Who’s minding our children?

The simple words of a well-worn hymn tumbled out of the teenager’s mouth in what seemed the unlikeliest of settings — the formidable confines of the Swannanoa juvenile detention center.

“Amazing Grace,” 16-year-old Calvin sang softly, his voice taking flight with the melody. “How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, and now am found. Was blind, but now I see.”

It was easily the most poignant moment on the recent Asheville/Buncombe Child Watch Tour — an instant in time that seemingly stunned the adults on the guided tour, which plies community leaders with information and statistics about issues that affect local children.

Calvin lives at the Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center in a group residence reserved for boys who are either violent or who have committed sex crimes. His stirring voice — and his situation — reflect the hopes and fears of child advocates who can see in him both the promise and the perils of youth.

This year’s Child Watch Tour emphasized the problems caused by the dearth of after-school programs for middle-school students in Buncombe County. The annual event is organized by two local nonprofits, Children First and the Junior League of Asheville.

Earlier that March afternoon, the Child Watch bus had pulled up to the entrance of the state-run detention center, a campus of scattered institutional buildings surrounded by a tall metal fence that curls in at the top to prevent its young charges from escaping.

Though the air was mild and the sun shone brightly, the good weather did little to lighten the serious mood of the professionally dressed men and women visiting the facility.

They’d been informed that the shortage of after-school programs in Buncombe is no trifling issue. Juvenile crime peaks in the after-school hours, when millions of so-called “latchkey” children throughout the country are left on their own, according to a 1999 National PTA Background Brief. And though middle-schoolers (usually 11-14 years old) may look like little adults, they still need structured activities and supervision after school to discourage them from experimenting with drugs and sexual activity, speakers declared.

Factor in the lack of transportation and the cost of participating in those programs that are available, and many middle schoolers (especially students in the county schools) are left on their own — sometimes for hours — until a parent gets home from work.

The tour included a stop at the Asheville Middle School library, where five student panelists from two schools talked about after-school programs available to them. It also featured a visit to the state-funded SOS program operated by the YWCA of Asheville at First Presbyterian Church downtown.

By far, however, the most sobering stop was the Youth Development Center (known for years as the Juvenile Evaluation Center) on old U.S. 70 in Swannanoa.

After the bus had been admitted through the gate, the assembled adults stopped for an orientation session. The state facility houses youths ages 10 to 18 who have been convicted of crimes in the juvenile court system. Of the 200 or so the center can accommodate at the moment, about 100 are sex offenders, with another 40 or 50 considered to be violent offenders, Simmons said. The others include drug offenders and/or nonviolent boys who have committed felonies. The therapeutic programs offered at the detention center include substance-abuse treatment, mental-health counseling and anti-violence programs.

The group was then driven into the enclosure surrounding Greenwood Cottage, the maximum-security residence for young sex offenders and those who have committed violent crimes. Mountain climbers have tested the cottage’s fence to ensure that it cannot be scaled. No boy has been able to escape, Acting Director J.B. Simmons assured the 40-some men and women on the tour.

Inside Greenwood Cottage, Simmons led a small group (including state Sen. Charles Carter and District Court Judge Shirley Brown) past a collection of boys dressed in cobalt-blue jump suits who were playing cards. Adults and youths eyed one another without speaking.

In a hallway out of earshot of the youths, Simmons noted that Greenwood residents must be watched at all times; only one boy at a time may use the restrooms to make sure nobody is attacked. Youths, he said, must be locked into their individual rooms at night; some have even kicked out windows in steel doors.

An open door revealed one boy’s dingy cubicle, with stained walls and a window covered with a grate. The room’s furnishings consisted of a cot bolted to the floor and a built-in metal sink. A Bible, playing cards and an empty soda bottle were among the few possessions in sight.

“The best thing we can do is get ’em tired — work ’em, keep ’em busy,” said Simmons, describing the string of activities that fill a typical day from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Though not actually allowed, Simmons revealed that boys have given him artwork, which he keeps in his office. “I have some of the best sculpture I’ve ever seen, and it’s made out of toilet paper,” he declared.

Back on the bus, two teenagers who live in the cottage, Calvin and Jarvil, hopped on board with detention-center-staffer Ron Lytle to answer questions with the help of a cordless mike. Although nobody was forward enough to ask the teens what crimes had landed them inside, one person did ask what could have kept them from being sent to the center.

“Staying out of trouble — really listening to my mom,” answered Calvin, and Jarvil agreed.

Another question focused on their plans once they’re released. Calvin said he wanted to go back to school (Jarvil already has his GED), and Lytle pointed out that Calvin “can sing his heart out.”

That revelation put Calvin on the spot: A woman near the back of the bus asked him to sing something for the group.

After a moment, Calvin complied, launching into an a cappella bar of “Amazing Grace.”

Touched, the adults responded with explosive applause. Calvin — waving and flashing a brilliant smile — jumped off the bus with Jarvil.

“He’s still a good person,” murmured Asheville City Schools Robert L. Logan.

On the way back, Laura Williams, director of the YWCA’s SOS program, tied it all together for the tour-goers.

“We don’t have enough after-school programs to keep our kids from going in there,” she noted as the bus motored away from the Youth Development Center.

It costs an average of $53,000 annually in taxpayer dollars to house one youth at any of the state’s five detention centers, while Williams’ entire program has an annual budget of $75,000, she explained.

The tour made an impression on Logan, who noted that while athletic programs may be one of the best after-school activities available, it doesn’t meet the needs of all children. Keeping children safe to ensure their future well-being should be one of the community’s priorities, he suggested.

“We’ve got to collaborate and pull and reach back, and help others have an equal shot at prosperity,” reflected Logan.

Pat Kennerly (who co-chaired the Child Watch Tour) wrapped it up for the group by noting that a community that fails to devote resources to keeping kids out of trouble can look forward to more and more adults winding up in prison.

“We need to invest our money in our children,” Kennerly concluded simply.

[Children First is planning to reconvene participants for a roundtable discussion to brainstorm ideas for solutions to the lack of after-school programs for middle-schoolers, staffer Allison Jordan said later. For more info, call Children First at 259-9717.]

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