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We're more than the worst thing we’ve done: Reporting on at-risk youth in the South

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

We're more than the worst thing we’ve done: Reporting on at-risk youth in the South

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Jimmy McCullough, principal of Horry County Education Center, talks to students leaving the alternative school.
Jimmy McCullough, principal of Horry County Education Center, talks to students at the alternative school.
(Courtesy photo by Janet Morgan)

My project on the unique challenges facing at-risk youth in South Carolina was initially dubbed “No More JJs,” with a young man named Jerome Jenkins on my mind. I had spent time mentoring him years ago, others tried to help him as well, yet he ended up on South Carolina’s death row in 2019. It grieved me that he’d been born into untenable circumstances only to be given a death sentence early in his adult life. He’d grown up in a poverty-stricken household and a neighborhood where violence was common. He had suicidal thoughts as early as fourth grade and his father was in prison during most of his formative years. My grief and frustration over JJ’s fate were compounded by all I learned about the effects of toxic stress on a developing brain.

When I began my project I was also thinking about an 8-year-old girl in Conway, South Carolina. A few years earlier she had shown up late to a session of Freedom Readers, a non-profit literacy program founded by my wife. Shortly after she settled in, two uniformed police officers — with guns, batons and pepper spray attached to their belts — walked into the room. The girl asked her tutors to be excused because she had to “handle some business.” They didn’t know it, but she had witnessed a shooting earlier that day. After telling the police what she had seen, she returned to the room, sat down next to her tutor and picked up a book. Processing the violence would have to wait.

I knew there were other kids like her — children who were more likely to be questioned or punished than understood by school and criminal justice systems ill equipped to handle stress and trauma. And I knew that because they were black and living in our part of the South, these kids were often viewed through the lens of the worst things they had done. There was little to no understanding of the enormous challenges they face.

In many ways, gathering data on the obstacles and stressors facing many low-income and black kids wasn’t the most difficult part of the news-gathering process. Many sources — including this, this and this — document the stressors, their impact on health and development, and the insensitive, disproportionately harsh ways black kids are treated by the justice and education systems. 

In addition to online sources, I had well-established contacts at Harvard University, where I had been a 2014 Nieman Fellow studying how toxic stress can rewire young brains. I also plugged into sources I had developed years earlier as a journalist at a small daily paper, where I covered the criminal justice system, South Carolina’s foster care and child protection services, the school system and defense attorneys. It was tedious and slow to work through databases online and cardboard boxes of information in local education and legal offices. But it was necessary to document the particulars of child abuse and neglect cases and what happens to kids in juvenile justice detention centers. I supplemented those sources by establishing a relationship with the Stanford University researchers who developed the Opportunity Index, and colleagues at Davidson College. 

The hard part of my project was twofold: trying to get people on the ground to understand the nuance of toxic stress and its effects, and dealing with the extra layer of complexity that comes with race and crime.

While interviewing educators, people in juvenile justice and others, it became clear that many had not fully grappled with the research on toxic stress or adverse childhood experiences. I spent a good bit of time speaking with them about why the research is more solid on the macro level than the micro level. In other words, why we can make fairly solid judgments about how chronic stress influences disparate childhood outcomes that often show up in racial and economic disparities at the population level, and why we should use that information to craft better policies — but why it is difficult to draw a straight line from stress to childhood outcomes for an individual like J.J. It’s important to not go beyond what the research tells us. J.J. could be representative of what happens to children who grow up in toxic stress situations, or maybe his situation is unique in unknowable ways. When journalists fail to account for that in their questions to sources who aren’t versed in the nuance of the science, the reporting can seem more authoritative than it should and unwittingly mislead audiences. The research tells us a lot, but we must also be mindful of what it can’t tell us and make sure that uncertainty is included in our reports.

Then there’s the sticky issue of race. I’m a black journalist who has seen a handful of my brothers serve time in prison, mostly for violent crimes, and I’ve spent much of my career examining such issues. I know from first-hand experience that a major reason they ended up behind bars was because of challenges and struggles throughout our childhood. I grew up poor with several siblings in a tin can of a mobile home, with a father who beat my mother and an oldest brother who murdered a man when I was 9 years old. I’ve long feared that my reporting would unintentionally fuel racist stereotypes about black people and crime.

 I’ve also feared that my work might mislead audiences if it were used to downplay uncomfortable realities, such as the disproportionately high rates of adverse outcomes — prison, murder rates, lower levels of educational attainment, higher incidence of poor health, — among people who look like me. Those disparate outcomes are largely the result of systemic problems and patterns that sometimes are not adequately addressed in our reporting, but at times those problems have been used to minimize the complexity of life among these groups. Historical racism shaped my father’s life from birth, but his black wife bore the brunt of his resulting anguish. We must be unafraid to tell it all.

That’s why I will continue doing this work. I’m in a unique position to understand the lived experiences of those at the center of these concerns and those who want to be guided by the growing body of research on the roots of the mental health struggles of at-risk children. That research suggests the unique challenges facing these kids should be a primary factor used by educators to set policy — and by jurors deciding whether to send someone to death row.

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