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Fleeting Chances

The city's two community monitors have 90 days to turn troubled youth around.


Take the weekend of Oct. 4, for example. Hite received a late-night call from the mother of a teenager, Chantae, after she'd caused such a rage at her Whitcomb Court apartment that her mother called the cops and had her arrested. Inconsolable, the 15-year-old was taken to the psychiatric ward of a local hospital for evaluation. She stayed one night, then another. Doctors sent her home with new terms describing her outbursts, terms such as bipolar and manic-depressive.

Hite and Tinsley are community monitors — outreach counselors with the Richmond Department of Juvenile Justice Services. They shadow troubled teens, nonviolent youth on probation with the city's Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court and the 13th District Court Services Unit. They serve teens whose behaviors have been identified as making them at-risk of reoffending or being placed in a detention center. They want to keep the youth on track and out of trouble while helping their families find the support they need to get ahead — from counseling to job training to bus tickets.

Juvenile Justice Services offers 32 other supervisory and intervention-related initiatives. But what differentiates its community monitoring program is its small size, intensity and speed. Hite and Tinsley have just three months to make a connection they hope will last. In this time, too, they must convince a court whether or not a teen should be in a detention center. Often the teens need convincing themselves. It's a dicey job.

Hite and Tinsley are the city's only community monitors. They each handle up to 10 cases at a time, working with teens who range in age from 14 to 17. Most are being raised by a single mom and live in subsidized housing. Nearly 75 percent are males; 96 percent are black. To participate, a parent or legal guardian must agree to uphold the terms of the program and have phone service in the residence.

In the program's first year, 2003, eight teens participated. By 2004, that number had multiplied nearly eight times to 63. Unequivocally, everyone from social workers to law-enforcement officers to juvenile court judges views the program as valuable, if not an outright success. They say that part of the reason is access. Hite and Tinsely work closely with a number of social-service agencies and probation officers — who, unlike community monitors, spend much time in court and juggle up to 60 cases apiece. But they also go where the youth go — to schools, workplaces, hangouts and homes.

"What is distinct about it is [Hite and Tinsely] are the eyes of the court but the link to families," says Nancy Ross, interim human services director for the city and former director of Juvenile Justice Services. "They're kind of like coaches whispering — in every domain — that the kids can make it."

Ross believes the three-month duration of the program is sufficient — much longer, and the results likely would diminish. The goal of community monitoring, Ross says, is to equip youth with the resources they need to become healthy, engaged individuals, not clients forever. Lengthening the time could make the teen dependent on the program, and even more dependent on Hite and Tinsley.

But how do two men attempt to make a difference in 90 days? The answer may come by observing their approach to a job that's both round-the-clock and hard to define. Because of state privacy laws for minors, and at the request of Juvenile Justice Services, only the first names of teens appear in this story.

"Alot can happen over the weekend," Hite says on an early Monday morning in October. Hite, 32, looks as if he's stepped out of a J. Crew catalog. Tall and slim, he's a former basketball star at Virginia State University. He's married and has two young children. Hite's a native of Philadelphia, and his teenage years often were punctuated with forks in the road, testing him to choose the right direction. After college, he worked as a counselor at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center, a detention center for teens in Powhatan County. His wife teaches there today. Hite left Beaumont for the chance to work with kids on the brink but still on the outside.

At 10:40 a.m. he arrives in his silver city car at John Marshall High School in Richmond's North Side. Hite breezes through the brown, barren hallways lined with lockers. When a bell rings and classes dismiss, students suddenly are everywhere. Hite has his eyes on one. He greets a male teen and asks how he's doing. Amid the cacophony of rushing bodies and voices, it's nearly impossible to hear. But Hite gets the assurances he needs. The boy's doing fine, Hite says, making classes, looking for a job.

Hite whizzes on to Armstrong High School to check on a girl named Danielle. She's not in school, Hite's told, because she's due in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court at 12:30. (Court appearances for everything from custody and support hearings to probation reviews are routine for many teens in the program.) Danielle is 16 and made Hite's roster by shoplifting some clothes she wanted and couldn't afford. After weeks of little progress, she finally opened up, Hite recalls, and acknowledged she'd long been abused by her father. Danielle's safe now, living with another relative.

