Only two curfew centers—officially called Youth Connection Centers—exist in the entire city of Baltimore. There is one on the east side, nestled in the heart of the Broadway East neighborhood, and another located a few miles away in the Sandtown-Winchester community on the west side. They are recreation centers by day, but on Friday and Saturday nights they become the integral tools for the enforcement of Baltimore's new strict curfew law.
Aug. 8, 2014, the day city leaders began enforcing the new curfew law, also marked the official grand opening of the curfew centers. Collington Square Recreation Center is the curfew site for the east side and the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center operates on the west side.
But a few months after the law went into effect the scene at the sites isn't exactly what you'd expect: At the east-side center, a lively group of kids that had been dropped off by family members gathered, while the west-side center was a ghost town with only a few stragglers and curfew violators brought in by an officer.
Eastside center. Friday night. Nine p.m.
"What's the matter, Robert*? Why is your face all broken down like that? You always got that sad face on when you want something," says Corey Turner, a youth connector at the east-side center. It's rare that he is called by his first name. He's sometimes referred to as Big C, Big Mac, Big Daddy, and on special occasions Mr. Turner.
"Tay has been playing the game with Mr. Chris all night and is hogging the controller," Robert cries.
Turner says young Robert comes here every weekend, ever since the youth connection center opened back in early August.
The boy, like an overwhelming majority of the kids at the east-side center, has been voluntarily dropped off by a parent or relative. Typically, the kids are dropped off at the center at 9 p.m. and picked up at about 11 p.m., 11:30 at the latest. Sometimes, curfew violators are brought in by a police officer, but that is very rare for the east-side center.
Mostly, the children play.
Robert's favorite thing to do here is play the PlayStation with his favorite person, Mr. Chris, who is one of the recreation and parks coordinators.
"Aww c'mon Little Man," Turner says to Robert, giving the boy a gentle noogie. "You know you've been playing that game ever since you got here. Why don't you give somebody else a chance,"
"It's not fair!"
"You'll be all right. Why don't you go play checkers with Mrs. Toney?"
Robert mumbles something under his breath and stomps in the direction of Mrs. Toney and the black-and-red checkerboard.
Turner moves around the room with bubbling energy as he interacts with the kids. He knows them all personally and has a few nicknames of his own for each kid. Little Man. Mini-Beyoncé. T-Mac. Thirty Cent. Miss Hollywood.
It's a small room, with bright red walls plastered with colorful posters. Tonight, 15 kids are present, ranging in ages from 6 to 15. They are a lively bunch, laughing and playing with one another. Whenever Turner steps out of the room, the kids get a little rambunctious but settle down upon his return. The center is far from the gloomy detention center it's been portrayed as by some media outlets. These kids seem comfortable and they want to be here.
"At first, when my grandmother brought me here I thought I wouldn't like it but it's actually cool," says 13-year-old Denise Jenkins. She sits on a black metal fold-out chair, hunched over, carefully reading an application for a boarding school in Pennsylvania.
"Don't pay her any mind, she's just my nosey cousin," Jenkins says, smirking. She snaps her head around and peers at her younger cousin. "First of all Denise, it's not all about money! They look at your grades too, and mine are looking good this year."
"But you not that smart, though," Smith says jokingly before running out of the room.
Jenkins' goal is to get good grades in school so that she can become a lawyer. She says she loves to debate and argue, which is one of the reasons why she is at the center every weekend.
"It's less stressful here," she says. " Somebody is always arguing at my house . . . I just come here so I won't get in any fights or trouble at home."
Children like Jenkins are the ones Councilman Brandon Scott hoped the curfew centers would reach. "It's not about rounding up thousand of teenagers but rather providing the much-needed services to families," he says.
The mission of the curfew centers is to connect youth and their families to resources and services that may be helpful to them. Turner says it's also about building positive relationships for kids that could really use a positive light in their lives. "A lot of these kids have had some traumatic experiences already—for example, being exposed to gun violence, sexual assaults, and some other violent crimes," he says. "This is definitely a great outlet for them. This is a place where they can just come and kick it. They don't have to worry about anybody coming in here to cause them any trouble or harm."
Occasionally, police bring in young people who are out on the streets too late—but that's actually rare.
"We had a few curfew violators, but that's just hit and miss," says Turner. "I think the police officers are doing a good thing by saying, 'hey I'm catching a violator and I'm taking them home.' The officer files a report and what we do is basically follow up on that report."
The center is proving to operate more as a babysitting service than anything else.
"The kids come in, we talk, they play, they eat, then they play some more, and then get picked up," says Turner. "I wouldn't advertise it as a babysitting service but essentially [it] is."
There is no set schedule of activities for the kids at the center. Sometimes they meet as a group or individually to talk with youth connectors or rec personnel. Then, they are free to engage in activities, such as arts and crafts, board games, or PlayStation. Usually around 10 p.m. staffers give the kids snacks or a packed lunch.
