- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2010

Five teenagers loiter behind a scarred steel door that opens on the cramped foyer of a squat, brick apartment building, one of many in a warren of public-housing complexes in Southwest Washington. Their looks are vacant but their manner is confrontational.

It’s here, in this neighborhood ravaged by unemployment, crack cocaine and violence, that the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) would condemn 19-year-old repeat offender Chicquelo Abney for the last two months of his troubled life.

On paper, perhaps, it made sense. This is the apartment where his mother lives. But something is not right. The teenagers block the path to her unit, the very same unit where in September 2009 a foot chase ended when police found a young man hiding underneath the covers in one of the bedrooms and a baggie containing seven packets of crack in the bathroom toilet.

The young men in this dimly lit foyer are more than sentries, they are emblems of poverty and desperation. One is sprawled on the stairs, smoking a cigarette and talking on a cell phone, his eyes barely open. On the trash-strewn floor is an empty yellow glassine packet - the type commonly used in the distribution of hard drugs.

“What you want?” one of the boys says.

It’s here the city’s juvenile justice agency placed Chicquelo after he returned to the District last year from a residential treatment facility in Arizona. Not surprisingly he was arrested for selling crack on a nearby street later that year. Soon after that arrest, on Oct. 12, 2009, he was shot and killed a block from his mother’s apartment during what police say was an ambush gone awry.

Like an alarming number of D.C. youths, at the time of his death, Chicquelo was officially under the supervision of the city government.

An investigation by The Washington Times found that more than one in five D.C. homicides in a recent 12-month period involved a DYRS ward, either as a victim or a suspect. The investigation involved dozens of interviews, reviews of city and court records, and the detailed examination of cases like that of Chicquelo Abney, and found that at least 14 of the city’s 130 publicly identified homicide victims between Sept. 1, 2009, and Aug. 31 were under DYRS supervision at the time they were killed.

Trends in youth-related crime rates and fatalities are shrouded in the confidentiality of juvenile court records. Yet the review by The Times also found that of the 110 people publicly identified by police or prosecutors as being arrested for or charged with homicide in the District during that same time period, at least 15 were active wards of the city. Ten additional homicide suspects had previously been detained at a juvenile jail or been under DYRS care.

The figures do not include homicides that occurred in neighboring counties for which DYRS youths have been charged or were victims.

While violent crime figures and particularly homicide rates have plummeted across the nation in the past decade, the pattern of youth killings among a population under DYRS supervision has been one of the most persistent and troubling trends in the nation’s capital in recent years.

Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said the problem is particular to the District. Other cities, like Baltimore and Philadelphia, are struggling with recidivism among a population of adult returning offenders. But in the District, where juvenile justice reform ostensibly has been under way since 2004, youths are driving a spike in violence.

And it clearly frustrates the chief.

“I can give you a profile of a kid who’s on their way to being a homicide suspect or a homicide victim very quickly,” she said, citing a mix of social factors like inattentive parenting, difficulty in school and taunting by peers, truancy and early involvement in crime.

“These are kids before the age of 15 that are telling you they’re on the way to murder,” she said.

Former federal prosecutor Robert Hildum, named interim DYRS director in July and the third to lead the agency this year, has harsh words for the agency he inherited from former director Vincent N. Schiraldi, a nationally known figure in the world of juvenile justice who just six years ago presided over a complete restructuring after the agency had become a national disgrace.

Mr. Hildum, whose future at the agency is uncertain given the upcoming change of administration in city government, discussed a review he conducted while working as a juvenile prosecutor in the city attorney general’s office of cases in which DYRS wards were accused of homicides.

“The conclusion we saw was that they were lacking in oversight, they were lacking in services. There didn’t seem to be any consequences for noncompliance. They seemed to reward noncompliance,” he said.

Mr. Hildum said some agency employees dismissed the results, telling him the 16 cases he reviewed out of the roughly 900 youths overseen by DYRS were “statistically insignificant.”

“I thought that was a horrible answer,” he said.

Statistics in waiting

DYRS is responsible for some 900 wards who have been committed or incarcerated because they were convicted of serious crimes as a juvenile. About 70 of those reside at the city’s New Beginnings Youth Development Center in the Maryland suburbs, a $46 million secure facility that replaced the infamous Oak Hill juvenile jail. Some 130 are housed in the D.C. Jail, either serving a sentence or awaiting trial. And about 200 juvenile wards of the city are housed in residential treatment facilities across the country - yet they eventually return to their communities, as Chicquelo did.

Which leaves the vast majority of DYRS wards, including youths like Chicquelo, living in agency-approved situations in the D.C. area, with family members or in group homes or halfway houses. A recent report by the District’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) outlines several reasons why that population - more than 500 youths who already have had run-ins with the police, suffer from mental disabilities or addiction, or have shown violent or self-destructive tendencies - are virtual statistics in waiting.