By late morning, Hite's visiting the Adult Career Development Center on Leigh Street to see two older teens named Montese and Melvin. Hite learns from a teacher that neither one appears to be present. He inquires of the teacher — many come to know Hite and Tinsley — if Daveon, a boy who just finished the program, is around. As Hite searches the halls, he explains that Daveon's dad is serving life in prison at Greensville Correctional Center, and his mother was murdered some years back.

Blocks away from the center is the city's new alternative school, Capitol City Program. Hite's business here has to do with a boy named Calvin and a girl named Jessica. Calvin's whereabouts are unknown. He learns that Jessica, 15, is here but missed school Thursday and Friday. She was living with her mom, but they weren't getting along and also have to be out of their apartment by the end of the week. A school social worker meets Hite in large, airy room that doubles as gym and cafeteria. She tells him Jessica's moving in with her godmother, who lives in Chesterfield County. When she moves there, she'll be outside Hite's jurisdiction. She'll drop off his caseload and receive services in the county.

"She has toned down the behaviors; she's calming down and connecting," the social worker says. The halls are quiet between classes at the school, one primarily for youths with behavioral problems. "We're kind of concerned about the mother," she continues, referring to the mother's whereabouts and her commitment to helping Jessica. Last year at her previous school, Jessica was charged with stabbing a female classmate. She was expelled.

"We're concerned, too, about whether Jessica's emotional needs are being met," the counselor adds, suggesting that Jessica might do better living elsewhere. Hite and the social worker discuss recommending an anger management class for Jessica and whether she'd be a good candidate for the Adult Career Development Center. "Emotionally," the social worker says, "I think she's made progress."

Jessica's idea of progress is a job. She desperately wants Hite to help her find one. Problem is, she's not yet 16 and has a history of attitude. Wearing the school's uniform, a green polo shirt and khaki pants, she joins Hite without the social worker in a quiet, empty classroom. Her hair is pulled back in braids. She is model-thin and strikingly pretty, with wide eyes and full lips. Short scars dot her arms. It's the second month of school and she has five absences. Jessica presses Hite again about getting her worker's permit and a job, maybe at Burger King. He tells her he'll help her but reminds her to focus on school and her good behavior.

The last stop on Hite's list is Whitcomb Court to visit Chantae's mom following her daughter's weekend episode. So far this year, she's been suspended 45 days from school, the same amount of time she's been in Hite's charge.

"It's in school and it's in this neighborhood," Chantae's mom says of the trouble her daughter finds. "She wants to run with the big dogs out there." Like many teenagers, Chantae is rebellious and doesn't want to listen to her mom. Toys line the tiny cinderblock room. Four younger kids live in the apartment too, two of them toddlers. Chantae helps care for them. Recently it was Hite she called when her mom was thrown in jail overnight, charged with indecent exposure. Neighbors called the police on her mom after she became enraged that another neighbor's son took her car for a joyride and wrecked it.

The mood inside is one of calm. "Now something will be done about it," Hite assures the mom about her daughter's anger. He recommends classes at Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, adding, "She keeps everything inside."

With Chantae's new diagnosis as bipolar and manic-depressive, medication could be pivotal. Still, other factors abound. "I think Pooh wants to spread her wings; she wants to be grown," Hite says, calling Chantae by the nickname her mother uses. But what's pressing is now, he says. "She's having a hard time processing this is what has meaning."

As is often the case, Chantae's mother defends her daughter for her occasional belligerence, her fights with girls at school: "You can't call the child bad. Sometimes you have a reason for fighting. You have to defend yourself." When it comes to all kinds of territories, lines are drawn. "This is a Whitcomb Court-Creighton Court beef," her mother says. "If she'd chilled out and come in the house, none of it would have happened. But she screamed out of control. It took four police officers to hold her down."

Without hesitation or disdain, Hite says simply, "A red flag should have gone up." Chantae has been on Hite's roster for 45 days. She's halfway through.

