The grim reality of the territorys troubled youth and the conditions their caretakers often work under were brought to light Wednesday in the Senate.
The three most unsettling facts regarding the estimated 39,000 youngsters in the territory, Dee Baecher-Brown, executive director of the Community Foundation of the V.I., told the Senate Committee on Youth and Human Services, are:
— The declining trend of children living in two-parent households.
— Approximately 41 percent of V.I. youngsters live in poverty compared to the national rate of 20 percent.
— The territorys dropout rate is approximately 22 percent twice as high as the national average.
Some of the products of those statistics the kids often end up at the Youth Rehabilitation Center in Annas Hope on St. Croix. Twenty-six young people are now being held in the aging facility. The offenses they committed range from curfew violations to rape, said Carol Battuello, director of the center.
About a dozen of the YRC wards are in for serious crimes, such as a 13-year-old who committed aggravated rape, first-degree robbery and assault, Battuello said. Another youngster is doing time for weapons charges and other assorted crimes.
The majority of the young people lack communication and social skills, and this has contributed to their being in the YRC facility.
"Were the end of the line," Battuello said. "This is not a child that has made one mistake. These are children who have suffered a lot of rejection in their life."
YRC wards and staff live and work in what Battuello described as a large "box," which makes it difficult to isolate wards who hold grudges against one another. The building was originally designed for 27 juveniles, but often houses almost twice that many on any given day.
"We need a new facility," she said. "The facility we have now is basically a box. I have no capacity to separate out youngsters."
Help is on the way, however, in the form of a new facility that will be built adjacent to the Annas Hope compound. Two 17-bed dorms will be constructed at a cost of $2 million using funds from the Law Enforcement Planning Commission. The center is expected to be completed in about a year, said Sedonie Halbert, Human Services commissioner, who is charged with managing the YRC.
Meanwhile, efforts by the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation to keep young people occupied are being hampered by a lack of funds and under-staffing. Ophelia Williams-Felix, DHPRs chief of sports and recreation on St. Croix, told senators that at least 30 recreation staffers are needed on St. Croix.
DHPR Commissioner Ira Hobson said he was worried about the impact a proposal to consolidate his department and the governments other housing agencies will have on the delivery of recreational opportunities for kids.
"One of the agencies would be responsible for all the youth programs," Hobson said. "To be able to do that, there must be inter-connection with all the departments."
Committee Chairman Vargrave Richards suggested that a single agency a youth commission be created to address issues dealing with young people. That sentiment was echoed by Sen. Adelbert Bryan, who said such a commission would keep kids out of jail.
"Its easy to lock up kids," he said.
Richards said the entire community must cooperate to ensure that young people have an opportunity at a healthy future.
"Clearly, our services to youth are fragmented and hamper successful outcomes," Richards said.