d.h.-dawkins_web.jpgEDITOR’S NOTE: The Southern Poverty Law Center’s juvenile justice advocacy component has launched a project titled “From the Pulpit” in which pastors describe their experiences and those of their  members in dealing with the juvenile justice system. The following is one in a series of “letters to the editor” from these pastors.

If we don't stand up for children, then we don't stand for much. – Marian Wright Edelman. As the senior pastor of Praise Tabernacle International, a multi-cultural, multi-generational family-oriented ministry in Plantation, I have the awesome privilege of serving families in our church and surrounding communities.

I am also passionately involved in community programs and concerns to help improve the quality of life for our surrounding communities.

Within the past year, I had to deal with a heart-wrenching situation that directly affected the church that I pastor.  The mother of one of the young men in the church made me aware of the fact that her son, who was detained in a juvenile center program, was being maltreated and malnourished. 

It was to the point that he had been noticeably losing a large amount of weight and needed medical attention which wasn’t given in a timely manner.

This opened up a larger issue than we had imagined.  Several other families had sons and daughters in facilities who were being physically, sexually, emotionally and mentally abused.  Parents came asking for help; other ministers and I realized this was an issue we had to take on. And that we have begun. A coalition of ministers and pastors hailing from Miami-Dade and Broward counties have come together to amplify the voice of the families of these maltreated adolescents.

We are strengthening our partnerships to include other churches and organizations because we believe that churches and community organizations are the proper entities to save and mentor youth while providing an alternative to incarceration.  The faith based community is primed to offer better quality and cost-effective services.

Now, while we do not condone destructive, criminal behavior, we also cannot condone abuse and maltreating another human being.  The punishment of separating adolescents from the freedom they once had with their families and peers is the beginning of needed consequences.  However, exposing them to criminal-like behavior in a system that should be rehabilitating, correcting and training them to be restored to their communities is only making matters worse.

Many of our communities’ children go into these facilities with negative behavior and come out worse, due to the treatment of some of the staff, among other things.  The truth of the matter is that if a parent were caught treating their child the way that some of these facilities are treating the detainees, the government would take the child away from the family.

However, the government is funding these facilities when they could be funding other organizations that would implement preventive and restorative programs for many of these children, as well as holding each facility accountable to a higher and more consistent standard than what they are doing now.

I have sent invitations to many state officials and elected officials, including Wansley Walters, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, and have not had any direct responses.  It appears that unless it is one of their children who is maltreated, the issue is not paramount to them.

We have had press conferences, rallies, meetings, dinners and other functions to bring awareness to the atrocities that are happening to many of our children. What will it take for those of us who have the responsibility to fight for our families to speak and act according to our beliefs of freedom, justice, and humanitarianism?

Every community is represented among those who have fallen prey to negative peer pressure, gang involvement, destructive behavior and criminal activity but these cases should not cause us to be silent concerning the solutions.

Let’s do what our forefathers did and cause change.  We can talk about it, sing about it, preach and pray about it but if we don’t do anything, then we have given up on making progress and augmenting a generation and have settled for complaining, griping and criticizing. Join me in doing something about this generation’s plight.

There are youth in our community who need to see that there is a community behind them that can show up and advocate for them, especially when they are trying to do something positive. It will be beneficial for you to hear directly from some of our community leaders, youth and family members of those affected by some of the things mentioned in this article.

I would like for you to stay tuned for upcoming events centered on this initiative so you can be informed and possibly involved.

The Rev. D.H. Dawkins is senior pastor of Praise Tabernacle International in Plantation. He may be reached at 954-792-0367 or by visiting www.praiseti.org