In its July report on DYRS operations, the OAG found that in assessing the risk factor in a youth’s life DYRS does not require “a thorough review of the facts involved in each instance in which the youth was arrested.” In Chicquelo’s case, he had been in trouble with the law in a neighborhood known for drugs and violence since he was 14.

Placement in a secure residential treatment facility indicates that a youth is a chronic violent offender or has a medical or mental health issue that requires behavioral therapy and skills training. Because DYRS does not own any such facilities other than New Beginnings, which houses less than 7 percent of the city’s committed youth, Chicquelo became one of 200 DYRS wards who were placed out of state.

The problem, according to the OAG report, is that DYRS appears to adhere to arbitrary limits as to how long it will keep a youth in residential treatment. “Little consideration is given to the violent nature of a crime, criminal history, family resources (or lack thereof) or likelihood of rehabilitation,” the report states.

Perhaps more alarming is that the OAG report cites a general refusal on the part of DYRS to look into each case and “to consider the facts of a youth’s criminal history” before making a decision about placement outside a secure facility: “DYRS procedures and practices favor release to the community without regard to the youth’s needs, prior criminal acts or potential for re-offending.”

‘They fell in love with him.’

To those who knew him, Chicquelo was an even-tempered, well-liked youth. He wasn’t the type to initiate a conversation, but he was not one to shy away either.

Chicquelo’s Pop Warner football coaches recall that he took his performance on the field - and his appearance - seriously. The coaches say that while in Queen Creek, Ariz., at Canyon State Academy, he was getting the help he needed, working toward a high school degree and excelling in football and track. “The Arizona people didn’t want him to leave,” said Benning Terrace Soldiers football coach Curtis “Coach Peedy” Monroe. “They fell in love with him.”

By the time he returned to D.C., Chicquelo had sprouted up to well over 6 feet tall.

“We always predicted he’d be the first from our first crop of kids to go somewhere,” added Roger “Coach Rog” Marshall, executive director of the Benning Terrace Community Empowerment Initiative. Coach Rog smiled as he recalled ‘Quelo’s swagger, and the way he fashioned sweatbands to emulate pro football players. “He dressed the part and had a little way about him.”

Chicquelo was discharged from Canyon State in early 2009 after a two-year stay. His mother said officials hoped for him to stay on and transition into a counselor role. Back in D.C., he lived for several months in a group home and attended classes at Alternative Solutions for Youth, a community-based program that offers special education as a means toward least-restrictive placement.

After a period of time during which he was permitted to come home on weekends, Chicquelo was allowed in August to return home for good. He was making progress, said Clinton Murchison, a mentor to Chicquelo with Youth Advocate Programs, a Pennsylvania-based company that contracts with DYRS. “He was trying to feel his way back into society,” Mr. Murchison said. “He was eager to learn, and I was encouraging him to make new friends.”

Though Chicquelo had graduated from Canyon State Academy, handled living in a group home and was by then enrolled in night classes at Ballou Stay Senior High School, he still faced a major challenge in that he was living in a neighborhood where young men deal drugs on street corners, in a maze of rear alleys and in the foyers of apartment buildings like the one where his mother lives.

If his situation wasn’t tenuous enough, Youth Advocate Programs had its contract terminated and was forced to turn its cases over to one of two agencies selected by DYRS. “I was in the process of trying to get him into an independent living program because his mother was concerned about the neighborhood,” Mr. Murchison said. “But once we turned over the contract, we had no official contact with the youth.”

From there, Chicquelo’s story is hardly unpredictable.

Court records show that shortly after Chicquelo returned home full time, he was arrested, on Aug. 18, 2009, when police stopped him on his bicycle for blocking traffic in the 1300 block of Delaware Avenue in Southwest D.C. Chicquelo fled, the records state, and police observed him trying to discard a clear plastic baggie containing 27 smaller Ziploc baggies of crack. He also had $112 cash.

He was less than two blocks from his mother’s apartment, where he was supposed to be under DYRS supervision.

A would-be wake-up call

Being charged with a drug crime at that stage might have been a wake-up call for Chicquelo, or it might have led to consequences imposed by a DYRS case manager. But according to court records, on Oct. 12, 2009, with a court date looming just four days away, Chicquelo and a 21-year-old named Curtis Waldron, armed with guns, approached a neighborhood youth in the rear alley of a unit about a block and a half from the apartment belonging to Chicquelo’s mother, LaVonne Abney. (The Times is withholding the youth’s name because police consider him a witness to a crime.)