"The food is okay," says Smith, who was dropped off by her grandmother along with three of her cousins. "We get Lunchables, or a turkey sandwich with fruit and juice. Mrs. Toney is really nice though because she brings us cookies and candy." Smith says that she likes coming to the center because it beats staying home and being bored with nothing to do.
"How was your audition, Miss Hollywood?" Turner asks Nicole Henderson. "I would've asked you earlier but you snuck right past me."
Henderson is a 14-year-old aspiring actress. She is brought to the center by her grandmother or uncle with eight of her younger cousins. She sits quietly in a corner braiding her younger cousin's hair. Henderson had an audition with the an acting academy in Towson last week.
"It was good, Mr. C," she says. "I wasn't nervous but I think other people did better than me."
"That's good that you weren't nervous. Now you just have to have more confidence in yourself," says Turner, patting Henderson on the shoulder.
Some organizations, like the ACLU, believe that the curfew extension and youth connection centers will add to the tension between cops and the community.
Councilman Scott, on the other hand, feels that the relationship is bad but better.
"Certain people like to paint a broad stroke that every interaction with a police officer is negative," he says. "You have to look at it by a case-by-case basis. Young people and cops are going to interact. What we have to do is change the framework of the conversation."
Turner is aware of the tension between cops and the community and thinks the curfew centers will change the dynamic of youth and cop relations. "The communities are often exposed to the problematic sides of law enforcement," he says. "When an officer approaches them, that person will think, 'What did I do wrong?' I also think it is a societal thing. It's nothing we can really change with a curfew law or a few curfew centers . . . but the kids having these opportunities to interact with cops to see that they are normal regular people and they are tangible really helps them to see officers in a different light."
West side center. Friday night. Nine p.m.
An old Mary J. Blige album plays in the background as an on-site youth connector browses through e-books on her Kindle. Two recreation personnel are on the other side the room trying to get a floor buffer to power on. There's a pingpong table, some soccer balls and a basketball in a black crate, a television powered off, and some metal chairs folded up against the wall. The only thing missing in this curfew center is the kids.
"Tonight looks like it's going to be a slow night," says the youth connector as she pops a few almonds in her mouth. Beside her is a half-eaten bowl from Chipotle and a bottle of water. She has a bag next to her foot overflowing with chips, cookies, and candy which she calls her "snack bag."
But where are the kids?
"It depends," says the staffer, whose name could not be confirmed. "Some nights it's a ghost town in here and other nights we have some voluntary drops off or violator drop -offs."
Although the turnout is much different from the east side, the process for when a kid arrives at the center is much the same.
"When a kid comes in the center, first they speak with a counselor, then they are given snacks, and then they play games, watch TV, or do homework until they are picked up by their parents."
She says the traffic in the west-side center fluctuates because many parents in the community don't have reliable transportation to drop or pick their child up from the center. She calls them "walk-ins" rather than "drop-offs" because the children often come to the center by foot. Very few children are brought in by police officers; they are most often escorted back home, even on the weekends.
These "youth connection centers" are somewhat different from the old "curfew centers." The old curfew center operated out of Success Academy on North Avenue. Youth who violated curfew would be brought in by vans, evaluated by social workers, and interviewed by representatives of Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) who would look up school and truancy records.
The new centers have a fiscal budget of $195,000 that will extend until June 30, 2015 and is funded by the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, Baltimore School Police, Baltimore City Public Schools, and the Baltimore Police Department. Funding for the old centers was shared between Baltimore City Public Schools, Baltimore City School Police, BPD and the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice.
"Bringing students to the [old] center was not working because it wasn't getting families and kids together to find a better solution," says Tanya Williams, a facilitator for BCPS.
Since there was such negative feedback and criticism for the old curfew center, it made many parents and community members apprehensive about the new youth connection centers, Williams says. The skepticism of parents can be seen in the few kids that are voluntarily dropped off by parents.
"Sometimes parents get pissed off when you call them at 2 o' clock in the morning and say 'Hey, we have your child,'" says Williams. "We found that adding the aspect of kids being able to get dropped off will ease off some of that tension."
The youth connector says that the center is extremely useful in identifying kids who are in need of help.
"In the second week that the centers were open, I met a kid who was being bullied by his half-brothers at home," she says. "I was able to sit down with the boy's mother, who had no idea that the situation was that bad. We talked about some solution and family counseling centers that she could take her sons to help resolve their problems at home."
It has been an hour since the center has been open, and there still aren't any kids in sight.
At both the east-side and west-side curfew centers, there are still some wrinkles to work out. "The curfew centers are not the end-all, be-all for the executing the curfew law," says Scott. "It's just one tool of many that we have to get help to the most vulnerable kids in need."
The city eventually wants to open up more centers around the city that will operate around the clock on Fridays and Saturdays. The situation at the two current centers should dictate how and where they operate.
*Names of children at the centers have been changed since they could not be confirmed by city officials