At 10 years old, a girl said she learned that a drive-by shooting could become “something as average as the mailman coming to deliver mail,” because that’s how she saw other people treat it when she first moved to East St. Louis.
Later, she said she learned that signing “get well” cards or going to funerals and candlelight vigils could also become routine.
“I guess that’s what this issue stems from: those people who have to endure it are just allowing it to happen with no objections,” the girl wrote in an essay titled “The effects of violence in my community.” It was published in a report released Sept. 3 by the nonprofit Voices for Illinois Children. She was identified only by her initials, Z.S., and her home, East St. Louis.
“I am now a sophomore in high school and I’ve lost more classmates than I thought was possible,” she wrote. “... Who’s to say I won’t be the next lifeless body found on our streets?”
Voices used stories like Z.S.’s and data to show the obstacles that children face in its 2019 Illinois Kids Count Report.
The report includes recommendations for policymakers to “change children’s life trajectories,” according to Voices’ President Tasha Green Cruzat, by improving education, housing, healthcare and financial stability statewide.
Meanwhile, a group in East St. Louis has also come up with a plan to reduce youth violence and victimization with the help of kids who live in the city. It is calling on the community to “stop accepting violence as a norm.”
Their goal is that all children in East St. Louis and the nearby communities of Washington Park, Alorton and Centreville feel safe by 2025.
Plan for reducing violence
East St. Louis has the highest rate of homicides per 100,000 residents in the country, according to a Belleville News-Democrat investigation published in April.
Prosecutors would need to file charges in at least 60% of the city’s murder cases to deter future crimes, a 2003 study on East St. Louis concluded, but they aren’t coming close to that. Most of the murders in East St. Louis since 2000 — 75% — are still unsolved, according to the BND’s investigation.
East Side Aligned, the local group with a plan to reduce violence, recognizes that some young people are involved, so its plan to address the problem involves giving more kids access to preschool and, later, activities outside of school as well as behavioral health resources, jobs and leadership opportunities.
The local group is encouraging more community-oriented policing, so kids have positive interactions with law enforcement, and restorative practices to cut down on the number of kids who have an arrest or delinquent offense on their records.
It also wants to start more neighborhood beautification projects and spur economic development.
“Over the last half-century, we’ve proven our inability to prioritize our children, particularly their safety and well-being. Now is the time to build a community that is just for kids,” East Side Aligned wrote in a report to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which provided funding and guidance as the group developed its plan.
Gang activity and a lack of law enforcement resources are among the challenges for East St. Louis, according to East Side Aligned.
The group includes cooperation from police, school and community officials.
’Not every child starts off...with equal opportunities’
Voices’ data analysis revealed another challenge: disparities in socioeconomics and healthcare for people of color, who comprise more than 97% of East St. Louis’ population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The median family income in St. Clair County, for example, was about $48,000 less per year if they were black, according to Voices’ analysis of data from 2012 to 2016. They made an estimated $32,828 compared to a white family’s $81,141 estimated income.
Almost all of East St. Louis School District 189’s students are eligible for free or reduce-price lunches because of their families’ incomes.
St. Clair County had the highest rate of low-weight births in the state —10% — and most of those babies were black. That could be because most of mothers in St. Clair County who received late prenatal care or no prenatal care at all were black women, according to Voices’ report.
Newborns who weigh less than 5.5 pounds can have health complications, the report stated.
Voices also found that about 5% of the county’s black children didn’t have insurance, compared to 2.6% of white children, between 2012 and 2016.
“It should be a stark reminder that not every child starts off at birth with equal opportunities,” Voices’ president wrote in this year’s Kids Count report. “However, that does not mean that a child’s race, ethnicity, or place of birth seals his or her fate.”
Voices suggests that lawmakers continue adjusting the $15 minimum wage for inflation, increase funding to school districts and colleges and require training for doctors, including through a proposed bill from the spring session that would require medical schools in the state to offer a course on implicit bias, among other recommendations.
Read the full 2019 Illinois Kids Count Report at www.voices4kids.org.