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HomeNewsArchivesPoverty Leads to Family Problems, Violence, Speakers Agree

Poverty Leads to Family Problems, Violence, Speakers Agree

March 3, 2007 — Speakers at a roundtable discussion on Saturday agreed that poverty is the single greatest threat to the family structure in the Virgin Islands and the root cause of a host of other problems, such as juvenile delinquency and domestic violence.
Territory wide, 35.1 percent of children live in poverty and 40 percent live with a single parent, said Verna Garcia, outreach director for the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, which releases Kids Count statistics annually.
"One out of every three children live with a family with an income below the national poverty level," said Garcia, one of several speakers at the event, titled "Creating a Blueprint for Survival." The roundtable discussion, which sought to identify issues shaping the aspects of family structure in the Virgin Islands, took place at Gertrude's Restaurant. The V.I. Commission on the Status of Woman and V.I. Perinatal co-sponsored the event.
"Poverty impacts school success, employability and the ability to earn a higher income," Garcia said. As she spoke, several students in attendance as part of the Choices and Challenges program nodded in agreement. Their nods grew more emphatic when the keynote speaker, Superior Court Judge Patricia D. Steele, started making points.
"I can tell you that 100 percent of the abused and neglected children under the protection of my court come from single-parent households," she said. "In two-parent households, we found that there was generally 100-percent compliance with the court's orders."
Steele has presided over cases involving family since taking the bench in 1994 in what was then Territorial Court. Community leaders should meet to resolve issues affecting family life, because issues such as juvenile delinquency, domestic violence and abuse and neglect are "community problems," she said. Her list of those community leaders included judges, law-enforcement officers, educators, prosecutors and advocates for victims and children, as well as the Legislature.
"How do we begin to reverse these trends?" she asked. "We all need to convene regularly and work together on juvenile delinquency, abuse and neglect and domestic violence."
And parents must also do their part, she said.
"Parents need to be held accountable for their children," Steele said, before pausing to repeat the sentence. "Too many parents see no correlation between their behavior and that of their children."
For example, she said, many of the children who come before her with behavioral problems grew up in households where physical and emotional abuse are commonplace. Thus, domestic violence must be addressed more aggressively, she said.
"Too many children are growing up in homes where physical and emotional abuse are the order of the day," Steele said. "Young boys grow up to be abusive men and lose respect for their mothers, who were victims of domestic violence, and young girls grow up to believe that abuse is just one of those things that comes with being a woman."
Community organizations and government officials have lauded Steele for presiding over family issues in the court since taking the bench, resulting in her being more familiar with family issues that may result in juvenile delinquency. Until a permanent judge was named on St. Thomas last year, judges there had routinely rotated, presiding over criminal and family cases.
"Fathers need to play an active role in the rearing of their children," Steele said, to quiet applause. Even though most in the audience were women, the applause got louder when she added that fathers are usually bashed for not doing their duty, but that often they try to do the right thing.
"Mothers can no longer make it impossible for them to do so," she said, to more applause. One of the most-heard excuses in court from mothers who have kept their children from their fathers, Steele said, is: "I don't want the new girlfriend to hold my child."
On Saturday, many listened carefully as Steele shed light on the issues she deals with in court, including Acting Governor Gregory R. Francis and his wife, Cheryl; Sonya Boyce, chairperson of the V.I. Commission on Women; and Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson.
Boyce later thanked Steele for "coming off the bench" to discuss family issues.
In brief opening remarks, Francis said that both he and Gov. John deJongh Jr. strongly support the V.I. Commission on Women and they recognize that, while times have changed, some of the things that worked long ago can work again.
Francis said that both he and his wife were raised by single parents, but growing up their lives include extended family — grandparents and godparents.
A godparent's role, he said, should not be just about purchasing gifts, but serving as an extended member of the family so that a parent can call on that person in time of need.
"We are proof that it takes a village to raise a child," he said.
The link between poverty, education and income earning ability can be overcome, Steele said.
"I review 100 to 125 child-support cases each month," she said. "Those fathers who pay nothing lack the education or social skills to enter into the work force." A lack of education usually translates into no jobs, or a job where the wage earner cannot earn a competitive salary.
Steele advocated having effective family planning introduced in high schools, so teenagers know that such things as education and employability are keys to a successful family structure. She also advocates taking programs that would benefit families to communities.
As an example, she said, that if a program on parenting were held in a housing community, there would be no excuses for residents not coming.
"They can't say, 'I don't have transportation,' or, 'I cannot leave my child alone,'" she said.
In addition, Steele said, the time has come to open a youth rehabilitation center in the St. Thomas-St. John district.
"We can no longer afford to send children from St. Thomas and St. John to St. Croix for treatment, where the family cannot afford to come over and be a part of that process," she said, referring to delinquents who get sent to the Youth Rehabilitation Center (YRC) in Anna's Hope.
In order for the YRC process to be successful, parents need to be part of the process, she said. Often parents cannot afford the costs of a visit, which may include hotel, ground transportation and airfare, she said.
Jene Walcott, a 16-year-old sophomore at Central High School, was among 20 students between the ages of 15 and 18 in attendance. They were members of the group Choices and Challenges, a Saturday program designed to encourage higher-educational career aspirations, among others, in the teens, and a joint effort between the V.I. Commission on the Status of Women and Business and Professional Women.
Many of her peers no longer see education as the key to success, Walcott said.
"They feel some of the teachers have attitudes and don't spend time trying to teach them," she said. "Some of them drop out so they can attend night school, because they can finish faster. They work during the day and go to school at night."
Those who must work by day do so because they are teenagers with children, according to Walcott, who aspires to be a pharmacist.
"I try to tell them to stay in school, but they don't listen," she said. "Like the judge said, a lot of them who can't pay child support can't because they don't have money, and if they don't have a good education, they can't get a good job."
Ernie Ritter, a 15-year-old sophomore at Educational Complex, hopes to become a mechanical engineer.
"The people I know who drop out figure school is hard," he said. "A lot of them have problems with the teachers not spending time on th
e subjects. Some of them skip classes and they get thrown out. They want to stay, but a lot of it has to do with the teachers — they just can't give up so easy on the youths."
Talif Nurse, also 15, believes that too many of his peers are choosing to go down the wrong path.
"The students are doing this to themselves," he said. "They follow their peers in school, and they don’t keep their head in their school work. We can't expect the teachers to do for us if we don't want to do for ourselves. They know if you don't do good in school, you don't do good in life."
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