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Program Offers Grief Counseling For Kansas City Teens Affected By Homicide

(Peggy Lowe/KCUR)

There’s a hush in the community room at the Lucile H. Bluford Public Library at 30th and Prospect streets, something like the quiet in a church just before the service starts.

The two dozen folks gathered here at 6 p.m. on a Monday night in June want to hear from the four sitting as a panel in the front of the room, people that despite their young ages, have years of mourning to share.

Audrey, 17, Mantez, 16, Makala, 14, and Tanee, 14, have all lost a sibling to homicide. Rarely asked, the kids are honest when someone poses this question: what do you want the adults in your life to know?

“I’m here. Like, I’m hurting, too. It affected me in some way,” said Tanee (pronounced Ta-NAY). “Like, I’m not just going to wake up and get over it. I don’t want you in my face telling me you understand.”

Surprising and sobering, the kids talked for nearly two hours, telling the crowd that they are confused, angry, in denial and in need of healing. And that’s exactly what Alvin Brooks, Kansas City’s longtime anti-crime activist, wanted the community to hear.

Brooks’ organization, AdHocGroup Against Crime, is hoping to move beyond the public prayer vigil and offer the follow-up these kids need in the form of grief counseling. He’s contracted with four counselors who offer their services for free.

“There’s kind of a cultural thing in the African-American community that if you talk about counseling, you’re talking about ‘you’re crazy,’ talking about there’s something mentally wrong with you.,” he said. “When in fact, our society needs counseling.”

The vast majority of victims of the more than 100 homicides Kansas City averages annually are young, black men killed by guns. But this night offered the flip side of the crime map. Those red dots that mark the murders have a story behind them — younger brothers and sisters still at home and dealing with profound loss.

Heather FitzCharles-Keller, a counselor who works with AdHoc, said teens have extreme emotions which adults often don’t notice because they are doing their own mourning.

“So we may be looking for normal – quote, unquote — sadness kind of thing, tears and that kind of thing. You don’t see that in children,” FitzCharles-Keller said. “They tend to express it more as anger, acting out or withdrawing.”

Their church families have deserted them and high school teachers tell them they’ll be fine, the kids said. After the very public prayer vigil, everyone goes away, leaving them very alone.

“It’s like ‘we send a card that day. It’s over now, let’s move on,’” Audrey said of adults’ attitudes.

Credit (Peggy Lowe/KCUR)
Mantez, 16, and Audrey, 17, are siblings who have lost two brothers, one in 2008 and another in 2012.

They are confused by the crime and wonder why it isn’t solved. And they don’t understand why adults don’t do something to combat the violence.

“Do something to stop this,” Audrey said. “Do something for our youth, not just opening up clubs so they can go clubbing.”

That’s a reference to a proposed dance club for the neighborhood, said Don Lang, the lead therapist for AdHoc who works full-time as a crisis counselor at Truman Medical Center. Lang was critical of that plan.

“That’s the worst thing that they need,” Lang said. “They don’t need any more rap. They don’t need any more people gathering together showing how much they can sag.”

What needs to happen, Lang said, is to go back to the things that were successful in the past – family involvement, a true neighborhood, the ministers at the powerful churches, government programs.

“We ask questions we have answers to. It’s a matter of saying: ‘What did we do in the past to bring our community back together, that kept them together?’” he said. “It’s a matter of someone being retroactively a visionary.”

Credit (Peggy Lowe/KCUR)
Heather FitzCharles-Keller (left), one of the grief counselors, listens to Alvin Brooks, the founder of AdHoc Group Against Crime.

Brooks was there during that time, but he’s also looking forward. He wondered why it’s standard in the suburban schools to have grief counselors after a crime of violence and not in the urban schools, where there is much more violence on a daily basis.  

Brooks also wants to go into the jails and family courts and offer services there. And he wants more kids to speak out and for the community to simply listen to the children.

“The healing part is what’s here tonight,” he said. “The justice part is trying to find justice for that victim of that homicide and justice for that family.”

This look at Kansas City's neighborhoods east of Troost is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what's being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences east of Troost with KCUR.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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