"These two guys are young, energetic and they get it," says Leroy Adams, human services manager with Juvenile Justice Services. "It," he explains, means that Hite and Tinsley understand the needs of the families they deal with.ÿWhen they don't understand, they listen — and ask for suggestions.

What's hard about their jobs, Adams says, is that parents or a guardian are sometimes reluctant for Hite or Tinsley to enter the home.ÿWorkers associated with law-enforcement and the courts often have been viewed as wanting only to lock up troubled teens, taking them away from their homes and families. Another roadblock occurs when they get a youth who is totally off the hook, he says, a teen so troubled it's tough to reel him in.ÿ"In that case scenario it's a 50 percent chance that these guys will be able to make an impact in that person's life," he says. And they have only 90 days.

Making a difference is easier when parents and schools understand from the moment of intake — when a teen signs on — what is meant to happen. "We try to build rapport with the schools, but parents are key," Tinsley says. They may have to enforce a curfew. Tinsley calls to make sure the teens are home on time. If they're not, he figures it out. "You start to learn the games people play," he says. "They'll tell you their son or daughter is in the shower or asleep. Some parents will lie for their kids. But I want to know what's going on in the house."

On a mid-October afternoon Tinsley pulls the city car he shares with Hite alongside Chandler Middle School. He's here to check on seventh-graders Derek and Daryl, twin 14-year-olds who live in Whitcomb Court. Their home life differs from that of most kids in the program because their parents are together and both work. They are stern with the boys, too, he adds. The mom works nights. Tinsley visits them on Saturdays and always finds them happily busy. They play youth football and are active in the Boys & Girls Club.

Still, last year the boys wracked up assault and attempted sexual assault charges. They've spent much time dealing with these charges, Tinsley says, attending classes and completing a summer program at the Virginia Treatment Center. Like Chantae, they're halfway through the program. "They need some strong structural guidance," Tinsley says.

Inside Chandler Middle, Tinsley visits the attendance office, a closet-sized space on the first floor. The twins never miss school; they're honor-roll students. Their names are displayed on the "Wall of Fame" banner in the hallway. Nine times out of 10, Tinsley says, when he calls for a curfew check, the boys are at home.

He makes his way to classroom 106, where the attendance officer tells him Derek has English. He knocks on the door and a young female teacher with long braids answers. She recognizes Tinsley and calls Derek outside. Before he appears, Tinsley asks the teacher how Derek is doing. "GPA-wise, he's No. 2 in his class, and I don't give baby work," she says. "As far as his manners, he doesn't talk back."

"You ain't back there cheating?" Tinsley teases when Derek approaches. His eyes widen in puzzlement before he smiles and gets Tinsley's jest. Tinsley asks him how things are going. Wearing a white T-shirt underneath a light-blue shirt tucked into jeans, he answers Tinsley's questions mostly with one answer. "Yes," he says repeatedly, everything's fine.

"I'm proud of you, man," Tinsley says. "Give me some dap," he insists as the two tap their knuckles together.

Tinsley finds Daryl in the media center. He sits alone at a table, working on some homework. When Tinsley approaches, he looks up and flashes a toothy smile. Dressed exactly like his brother, Daryl tells Tinsley he has to write four summaries on books he's read. A copy of one, "A Jar of Dreams," rests on the table. He mentions to Tinsley that he's "got group today from 4 to 8" and isn't sure yet how he'll get there.

Tinsley explains to Daryl that his only concern about the boys right now is their request to have their curfew extended from 6 p.m. to 7 or 8. "Both of y'all need to show a consistent pattern of doing what you need to do," Tinsley says sternly. So far, the twins haven't done this to his satisfaction.

Daryl's Spanish teacher approaches Tinsley. "In my class he's doing very well," he says, adding that he watched in approval as Daryl organized 40 students in reading through two chapters in the textbook.

Daryl shrugs and says having the Internet at home helps him do his work. Still, he says, his future won't be in Spanish or in academics. Instead, he hopes to play either in the NBA for the Denver Nuggets or in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Leaving Chandler and walking into the bright light of early afternoon, Tinsley stresses that communication is critical. It's what makes connections possible. "They rely on us being a daddy or being a brother," he says. "A lot of times, there'll be a situation with the mom and you get both sides. And then we have to be the mediator, too."

