By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — It started out with her 15-year-old daughter hanging out and not going to school. And then she began staying out all night.
Sabrena Hutson, an HIV social service worker, knew that her daughter was headed for trouble. But everything she tried to do to get her daughter on the right track failed, so she said she reached out to the Administration for Children's Services for help.
"I asked what can I do as a parent who has tried everything. I said if you can't help me, then direct me to someplace that could," said Hutson.
But she said her daughter was not considered a serious enough problem to qualify for help. Not long afterward, her 15-year-old was arrested for fighting. Now, the court has begun to provide the type of supervision and help she was looking for.
Hutson was one of dozens of parents who came to Tuesday night's emergency meeting organized by the Harlem Clergy and Community Leaders Coalition. Parents took advantage of the meeting to vent their frustrations, learn how to spot signs of gang activity, connect with community-based organizations and come up with ways to stop the violence.
"I'm the parent of an out-of-control teen," Hutson told the crowd. "I'm here today because I don't want to lose my daughter to the street," she added as she nearly broke down in tears.
Parents like Hutson have cause for concern. Over the last three years, the gang problem in Harlem and upper Manhattan has grown tremendously, said Lt. Kevin O'Connor of Manhattan North’s gang intelligence unit.
As DNAinfo reported, more than two dozen youth gangs are now claiming territory in Manhattan and pulling triggers over petty rivalries. In 2007, there were only about 20 crews. Today, there are about 40 spread across upper Manhattan, and gangs have recruited more than 1,000 members, O'Connor said.
He displayed a map, similar to an interactive version created by DNAinfo last year, outlining the different streets of Harlem that were associated with various crews with acronym names like ABM, or All About Money, located at the Jefferson Houses on E. 112th St. MAB, or Madison Avenue Boys, are based at the Taft Houses. O'Connor also showed pictures taken off the Internet of teen members of these crews posing with semi-automatic handguns and rifles.
In the 32nd precinct, where a number of these crews are located, the statistics show the challenges this year. There have been 37 shooting victims in the precinct so far this year, up from 25 victims this time last year.
There have been the same number of murders so far this year as last year, however police have only made arrests in two of those cases this year, compared to six arrests by this time last year.
In addition, gang arrests in the area are down 40.5 percent, according to police.
The petty beefs between these crews and the back-and-forth retaliations have residents caught in the crossfire and parents like Hutson concerned that her daughter will be the next victim.
"I don't always know where my daughter is. When I hear about a young girl getting shot I have to wait until I hear a name," said Hutson.
Spurred on by an increase in gang activity, dozens of Harlem parents said they would form a network to alert one another of potential conflicts and then take to the streets to help prevent gang violence.
It's a formula that the Rev. Vernon Williams of Perfect Peace Ministry has been using for three years now to help break up fights and prevent violence from escalating.
"Your friend's kids and your kids are out fighting one another. We have to get the parents to join together," Williams said. "We've been doing this for the last three years and it works, we just need to expand it."
Parents also talked about plans to push for a test of a curfew law in Harlem and engage in an effort to get community based organizations to more specifically address the gang problem. The group dubbed their efforts "Operation Save Our Children."
Lt. O'Connor said what's missing in these efforts are men willing to go out and connect with the members of the crews, many of whom are just 15 or 16 years old and rarely much older than 21.
"We don't have the male component. That's whats missing," O'Connor told a group of men after the meeting. "If I can get a group of five to seven men out on a corner on any given night, we can show them that we are not afraid."
Courtney Bennett, who will be overseeing Operation SNUG, an effort to duplicate an anti-gang, anti-violence program called Ceasefire Chicago, agreed.
"Gangs are a symptom of a hurt community. This is the first time we've had a gang problem. The men are not standing up and the boys are running the city," he said
Alex Blair, a mother of three who lives in St. Nicholas Houses, said parents need to step up. She said she sees gang graffiti all over her building and is worried for her daughter's safety.
"There is no reason why a parent can't be responsible," Blair said, noting how much interest she received when she gathered kids in the park for arts and crafts this summer on a nearly non-existent budget. "The problem and the key to solving this is parenting."
Despite the increase in gang activity, Lt. O'Connor said there is reason to be hopeful. Among all the gang tags, he has also spotted graffiti calling for peace.
"These kids want to talk. They want to communicate. They can't walk down the street without going into someone's territory," said O'Connor. "When you talk to kids they want something done about this."
After the meeting, Blair connected with Hutson, who lives around the corner. They talked about what was happening among the teens in the area and exchanged numbers.
"It's sad and hurts as a parent when you do all you can do," Hutson said of her daughter, who writes poetry and even had a poem published. "I'm trying to prevent her from being arrested and going to jail. The best time to help me is before she ends up in a pool of blood."