the east side and west side curfew centers, three are still some wrinkles to work out. Scott says, “The curfew centers are not the end all be all for the executing the curfew law. It’s just one tool of many that we have to get help to the most vulnerable kids in need.”
The city eventually wants to open up nine more centers around the city that will operate around the clock on Fridays and Saturdays. That’s nine more locations that could be populated by a small group of community kids such as that of the Collington Square Recreation center, or a ghost town with some kids every here and now like the Lillian S. Jones Recreation center on the west.