Panelist Sheila Suderwalla is a social worker nationally known for her work with teens in foster care. She is a member of AFSC's Central Regional Executive Committee and the AFSC St. Louis Area Program Committee.Photo: AFSC / Jon Krieg
By Jon Krieg
Do our children have a future? If they don’t, do we?
These questions formed the heart of a September 29, 2010 community discussion organized by AFSC St. Louis and Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Five experts in criminal justice and youth shared their thoughts following the screening of “No Tomorrow,” a documentary film about the murder of a young woman, Risa Bejarano, who had “aged out” of foster care. The film covers the trial of the troubled young man, Juan Chavez, who was sentenced to death for her murder.
Nearly 150 people attended the film and panel at the St. Louis Historical Museum. Slated for airing soon on PBS, “No Tomorrow” shows several clips from an earlier documentary about Risa’s aging out of foster care, many of which were also shown at Chavez’s trial. The earlier film tells how Risa had overcome a number of obstacles to achieve a lot in her young life. Like the jurors, we feel the wasteful tragedy of her early death.
Juan Chavez has a different story. Abandoned by his mother and abused and neglected by his mother, Chavez joined a gang to find the identity and support he lacked at home. He abused drugs and eventually killed three people, including Risa. We feel the despair of his life, as well.
As provocative as the film was, the panel discussion afterwards was equally engaging.
“The success of teens aging out of foster care is not based on their individual qualities, it’s based on resources,” said Sheila Suderwalla, an AFSC committee member and a social worker nationally known for her work with at-risk teens in foster care. “Their success is based on that human need for connection, permanency and sense of belonging. I think Juan Chavez was an example of someone who should have been in foster care, and I agree that in many ways we as a society failed him.”
Oklahoma attorney Rex Friend played a key role in the successful campaign to halt the execution of all juvenile offenders in the United States. “Juan Chavez was just over 18, and it’s ridiculous to consider that a person is conclusively eligible to be executed if they make it to their 18th birthday,” Friend said. “Working on an issue such as [abolishing the death penalty], it’s always clear that what we’re doing is we’re adding one more snowflake to what will eventually be an avalanche.”
Author Dennis Fleming’s sister was murdered when she was 18. “I wrote a book about my sister’s death and its effect on my family,” Fleming said. “When I went to revise the book, I started looking into the killer himself and I found this history of mental illness – it’s pretty striking. It’s not surprising at all that a fellow like this is out there doing that…. I got the idea that both [mental institutions and prisons] really failed him.”
Criminology professors David Curry and Norman White shared their research and insights into the sources of gang violence. A Vietnam veteran, Curry linked America’s addiction to militarism with its problems of street crime. “I think it’s wrong to take young people and give them no alternative to develop themselves in life other than by killing people,” Curry said.
White summed up the evening’s discussion. “The reason I focus on young people is because I think kids are the most important asset this country has,” White said. “We waste many lives, there are ‘no tomorrows’ for so many young people…. We need to provide better opportunities for the kids. And I call them kids because they are that.”
(To read a transcript of the panelists' opening remarks, visit http://afsc.org/document/st-louis-panel-discussion-death-penalty.)