Community Viewpoint

Long IslandThank Failed Leadership For Long Island’s Gang Problem
Dear Editor:

Violence, drugs, killings. These are all words that come to families’ minds when they think of some schools in Suffolk County. As a retired Family Court Judge, it is disturbing to know some parents are afraid to send their children to school because of the out of control gang violence. Schools are sometimes the only places children feel safe and an education is often the only path to success for lower income families. So how is it that our schools became so unsafe?
Starting in 2014, I began to notice a huge increase in the number of guardianship applications we were getting in Family Court for children who had no parents. The count went from a few dozen a year to almost 4000 overnight. Most of these children were “unaccompanied minors” fleeing from violence in Central America. They crossed the Mexican border and surrendered to INS who transported them to Long Island. Many of the people who came forward to take these children were relatives who welcomed them to caring homes where they were raised beside their cousins and brothers and sisters. Others were not so lucky.
And yet, faced with this crisis, the County did not mount a task force to face it – there was a lack of vision that could have protected these minors from the vultures that preyed on them.
Traditionally when a stranger or a more distant relative seeks guardianship of a child, we like to investigate the situation a little closer. However, with 4000 new applicants, the Suffolk County Probation Department was overwhelmed. People stepped forward claiming to be from church groups or distant relatives or friends of the family. But we were not given the time or the resources to thoroughly investigate that or the resources to check up on these kids once they were placed.
Were they still living with these families, going to school and working, or were they picked up outside the court house door by MS13 recruiters? We don’t know. It was all handled so poorly that we’re just now coming out of the dark.
When you have children without parents, especially teenagers, we all know they need a lot of special guidance. They need school, after school activities, and they need someone to check up on who they’re socializing with. This is the role of a parent or responsible guardian. Successful children do not raise themselves. Yet thousands of unaccompanied minors found themselves doing just that.
Suffolk County was one of the top five United States counties accepting unaccompanied minors, without any task force or any true oversight. The result? MS13 quickly took advantage of this situation and recruited in large numbers throughout Suffolk County.
I think that we all know that when there is a vacuum– something rushes in to fill it. In this case, it appears that MS-13; a violent youth gang, was more than happy to fill that void. Furthermore, it appears that seeing the early success in discharging unsupervised kids into the streets, they may have gotten involved at the other end of the pipeline, feeding their members through the unaccompanied minors program up to Suffolk County.
When will Suffolk County leadership wake up and realize we cannot ignore our youth? When there is a crisis such as the resettlement of 4000 refugee children, we can’t just callously push them through the system. There are consequences. Like Suffolk County now being known throughout the country as a gang-infested community. Our President described it as a “killing field.”
Seven of the MS13 members arrested for murdering two American high school girls were part of this program, according to federal authorities. This is a terrible price to pay because the Bellone Administration did not hire enough probation officers, youth counselors and soccer coaches to make sure that these kids were not recruited by gangs. They did not ask ICE to come in and monitor kids until they were sure they were settled in appropriate situations.
The courts and the police force can only do so much to deal with social problems. We need to deal with these problems before they become police problems.
In May 2017, our Police Commissioner Tim Sini went to Congress to ask for youth programs and other resources to meet this challenge. He should have made this request in 2014 when he was Deputy County Executive in charge of Public Safety, it could have saved lives. Today, it will be like putting a band aid on a tumor.
Hon. David R. Freundlich
Supervising Judge of the
Suffolk County Family Court

Filed in: Community Viewpoint

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