Youth Justice


I begin each year with a women’s spiritual retreat at CDF-Haley Farm’s leadership development center in prayer, silence, and song seeking God’s guidance for the year ahead. Our very thoughtful retreat leader, Shannon Daley-Harris, never fails to inspire and challenge us with her Bible study and stories—and this year was no exception. She reminded us of God’s non-negotiable demand through the prophets of Israel to pursue justice for the poor and to defend the orphan and widow at a time when the word poor barely enters our political leaders’ mouths and public discourse. She also reminded us that pursue is a word demanding effort and eagerness and not just respecting or following justice. Shannon then shared the story of Victor Perez, in the news in October 2010, to illustrate what pursuing justice means.

Victor is a construction worker by trade but was unemployed for three years. He picked grapes to try to make ends meet for his family. On a fall day he was at his home in Fresno, California, talking with his cousin about a recent Amber Alert. The Amber Alert was named for Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old child who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996, and corresponds to the color of highway warning signs that are activated in Amber Alerts. This Amber Alert was for an eight-year-old girl who had been abducted in their area. As they were standing there talking, he spotted a vehicle that looked like the one in the Amber Alert.

So Victor leapt into his truck and took off in pursuit although he was nervous that the man driving the vehicle might have a weapon. Each time Victor pulled up to try to cut off the vehicle, the man protested “I don’t have no time,” and sped up to try to get away.

Victor later said, “The second time I reached him, the way he acted—yes, I was, for a split second I was nervous until I saw the little girl and all fear was out the window after that, I didn’t have no fear. I wasn’t thinking of me no more. I was just thinking we need to get that little girl to safety.” He added, “I wasn’t going to give up… I couldn’t give up.” So Victor kept pursuing him.

The abductor was pushing the little girl down as he drove, trying to hide her. Victor said, “He kept getting away. He kept going round my truck. The last time I completely said, ‘Either he crashes into me or he stops.’” Finally, on his fourth attempt, Victor forced the vehicle to stop and the abductor shoved the child out. She was saved because Victor hadn’t hesitated in his pursuit. Victor was, Shannon said, aptly named. Afterward, he humbly said, “I just felt like I was doing my part… I just felt like everybody should step up in their own communities and when something like this happens, come together and try to do your part to help out. And, you know,” Victor concluded, “I just thank God I was put in the right situation to do what I did. Thank the man above for that.”

When a child is in mortal danger, we put out an Amber Alert to tell the whole community that we are in pursuit of the child and whoever is endangering her. It is a time of utmost urgency and everyone has to get involved, to be on the lookout, and do whatever is needed to help rescue the child in danger. My spiritual retreat sisters and I believe this is an Amber—indeed Red—Alert time for millions of our nation’s poor children and that everyone in our families, communities, congregations, private and public sector life needs to be on the lookout for the child, to ensure the child’s health, safety and education, and to see that justice is done. We need to speak and stand up and protect voiceless, voteless children from being the first victims of budget assaults while the rich and powerful continue to receive huge and unfair government welfare subsidies and tax cuts they neither deserve, earned, nor need. We need to demand that all of us contribute our fair share as federal and state budgets are debated.

In this Amber Alert time, child advocates, parents, and citizens must lift up and plaster the child’s face, name, and story on telephone poles, TV, the internet, and in the newspaper in letters to the editor. In this dangerous time for our children suffering child hunger, homelessness, and poverty, it is so hard for most Americans to see the faces of all 16.4 million poor children or the four million eligible but uninsured children in need of health care, or all the children who need a spot in Head Start or child care or after school or summer programs. And it is hard to grasp the human plight of the countless faces of children who went to bed last night hungry or crying themselves to sleep in homeless shelters. But those of us who care about children have to do everything we can to help people meet just one or two and act with urgency and determination like Victor.

July 22-25, the Children’s Defense Fund is hosting its first national conference since 2003. We seek to gather more than 3,000 leading advocates for children and the poor, including 1,000 young adult leaders in Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s way past time for those of us who call ourselves child advocates to pursue justice for children and the poor with urgency and to speak and stand up now and do whatever is required to close the enormous gaps between policy and practice—now—between what we know works and what we do for our most vulnerable.

Albert Camus, speaking at a Dominican Monastery in 1948 said: “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.” He described our responsibility as human beings “if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it” and “to refuse to consent to conditions which torture innocents.” “I continue,” he said, “to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.”

So must all of us.