CAMDEN, NJ — “It’s 10 p.m., do you know where your children are?"
The catchphrase made popular by news anchors in the late 1960s isn’t something the Camden County Police Department (CCPD) is merely asking. With help from community members, local officials and non-profit organizations, it’s taking matters into its own hands.
The “Village Initiative” began in Camden City the first week of February - with police cars sweeping neighborhoods for any children 18 years old or younger who are out past the 10 p.m. curfew.
The municipal ordinance runs until 6 a.m., with officers picking up over a dozen boys and girls during the late hours roughly a month into the program.
“We won't be chasing anybody. There are no handcuffs involved. We just want to make sure the kids are safe,” Camden Lieutenant Vivian Coley told TAPinto Camden during an interview at police headquarters on Federal Street. “We want these officers to treat these youths as if they were talking to their neighbor's child.”
The initiative has been in the works for months, said Rosy Arroyo, Camden County youth service commission administrator.
Besides drumming up enthusiasm by speaking with local leaders and mentors, the initiative is establishing a community resource manual. It will act as a fluid document keeping track of resources in the city and advocates looking to lend a hand.
Up to 12 cars have joined the sweeps on Fridays and Saturdays so far. After cars do their rounds, they gather at either the Isabel Miller Community Center in the south or the Cramer Hill Community Center in the north.
There, leaders join the youth in playing games, sharing snacks and - sometimes - assessing whether they can help in any other way.
“We had a youth that was escorted in who was reluctant to give his information,” recalled Coley. “After about an hour or so he gave his information and he told us his story.”
He was hungry, but he didn’t want to go home lest his mom - who was unable to provide at the time - feel pressured to feed him, Coley shared.
“Of course everybody got involved. Organization's reached out, and we made sure that we sent officers over with food. He's been offered different services, and we're attempting to help him get a job and finish his education. So that to me…was heartbreaking,” she said.
When the one of the initial gatherings kicked off, school board officials, city council members and local activists heard from Chief Gabe Rodriguez at the Isabel Center. New to the post, Rodriguez, a Camden native, has said he’s passionate about maintaining and cultivating youth engagement.
“I love that we have Lt. Coley, a wonderful black woman leader and then Chief Gabe, who's an amazing Latino leader. You have people that look like you leading your community,” said Arroyo.
While Project Guardian - another youth program meant to connect them to services - has long existed, police officials said that is set up to meet quarterly. Conversely, the “Village Initiative” gathers weekly and sometimes multiple times a week.
“This creates a much more consistent thread in interaction and engagement and that we know will create more positive interactions for them in the future,” said Dan Keashen, CCPD spokesman. “It does take a village…and if these kids are at risk, there’s an embrace of the child and who they are and, ultimately, that there's a community that cares about them whether they know it or not. So I think that's an important message.”
Pamela Grayson-Baltimore, known in Camden as Ms. Pam, has been involved with improving the lives of young boys and girls in the community for over 30 years.
She’s had experience with the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), Center for Family Services and the Camden Center for Youth Development. Grayson-Baltimore has worked in juvenile services under the Office of the Public Defender to give kids an alternative from incarceration. And is the founder and executive director of local non-profit “I Dare to Care.”
All to stay her endorsement and involvement with the “Village Initiative” has spoken volumes for those involved.
“What I see that makes this different is the leadership. Chief Rodriguez, he’s open to the community, he’s reachable, and I believe he has a heart for the people of Camden,” said Grayson-Baltimore. “The first evening we started the curfew sweeps, he spoke to and touched everybody in that room. He’s able to relate to the people and those in charge. That’s a plus, because what you want is not only best for police department, but what’s best for the community and Camden city.”
Grayson-Baltimore, who was born and raised in Camden’s Ablett Village neighborhood, highlighted that she’s a product of the public school system, was helped by the free lunch/ breakfast program and various city services that are no longer running.
“I don’t believe in re-inventing the wheel,” she said. “One of the many things I want to see come out of this program is a job bank for the youth and that we open more community centers.”
Grayson-Baltimore understands that COVID-19 may be an added impediment to the initiative itself, requiring additional health protocols and limiting indoor gathering sizes.
Notably, Keashen said, some children being out late may also be a symptom of not having access to their school buildings during the pandemic.
Arroyo says organizers hope to add additional elements to the program including more businesses, even if just to keep an eye out for youth in their area.
“We're trying to figure out more safe spaces [where] they could have additional support,” Arroyo said. “Hopefully, we keep identifying these spaces, have more volunteers that we could train and help connect that void in our community.”