GARY | Understanding the culture and context in which youth violence occurs will do more than any program, research study or diagnostic approach, according to the keynote speaker at Friday’s Youth Violence Prevention Conference at Indiana University Northwest.

James Garbarino, Ph.D., a Maude C. Clarke chair in humanistic psychology at Chicago’s Loyola University, authored several books about youth violence, including “Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them.” He also serves as a scientific expert witness in criminal and civil cases involving issues of trauma, violence and children.

The Right to Peace: Have the Courage to take the Right Path conference drew hundreds of high school students and adults and was a collaboration between IU Northwest, the University Park/Glen Park Weed and Seed initiative, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Northwest Indiana, Edgewater Systems for Balanced Living, Methodist Hospitals, Community Organizations for Families and Youth, known as COFFY, and the Gary Police Department.

“Welcome, do-gooders,” Garbarino quipped as he began his talk as part of the sessions for adults. “We will start with the idea that having good intentions is not enough.”

He told the audience that unless those committed to ending youth violence were willing to “go into the area where the darkness is,” then what are called community-based programs won’t address the issues and will fail.

“It’s not a matter of programs. It’s a matter of understanding,” Garbarino said.

Children who live in environments where traumatic violence regularly occurs tend to have “a foreshortened sense of the future. It’s called terminal thinking,” he said. “Everything we want adolescents to do is future-oriented, but they don’t see a future.”

That sense of hopelessness about the future and making a difference was expressed by some teenagers attending the conference.

“It’s (youth violence) happening all over the world. It’s affected our generation, and it’s got to stop,” said Torrie Roy, 16, a sophomore at Lew Wallace High School in Gary.

“There’s killing, bullying, cyberbullying. They hide behind a keyboard and computer,” she said.

However, Roy said, “There’s nothing we can do. That’s how it is.”

Lew Wallace sophomore China Lolllis, 16, echoed those feelings.

“We can spread the word, but kids have no say in life,” she said.

“Elders. They think we don’t know nothing,” Roy said. “If we say something, we get in trouble.”

There are major contexts that affect and can foster youth violence, Garbarino said. Those include the family, neighborhood, schools and even the temperament of children as babies.

For example, only 10 percent of “easy” babies who aren’t temperamental, fussy and demanding will have serious adjustment problems while 70 percent of “difficult” babies “will have significant adjustment problems,” he said.

Add family circumstances that include unemployment, poverty and substance abuse by parents, and the children will show that aggression by age 10, the professor said.

Children who live in abusive homes will tend to repeat the patterns they know, Garbarino said.

“By age 6, these children have four ways of looking at the world,” he said. "They are hyper-sensitive to negative cues; oblivious to positive social cues; respond to all situations by hitting; and have learned that aggression is successful.

“If they develop all of these (characteristics), they are eight times more likely to develop conduct disorder,” Garbarino said. “It provides a social map.”

Boys will tend to be more violent than girls, although that is changing, “and girls are catching up,” he said. The ratio of boy versus girl violent behavior once was 10-1. It’s now 4-1, he told the audience

“The murder rate is still 90 percent boys,” Garbarino said.

Boys learn boundaries in terms of aggression from good fathers, in activities such as wrestling with their dads, he said.

“That’s why children without fathers are more likely to be aggressive,” he said.

The wild card in youth violence is the effect of trauma such as experiencing violence on developing aggression and violent behaviors, Garbarino said, adding this trauma inflicts “moral and emotional damage.”