For the past 10 months, a coalition of city and state agencies has been trying a new approach to one of Baltimore's most stubborn epidemics: violent crime among teen-agers.
City and state caseworkers identified 70 Baltimore teen-agers affected by the city's culture of violence and enrolled them in an experimental program, called Operation Safe Kids. The program brings together experts who try to address the multiple problems these teens face - parents in jail; drug addiction; unheated or unsafe homes; failing grades and dangerous classmates; and, often, a lack of attention from any adult other than the neighborhood drug dealer.
The youths get intensive services during the day, frequent curfew checks at night, and close monitoring by probation officers, said Dr. Peter Beilenson, the Baltimore health commissioner, who oversees Operation Safe Kids.
The initiative has won an $800,000 grant, announced yesterday, from the Charles M. Crane Foundation, a local charity that funds anti-violence efforts. The money is earmarked to expand the program to serve up to 150 youths, and put anti-violence workers on the streets and in the schools of two targeted neighborhoods. Operation Safe Kids director Catherine Fine said that planning has begun.
Other cities have similar programs, but Baltimore's is the only one that treats teen violence as a public health problem, Beilenson said.
"In this age group, homicide is the leading cause of death," Beilenson said. Nearly three-fourths of Baltimore 15- to 24-year-olds who die are homicide victims, and the overwhelming majority of these killings are drug-related, he said.
The goal is "to keep kids from being killed and to keep the kids we have from killing others," Beilenson said. "The best way to do that is to keep our kids in safe places" - in school, at after-school jobs, in stable homes and off the streets.
Operation Safe Kids enrolls young people between the ages of 12 and 17 who have been arrested at least three times for violent crimes, and live in Harlem Park on the west side or the area surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital on the east side. The program follows on the heels of the state-funded HotSpots program, which has targeted crime-ridden neighborhoods since 1997, and Operation Safe Neighborhoods.
Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said it isn't clear whether these programs have permanently reduced violence in the target areas. Five teens were killed and 18 were shot in the Operation Safe Kids neighborhoods in the first five months of this year, according to the state attorney's office.
Beilenson said one teen enrolled in Operation Safe Kids was killed this summer. It is unclear whether one death out of 70 youths is a high rate, he said, because they are a high-risk group. By other measures, the program is a success, he said, improving school attendance, increasing curfew compliance and placing more than half of the youths in summer jobs.
Mayor Martin O'Malley, who made crime fighting the focus of his 1999 election campaign and is running for re-election, announced the Crane Foundation grant. Like others who have tackled youth violence, he voiced a mixture of optimism and frustration yesterday.
"The toughest thing we've tried to do" is to draw teens away from "the drug dealers who are stealing them from us," O'Malley said. "These are Baltimore's children. If we are failing our kids, if we're burying them in record numbers, then we aren't succeeding at all."