The statistics are horrendous. Black youth, ages 10 to 16, represent only 38 percent of the state’s population in that age group. Yet, according to the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice, in 2004-2005 that 38 percent accounted for 58 percent of juvenile arrests, 60 percent of youths in detention, and 69 percent of youths in correctional institutions.
Among sociologists and criminologists, this statistical disparity is called disproportionate minority contact, or DMC. For Terry Davenport, it is far more personal.
Two years ago, she and her husband were about to despair for their 15-year-old son, Miles. For the first 13 or 14 years of his life, he had been a bright and well-behaved youngster who made good grades. As he reached his teen years, his behavior began to change. The toxic influence of black popular culture began to affect his behavior. He lost interest in his studies. He began acting out at home and at school.
“He said he didn’t want to be a Huxtable kid,” Davenport said, referring to the squeaky clean, middle-class kids on the old Bill Cosby television show.
She and her husband tried everything to reach him — love, reason, faith — but nothing worked. “I was ashamed of what was happening to my family,” she said. “I told myself, ‘We’re not that kind of family. What was wrong with us?'”
Finally, after an incident which frightened Davenport and her husband, they realized this was more than they could handle. To protect themselves and Miles, they took out a warrant and had him arrested and consigned to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
“It was all we could think of to do,” she said, tears almost coming to her eyes. “I was tired of wallowing in my misery and shame. We had to act.”
The court sent Miles to the sprawling Department of Juvenile Justice facility outside Columbia for 90 days, subject to release after 60 days of good behavior. Davenport and her husband visited him regularly during his incarceration. Shortly before his 60 days were up, Miles got into a “verbal altercation” with another youth and lost his “good time” early release.
She visited him shortly after that incident and, as she prepared to leave him there, she could see how frightened and depressed he was. She put her arms around him and asked him to repeat these words: “This world will not consume me.”
“The words simply came to me,” she said. “It was all that I could think of. It was all that I had to give him. I told him to take those words with him and repeat them over and over to himself.”
That was two years ago. Terry Davenport’s son is back home now, happy and well, and he seems to be back on track. But Davenport was irrevocably changed by the experience.
“We felt so overwhelmed by the whole experience,” she told me. “My husband and I have college educations. We could afford a lawyer. We understood how to work through a bureaucracy. And still we were just overwhelmed by it all.”
Out of this experience, Davenport founded Justice Academy USA, which provides information and resources to families in an effort to help young people stay free from a life of crime and out of the criminal justice system.
“We know what the enemies of young people are in our community,” she said. “They are drugs, gangs, teen pregnancy, poverty, and a lack of education. But how can they avoid these traps that will destroy their lives?”
To share her experience and her hard-won knowledge, Davenport organized the 2009 Youth Empowerment Summit at Burke High School last August. Nearly 500 young people and their parents went through a day-long boot camp featuring lectures from lawyers, professors, social workers, and others about the hard facts of life and the law. Speakers included Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen and Charleston County Superintendent of Education Nancy McGinley. Sponsored by the Justice Academy USA and the Children’s Law Center of the University of South Carolina, the summit was the first of four that Davenport plans to put on around the state over the next several months. Her summits are convened under the trademarked theme, “This World Will Not Consume Me.”
Terry Davenport is one of the most impressive people I have met in a long time. A community liaison director for Select Health of South Carolina, she has a vision and the skills to make it happen.
This state’s burgeoning prison population, failed schools, and rising unemployment are a testament to generations of bankrupt leadership. It is too much to hope that our politicians could ever lead us out of this morass. But Terry Davenport gives me hope that someone out there might cut this Gordian knot and set us all free.