"I'm no bounty hunter," he continues. "A kid's going to do what he wants to do." He and Hite have to rely on their verbal skills, he says, because they have few other tools. The punishment they leverage is basically mild. They can cut teens' curfews or recommend community service to probation officers.

As a kid, Tinsley grew up in and around the notorious Richard Allen housing projects of North Philadelphia. Driving through Richmond's projects, he recalls the impact of tough neighborhoods and the chances of escaping them. "It brings back memories," he says of his own teenage years, before his friends were locked up — or dead, as he finds many of them when he returns. "This environment is a part of me," he says. "It was as fast-paced then as it is here now, and that gives me an edge."

Tinsley's edge appears to be that of grasping what tough love's really about. And while he doesn't tower over most of the teens in the program as Hite does, he's ever more serious and resolute, even when he speaks of his own son, 11, and daughter, 6. "I know I'm stern," he says, acknowledging he'll do what it takes to steer his children from trouble. "I've taken my son by the detention center to show him the barbed wire, and taken him through the bad neighborhoods."

Tinsley pulls into the parking lot at Armstrong High to check on one of the students on his roster, a 16-year-old named Ronald, and Danielle, one of Hite's. Ronald is a good kid, goes to church and lives with his mom and grandfather, he says. His dad has never been around. Problem is, he's a follower, and that's what landed him a simple assault charge last year. Tinsley learns that Ronald never made it to class but hasn't been marked absent. He requests a copy of Ronald's schedule from an administrative aide. Ronald's supposed to be in a technical construction class. "Can I get a copy of his attendance too?" he asks.

A school social worker recognizes Tinsley and greets him. He asks about Hite's client Danielle, a senior. The social worker tells Tinsley that Danielle is doing well. The administrative assistant makes several calls to different classrooms to locate her. And after 15 minutes pass, she arrives at the office.

"I'm going to call Ronald's mom up right now and let her know he's not in school," Tinsley says briskly, then turns to Danielle and chirps: "How are you today?"

He wants to know where she's been, he says, and why she wasn't in her history class when the office called. Danielle explains that she was not in history but in Mr. Ellis' sixth-period science class. She tells him she likes her new job working a few nights a week and weekends at a Hardee's on Jefferson Davis Highway. "I don't skip, you know," she tells Tinsely. "I go to class."

"I'll let Mr. Hite know," he replies.

Next, Tinsley calls Ronald's mom. "I stopped by and he wasn't in sixth period, wasn't in his construction class, and they called up there twice," he reports. "As soon as he steps in the house, ask him where he's been and tell him to call me."

Hite and Tinsley are both from the rough side of Philly, in their early 30s, fathers of two, and former corrections workers. They have plenty of reason and experience to relate to the teens they counsel. Much of what they do is surveillance work. Much of it is met with what appears to be shyness or apathy. However reticent or tough to crack the teens seem to be, their silence is unmistakable. It's clear that they want attention, perhaps from the regular guys that Hite and Tinsley appear to be.

On a recent January morning, the streets slathered with ice, Hite treads gingerly up a Mosby Court sidewalk. "Richmond is a small city with big problems," he says. Schools are out on a snow day, but that doesn't mean a day off for Hite. "We try to meet kids where they are," he says, "but we don't want to give them just a vision, we want to give them a road map."

It can be tough to dish out advice or live by example, he explains, when the idea of mentors is different from what it once was. Race, he says, has little to do with it. "These kids don't think Douglas Wilder or Mark Warner," Hite says. "They're both enemies of theirs." It doesn't necessarily mean anything to teens from distressed neighborhoods that they are black or that they grew up amid strife. "Being a role model doesn't have the same inspirational punch. We used to idolize athletes who went on to become a success and came back, if only to visit the neighborhood," he recalls. For Hite and Tinsley's kids, perhaps a regular father figure — even a temporary one — will do. S

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