A police affidavit states that Chicquelo, wearing a black skullcap, and Waldron both began shooting at the youth, who was hit between the neck and the shoulder, but nonetheless was able to grab a gun and fire back. His bullet struck Chicquelo in the torso. Chicquelo and Waldron then ran from the scene. Though Waldron “made good his escape,” according to the affidavit, police found Chicquelo on the ground in a rear alley less than a block away. He was pronounced dead at George Washington University Hospital.

The police affidavit states the bullet that killed Chicquelo was fired in self-defense, and the youth who fired the shot, who had charges pending against him and was under a court warning against possessing a gun, was not charged.

Waldron was later charged with felony murder for causing Chicquelo’s death. On Sept. 1, he pleaded guilty to assault with intent to kill and gun possession - and was committed “for observation and study” by the D.C. Department of Corrections under the Youth Rehabilitation Act.

Standing on a city-renovated football field that serves as the home of the Benning Terrace Soldiers, Coach Peedy, who had his own time in the streets, grimaces at the thought of visiting the crime scene. Turns out he grew up with Chicquelo’s father, Samuel Howerton, who was murdered before he reached his 18th birthday, while Chicquelo was just a toddler.

Coach Peedy was among the first to hear that Chicquelo had been shot. “I was probably 40 yards away,” he said. “I live right near where it happened. Someone came and told me and I went over and saw the yellow tape. I hoped he’d make it.”

The coach said he has learned to tell when he is losing a youth to the streets. “Lack of commitment, lack of focus, they don’t want to practice,” he said. “If they miss a game, you know they’re gone.”

Despite Chicquelo’s problems, his coaches never saw those signs in him. “If he made a mistake and came out of the game he’d apologize and promise to do better,” Coach Peedy recalled.

The central dilemma

DYRS policy is to not comment on individual cases or circumstances. But Mr. Hildum said in general he was alarmed at the lack of standards for determining when a youth is ready to transition out of residential treatment.

“The system might look at two years of detention and say it was enough, but what was the quality of the detention?” he said, noting that too frequently a return to the community from an out-of-state facility was for “arbitrary” reasons.

Once youth are placed back in the community, Mr. Hildum said he was concerned about the general lack of adequate services or supervision. “People at DYRS assign a third-party monitor almost as a means of ensuring they can’t get blamed for something that goes wrong.”

Older teenagers pose the most significant challenges, he added, because group homes won’t take them and they cannot be forced to go to school. “They age out,” he said. “It’s a programming failure. If we miss the opportunity to connect with them when they are 15 or younger, it’s harder to get through to them later.”

One afternoon in October, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, who created a Juvenile Crime Task Force and represents LaVonne Abney’s district, paused while visiting a Barracks Row bicycle shop where he was getting a flat tire repaired to discuss the challenges facing DYRS.

His first impulse was to point out that “it makes sense that the ones who are in trouble are going to commit new crimes.”

But regardless of how the bureaucracy comes to institutional acceptance of certain outcomes, Mr. Wells homed in on what he sees as the central dilemma for DYRS: “Can we get these kids to make different choices? Or, can we alter their environment? That’s what it comes down to.”

In Chicquelo Abney’s case, neither happened.

‘Something’s got to give.’

On a crystal clear October day, exactly one year from the day Chicquelo was killed, LaVonne Abney and Ruth Wheeler, Chicquelo’s grandmother, are trying to find his grave site at National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover. They are joined by LaVonne’s friend, James, and niece, Leshawn. In the distance, a bright orange sun is going down over the Washington Monument. From their hillside view, they also can see FedEx Field, where the Redskins play football. It’s a beautiful scene with one major drawback: After a year’s time, the cemetery still has not placed so much as a temporary marker on Chicquelo’s grave.

A representative of the cemetery arrives and hands Mrs. Wheeler a small white flag attached to a length of wire, so she can mark the grave once it is located.

Mrs. Wheeler raised six children, owns her house in Anacostia, and works in food services at Georgetown University. From her viewpoint, Chicquelo was left to a dangerous environment at a critical time in his life. “Bullets went through that apartment he was living in,” she said. “They needed to get out of there.”

She’s also worried about her daughter, LaVonne, who had Chicquelo when she was just a child herself, and who hasn’t had a stable job in years. LaVonne is still distraught over Chicquelo’s death, and these days she spends most of her time in her apartment, trying to avoid the neighborhood she has lived in for close to nine years.

Now Chicquelo’s little brother, Javon, is in trouble, too, with a custody order out on him for failure to appear in juvenile court to answer to a drug charge. Javon just turned 18. “They’re not even trying to find him,” Mrs. Wheeler said. “They’re just waiting for him to do something, then they’ll lock him up, too.”

LaVonne Abney said she has been unable to get Javon to turn himself in. “I try to tell him that something’s got to give. I’m not trying to lose another child to the streets.”