Working to curb violence, one youth at a time

In response to the recent violence in the neighborhoods of Boston, Archbishop Seán O’Malley sent a letter to parishes on Aug. 6. He urged Catholics to pray and reach out in cooperation with other communities of faith and other organizations “to ensure peace and safety in our neighborhoods and homes.”

"As citizens of Boston and as people of faith, we must resolutely work together to see that God's gifts of light and love prevail over the dark shadows of evil and violence," he said.

More people under the age of 24 have been killed in Boston so far this year than during all of last year. Twenty-six have been killed so far, nearly double the number at this time last year, according to city and MBTA police. Law enforcement agencies — state and city police, the FBI and other federal agencies — have worked together to face the violence this summer, launching “Operation Neighborhood Shield.” But while many arrests have been made, the violence has continued.

The daunting task of stopping the violence in Boston is attacked daily, one case, one convicted criminal, one troubled youth, one person at a time. Even with the death toll mounting and violence escalating, a chain of social organizations works each day with young offenders who will one day be back on the same streets. People help in the hope of bringing a change that will lead these kids to be different adults, adults who succeed and stay out of the correctional system.

One vital link in the chain is the Catholic Church. The Archdiocese of Boston has dealt with the violence for decades. The archdiocese runs rehabilitation centers; parishes provide food, clothing, housing, schooling and prayers; and priests visit detention facilities.

One facility, the Metro Youth Service Center in Dorchester, holds 1,800 convicted minors each year, a couple hundred at any given time. Most have committed offenses such as stealing cars, drug trafficking or assault and battery. After they are sent to the center, under the Department of Youth Services, the first step is to teach these kids respect and how to deal with their problems, said Father Joseph Baggetta, the center’s full-time chaplain who has worked with DYS for 25 years.

"The first thing you need is a value system," he said. "There has to be an internal change in that person's heart."

Inside the walls of the center, Father Baggetta has a “captive audience” of around 180 boys and 50 girls. He greets them all with a warm smile and a “hello” when he walks into the room. Father Baggetta shows them respect, hoping they will learn to respect themselves, others, education and work. Once they have learned respect, the community must be prepared to help give them a chance, he said.

"If they don't value education, they're not going to go to school," but "if they don't have a place to go to school, they're going to be frustrated," he said.

This hands-on system that focuses on each individual has worked for countless youth. One boy confined several years ago came to the center and began to value himself, others and an education. He was given a chance to attend Cathedral High School on a full scholarship and graduated from college this year with a bachelor’s degree in international business, said Father Baggetta.

The Department of Youth Services is a state-run juvenile justice agency, completely separate from the Department of Corrections. Young offenders are committed by a court, and sentencing is determined by DYS. DYS has jurisdiction over them and can place them in secure detention facilities like the Metro Youth Service Center, open door facilities, foster homes or their own homes. Depending on the crime and the individual’s behavior, DYS can move them out of a detention facility or back in. Committed kids on the outside can be sent back to the center — without parent consent — if they fail to check-in daily, miss work, miss school or re-offend.

The center sets up a structured daily routine with room cleaning, schooling, counseling, religious education and fun activities. There is a girl’s and boy’s residence with a cafeteria, fitness room, bedrooms and control desk. Other self-contained areas include a school, gym, boy’s and girls’ yards and a chapel.

The chapel is a used, tan construction trailer, donated by the Knights of Columbus. It is an opportunity for the kids to leave the detention area and go to a sacred place, said Father Baggetta. Inside are stained glass windows and cultural pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the black Jesus and an Asian Madonna. Father Baggetta wants people of all ethnicities to feel welcome. Also on the wall is a picture of Jesus embracing a person with a dove above his head. It is dedicated to all the residents who have died. All the residents have seen death, said Father Baggetta.

One way to infiltrate children’s minds with a positive value system is to strengthen their faith, he said.

"The majority of kids who come into the center have faith. It's just the faith wasn't nourished," said Father Baggetta.

Father Baggetta asks each young person to fill out a religious information form after arriving at the center. They are asked what church they attend and if they want a visit from a member of that church.

All the youth are welcome at Mass. Father Bagetta celebrates daily Mass with separate services for boys and girls, and he celebrates six to nine Sunday Masses each week. He prepares Catholics for sacraments if they are interested in pursuing that, and he teaches about the faith, the love of Christ, redemption, forgiveness and hope.

The archdiocese is “assisting stopping the violence one kid at a time,” Father Baggetta said.

Father Baggetta, who came to the priesthood late in life, worked as a correctional officer in Suffolk County for many years.

He said he tells the center’s residents that on the streets, “You have to be as wise as a serpent and as gentle as a dove.”

Father Baggetta never gives up on any convicted person, but there is more hope with kids, he said.

"With kids the possibility for change is more imminent because they still dream," he said.

But the work is difficult at times when kids do not grasp the value system and frustrating when they finally do want better but there are no opportunities for them.

"The difficulty comes in with the frustration," said Father Baggetta. "The frustration is that a kid has changed, but the street hasn't changed."

In fact, the violence has increased, especially this summer.

"The violence has escalated tremendously," said Father Baggetta. "They don't feel safe on the street."

Fighting is now about weapons and power, and gangs are a major problem. At one time gangs were determined by region, but now there are “universal gangs,” which have access to any place, at any time.

"The majority of violence on the street is gang related," Father Baggeta said.

Gangs are about retaliation and hatred of other gang members, Father Baggetta said. He brings rival gang members into the chapel in hopes that they will find a common bond and mutual respect after talking with each other.

The final step is a second chance for all residents. They need opportunity, safe places to go, homes, jobs and schools. The community of faith is working together to make that happen, said Father Baggetta.

"Faith alone will not help these kids. Faith alone will not stop the violence," he said.

A living faith, a faith with good works, is needed, he added.

"The Church is the hope, the light in the darkness in the community," he said. "The Archdiocese of Boston gives all children an opportunity."

Associated Press materials contributed to this report.