"Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it."
That verse from Proverbs describes how Chattanooga's Violence Reduction Initiative hopes to expand its services to young people at risk of losing their futures to gangs.
Chattanooga City Council members on Tuesday heard a proposal that would add "wraparound" services for young people to the VRI's current social services network for adult gang members.
Police Chief David Roddy and Troy Rogers, public safety coordinator for the Chattanooga mayor's office, gave Chattanooga City Council members a briefing Tuesday on the proposal aimed at using positive influences to help keep youths under 18 headed in the direction of education and success rather than gangs, violence and jail.
"We've got to pivot a little bit, cut off the pipeline to the gangs," Rogers said during the council's Public Safety Committee meeting. The council held its usual Tuesday committee meetings but canceled its 6 p.m. voting session because of the weather.
Mayor Andy Berke launched the VRI in 2014 to combat gang violence. The premise is that police call in gang members and offer them a choice: renounce violence and get access to job training and a variety of social services, or stay in the life and become a target of law enforcement. Results have been mixed, but city police recently trumpeted a 35 percent decrease in gang-related shootings and a 16 percent reduction in gang-related homicides in 2017.
"That's 24 individuals that a bullet didn't impact their world ... 24 individuals that didn't bleed that day," Roddy said.
Roddy said the VRI would continue its network of services for adult gang members who want to get out of the life, but would add significant case management services for teens. Those case managers would evaluate the youngsters' home, school and social environments and try to connect them with some of the city's numerous social service organizations.
The chief said kids growing up in poverty, maybe with poor or no parenting, food insecurity and negative influences, are traumatized. They need many positive inputs in multiple areas to counteract the bad things that happen in their lives, he said.
That might be anything from praise by a teacher or coach to mental health treatment, depending on each child's circumstances. And it can't wait until adulthood, the chief said.
"It starts when they're 5, 7 years old, or when a 12-year-old is a model for an 8-year-old," Roddy said.
The proposal as outlined didn't come with a definite price tag, but the numbers mentioned in the meeting ranged from $500,000 to $600,000 for a two-year contract.
Council members had a lot of questions. Russell Gilbert said he's been trying unsuccessfully since last year to get reports on how the program has been working. He said he paid for one VRI participant to take a test that might lead to training as an electrician, but VRI officials repeatedly failed to answer his questions about what happened to that person.
Gilbert also said that success will require street cred, and doubted that Father to the Fatherless would have that standing among local gangs.
He noted the city has spent around $500,000 over the past two years on VRI social services through Father to the Fatherless and has been given no feedback on success or failure. He pressed city purchasing director Bonnie Woodward to provide all the contracts given to any VRI provider for the past three years.
Councilwoman Carol Berz, a social work professional who runs a mediation services and training company, said she loves and supports the concept but asked sharp questions about credentialing for the people who would provide the services to youth. She wanted to know if those providers would have the same professional training and credentials as the ones who work at the Child Advocacy Center and other victim-services agencies.
"Why would we give these kids any less?" Berz asked. "I want to know that from the beginning the RFP asked for the best."
She didn't get a solid answer but was promised information in a follow-up.
Roddy, Rogers and Woodmore all said they would try to deliver answers to those questions and others to council members before the scheduled vote on the proposal next week.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.
This story was corrected to accurately reflect Troy Rogers' title as public safety coordinator for the Chattanooga mayor's office. A previous version mistakenly titled him director of VRI social services provider Father to the Fatherless. Updated at 11:13 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018.