After an 11-day stretch in which 10 children were victimized by gun violence in Milwaukee, a collection of community members, law enforcement and elected officials gathered Friday to again urge parents to keep better eyes on their kids.
Outside the Boys & Girls Clubs of Milwaukee’s Sherman Park location, CEO Kathy Thornton-Bias emphasized there's space for all youth within Milwaukee to find programs — with her organization or others like Running Rebels, YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee, COA Youth and Family Centers and others.
“There’s no excuse for kids to say they don’t have a place to go because every child is welcome here,” she said, emphasizing that they serve meals every day, provide free driver’s education classes and clubs for all interests. “We have the capacity and the will and the desire and drive to serve more children.”
“Bring them somewhere, because where they are is not working. Where you have left them, where they have decided to go, where they choose to go, is not working.”
Three days earlier, Sherman Park was the site of a large fight between two groups of young people after the club closed. It escalated into a shooting that injured a 16-year-old boy, officials and community members said.
But it was just one incident among almost a dozen in the previous 11 days. Since July 17 in Milwaukee, eight children were injured in shootings — including three age 5 or younger, according to police.
Two others were killed in shootings: 9-year-old Harwinder Singh, a student at Milwaukee College Prep, according to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office, and 16-year-old Raul Rios, who loved music, dancing, singing, skateboarding and video games, his sister wrote on a GoFundMe page.
It continues yet another year of elevated child victimization at the hands of guns in Milwaukee. Fifteen have died by homicide this year, most by firearms, according to police.
No more than 10 children died by homicide in Milwaukee from 2016 through 2019. But in each of the three full years since, 20 or more have been killed, according to the Homicide Review Commission.
Children under 18 make up 16% of homicide and nonfatal shooting victims this year, compared to 7% in 2019, according to Constance Kostelac, the commission's director. There wasn't a similar increase among those ages 19 to 24.
It comes as gun violence has become the leading cause of death for children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As elevated levels of gun violence in general persist in Milwaukee, officials have said children are increasingly becoming unintended victims in shootings or are accessing firearms left out by parents in their own homes.
Other times, stolen or straw-purchased guns are sold, traded or passed around on the street, coming into the hands of teens battling poverty and trauma who use firearms to settle disputes with one another.
“Parents, guardians, people who want to carry that responsibility of firearms — be responsible,” Police Chief Jeffrey Norman said. “We give out gun locks. There are all types of gun safety programs out there. People are shooting each other because of the negligence.”
Despite the resources available right in Sherman Park, the area has had more calls for service in July than in any 30-day period over the last 2½ years, said Milwaukee County Sheriff Denita Ball, whose agency patrols county parks. Several of those calls were for shootings.
“It takes all of us, but it first takes the parents to step up and ask, ‘What are my kids doing? Who are they with?’ and just getting involved in their life,” she said.
The issues persist because many instances of violence occur after sundown, when the Boys & Girls Clubs location within Sherman Park has already closed, according to Vaun Mayes, a community activist.
His volunteer-based group, Community Task Force MKE, is frequently in the park during those after hours to give kids basketballs and footballs to play with, or music to dance to.
Mayes praised law enforcement for partnering with groups like his on coordinating safety measures. But ultimately, volunteers looking after a park is an unsustainable model, he said.
“Different things like that are barriers to being consistent,” he said.
Where to find resources for youth
City.Milwaukee.gov/Hello-Summer is a webpage listing programs, events and employment opportunities for youth in Milwaukee.
SaferCityMKE.org lists resources for behavioral and mental health care, counseling services, crisis intervention.
Milwaukee's Office of Violence Prevention also recommends these resources for free support:
- 414Life outreach and conflict mediation support: 414-439-5525.
- Milwaukee County's 24-Hour Mental Health Crisis Line: 414-257-7222.
- Milwaukee's Child Mobile Crisis and Trauma Response Team: 414-257-7621.
- National crisis text line: Text HOPELINE to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor.
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233.