After two weeks of social unrest following the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, the children of Ferguson, Missouri, began their school year on Monday. The delayed start to the academic year left the city’s youth without the structure and resources provided by the school routine, including meals students would normally receive at school. Hundreds of children gathered at the Ferguson library, where educators and library staff provided activities and a community space. But despite these moving and powerful relief efforts to feed and support the young people of Ferguson, the city’s kids will begin their academic year in the midst of a collective trauma.
“We’re on the tail end of the initial shock – the numbness is starting to wear off,” explains Angela Tate, director of clinical services at Behavioral Health Response (BHR), a local crisis hotline. “We’re in the period of any traumatic event where it’s, ‘I know I’ve been affected by what’s happened, but I’m not sure yet what support I even need because it’s just so very fresh.'” BHR is part of a network of support services under the umbrella of the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund, a fund created in 2008 after voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to provide mental health and substance abuse services to the county’s youth. Tate emphasized the significance of having such support services already in place – counseling services are established and available for Ferguson children and families to access. Beyond that, counselors are being sent out to work with school district officials and staff to prepare them for how best to support the incoming students. They even met with Ferguson-Florissant district bus drivers. “They’ll be the first folks seeing kids as they’re returning back to school,” Tate says.
In the meantime, the local United Way set up a community resource drop-in center for families, providing meals, food staples, rental and mortgage assistance, counseling services and activities for children. When it began on August 16th, roughly 300 people visited during the four hours the center was open. “From there, we assessed what the community’s needs were. We decided we can help more people, and more people needed help,” says Ashley Gammon, director of communications at the United Way of Greater St. Louis. She says the space also functioned as a safe and quiet play space for children in the midst of the noise and chaos. One of the center’s visitors was a 12-year-old boy who has been unable to sleep; he’s been sleeping in his 17-year-old sister’s bed, because he’s scared. “When the tear gas goes off, all the noise, it sounds like bombs,” Gammon explains. (The drop-in center closed after several days of operation, but United Way continues to offer outreach services in Ferguson.)
That sense of fear runs deeper than this month’s police response to protests, according to Gail Babcock of the Ferguson Youth Initiative (FYI), a youth-centered community organization. FYI held a meeting earlier in the week attended by about 35 youth. “Several talked about their encounters with police,” she says. “They feel that they’re afraid of the police, rather than feeling protected by them.” Babcock is the program director of FYI’s Community Service Program, which helps court-involved youth work to pay off court fines. When young people are brought into the court system for municipal infractions like peace disturbance or shoplifting, she says, many of them are unable to afford the fines that come along with those charges. But when they fail to pay the fine or fail to appear in court, they end up with a bench warrant. The program so far has allowed about 35 young people to work off their debt through community service and keep the charge off their record. “They’ll still be responsible and accountable,” explains Babcock, “but if you don’t have the money, you just don’t have it.”
From Babcock’s point of view, the shooting of Michael Brown and the unrest that has followed is illustrative of a much bigger problem, and not just in Ferguson. “I think this is the straw the broke the camel’s back,” she says. “There are many communities across the country where the police are not engaged with the citizens, and especially the teenagers.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Tate, who – emphasizing that this is just her personal opinion and not a professional statement – tells Rolling Stone, “I believe that this isn’t new, it’s just surfacing. This is deep-rooted within the youth and within the community, and here we see it bubbling up.”
Now the youth of Ferguson and those who support them must figure out how to move forward. “One of the things that one of the young people said that broke my heart was, ‘We need to get credit for the good things we do,'” says Babcock. It’s not only the immediate trauma that these young people need to cope with, but that which was already building, before Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. The question of restoring normalcy is a complicated one, when the status quo itself was the problem. “It’s going to be a long time before things get back to normal, whatever that is,” says Julie Leicht, interim executive director at the Children’s Service Fund. “But we’re in it for the long haul.”