Rash of teen carjackings shows it’s time to expand the meaning of neglect, abuse of minors

It isn’t just a bunch of 14-year-olds who are to blame. We need to be holding their parents accountable, too.

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Police Supt. David Brown on Jan. 21 addressing the rise in carjackings in Chicago.

Police Supt. David Brown on Jan. 21 addressing the rise in carjackings, including some involving teenagers, in Chicago.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

This past week, a group of 14-year-olds from the South Side and the West Side made the news for all the wrong reasons.

Among them was a 14-year-old, already on home confinement and electronic monitoring, who was arrested in connection with nine carjackings and robberies.

He is accused of carjacking a 38-year-old, female off-duty Chicago police officer Tuesday night in North Kenwood.

The police said the teenager was involved in carjackings and car thefts in Calumet Heights, Bronzeville, Chatham and Avalon Park.

Surprisingly, two of those accused in the carjackings are 14-year-old girls. The police say they put a chokehold on a man and forced him out of a car in the 3400 block of West Douglas Boulevard.

There isn’t much the police have said about the accused teens because they are juveniles and thus afforded anonymity.

So we are left to guess how these young people came to make such bad decisions — decisions that could mess them up for years to come.

Still, the first question that comes up when a juvenile is charged with a serious crime usually isn’t about the accusation. It’s along these lines, as a reader emailed me:

“I wonder where the parents are in these types of crimes involving teenagers and why DCFS doesn’t make a house call? This kid can’t be saved, I’m sorry. He’s a revolving-door criminal.”

I understand her frustration. But a 14-year-old isn’t born a criminal. And we can’t throw him away like trash.

Obviously, if a 14-year-old on home monitoring is out on the street as part of a carjacking crew, he is not being properly supervised.

In these situations, we might be asking the wrong question.

Because — and I got this from a public school teacher — there are no parents in charge in many instances.

An unfortunate teen might be homeless or live with an elderly grandparent, a distant relative or a neighborhood friend.

We no longer are talking about children being at risk because they are being raised in single-parent homes.

As a result of killings, incarceration, substance abuse, untreated mental illness and entrenched poverty, we are talking about children growing up without the presence of a mother or a father.

I don’t expect those of you who were brought up in loving homes where at least one parent took care of the day-to-day business of child-rearing to understand the impact parental losses have had on the African American community.

But the most recent demographics from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services show there are many Black teenagers in foster care. As of Dec. 31, there were 4,540 Black youth in DCFS care in Cook County — and 1,723 white youth. Between the ages of 13 and 17, there were 971 Black youth in foster care compared to 350 who are white.

We can hope that the majority of these young people are getting the nurturing they need to become functioning adults.

But what about the teens who are being raised in the streets?

What about the teens who are out all hours of the night?

What about teens like the 14-year-olds accused of being carjackers?

And when young people are allowed to run wild, should it be considered neglect and abuse on the part of their parents or guardians?

That might be the only way these caregivers can access the services they need to get their households under control.

But when I asked DCFS whether the agency is investigating the household where the 14-year-old was supposed to be on house arrest, the answer was disappointing.

“Under Illinois statute, DCFS can only open an investigation after it has received a report which alleges abuse or neglect of a child,” spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a written statement. “An arrest or criminal charge of a minor doesn’t meet the criteria for an investigation or intervention from DCFS. If law enforcement uncovers issues of abuse or neglect of a minor, they are mandated to report those issues to DCFS, at which point the department will investigate.”

It might be time to expand the meaning of “neglect and abuse.”

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