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Roca workers race against the clock to change violent Baltimore boys

Roca,s an anti-violence intervention program targeting young men, has arrived in Baltimore. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

A report by the Roca organization on its first six months in Baltimore reveals how persistence, a key ingredient of the program, might pay off. It also shows how hard it is to pull young men out of the cycle of criminality that puts them at high risk of death.

And it confirms, in part, why Baltimore continues to see so much violence — young men, psychologically damaged and caught up in drug dealing and armed gangs, too often make impulsive and deadly choices.

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Since summer, two young men targeted for Roca’s intervention were murdered before the program could reach them. They were among 138 teens and young adults, 16 to 24 years old, who were referred to Roca by police, probation officers and juvenile services. Their life stories and criminal records suggest a high risk of being killed or killing someone else, or at least being arrested again.

At Roca, the idea is to reach them, gain their confidence and offer them therapy, life skills and a minimum-wage job with a work crew. But, as program founder Molly Baldwin said in my Feb. 24 column, it’s a race against the clock.

In one case, a youth worker made 10 tries to meet with a young man on the at-risk list but was never able to connect with him. (About 20 percent of Roca’s targeted youth are either homeless or something close to it.) The young man’s sister called to report his death and to thank Roca for its efforts.

Four other young men were shot. They survived their wounds, have since enrolled in the program and have been on the receiving end of Roca’s brand of therapy.

It’s the story of a gunshot survivor — identified in the report only by his first name, Dave — that shows how tough the work of intervention can be and, if Baltimore is ever to get out of its current epoch of violence, how important.

Dave came as a referral from police in the Western District. He was the son of a drug-addicted woman who gave him up at birth; his father was never around. A great-aunt adopted him. He was first arrested at 11 and dropped out of school in ninth grade. At 20 years old, he was part of a drug crew, committing robberies and using drugs. He was emotionally damaged and struggled with abandonment issues from childhood. He had little work experience — just two jobs, the longest lasting less than 60 days.

After some resistance, Dave enrolled in Roca late last summer but apparently was not happy. He fell asleep in class and “struggled with emotional regulation.” That’s a common problem among boys like Dave, Baldwin says. It’s one of the reasons they get into so much trouble.

“Consistently negative attitude” and “extreme difficulty managing anger” are two descriptions in the Roca report for another young man, a 21-year-old member of a drug gang named Billy. When Roca had to fire him from a work crew, Billy exploded, breaking a window, yelling, threatening to kill staff and storming out of the building.

“About an hour later,” the report says, “he returned in tears, remorseful and apologetic. He explained the pressures on him, how he does not feel safe in his community and constantly worries that he will be killed. He remained in the building that day for about four hours, helping to clean up the mess he had made and engaging with staff who welcomed him back.”

Roca also had to fire Dave because he was too often a no-show for work. He went back to the street. But his youth worker was persistent and went after him, eventually pulling Dave back to the program. “While still displaying a poor attitude,” the Roca report says, “he regularly arrived by 7:15 am to earn bench days in order to earn another spot on the [work] crew. Three weeks later, he earned another slot on the crew.”

Despite the progress, Dave still had troubles, including this: In December, he was shot six times, including wounds to a hip and his knees. “While he is expected to walk again, he has a long road to recovery and we will be supporting him throughout that experience,” the Roca report says. “While Dave has experienced progress and change for the better ... in the landscape of a city as violent as Baltimore, when a young person experiences relapse, it is an unfortunate reality that that could result in serious consequences.”

The report thinks it will take a year to 18 months before Roca sees a change in behavior that sticks — that is, Dave getting to work on time, completing 60 consecutive days on the job, and no longer at-risk of being either victim or perpetrator of violence in Baltimore. The report predicts three to five more setbacks before Dave gets to that place. It’s what Roca expects, and why persistence is part of the program.

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