There have been incidents that get a little more attention, like the boys who used toy guns to intimidate others and bolster their brash postures, and there have been handfuls of smaller confrontations. This past summer though, neighborhood parents, law enforcement and elected officials are all in agreement that adolescent behavior near the parks on Harrison Street took a turn for the worse.
“They’re very abusive toward adults,” Police Chief Jim Ryan said. “It’s a specific group, it’s not the kids in general.
“It’s a deeper issue than just the kids. It’s family oriented.”
In recent months the police department has been called to the park district and surrounding neighborhoods for everything from foul language to misdemeanor arrests. A few teens caught with toy guns were charged with using the look-a-likes to threaten residents, and another was picked up for wrestling a walkie-talkie from a park district employee. That individual is still in custody and is suspected of burglarizing several homes, according to Sgt. Mike Keating.
“That juvenile had to be a one-man crime wave,” Keating said of the boy’s exploits.
According to the police chief, the mischief in the neighborhood has been escalating over several years and likely stems from a lack of parental oversight. In handing out tickets for disorderly conduct, or making the occasional arrest, Ryan said the real target is the parent who has to stand before a judge and answer for their child’s behavior.
Recently, a group of parents and neighbors who live just south of the parks stood before the village council asking for help. The troublemakers are drawn to the park from surrounding neighborhoods, they said, but often spill into the residential streets. Tough love is the remedy, they said, and it will take a cooperative effort to steer these wayward children to the right path.
“Somebody’s not paying attention,” Connie Custardo, a resident of the 800 block of Lathrop Avenue, said. “These kids are frustrated, angry; and that’s why they’re acting out.”
Custardo had the support of about a dozen neighbors when she went to the village council earlier this month with her concerns. For her and others, the problem that these unsupervised teens present is that their own children are reaching the age where they want to expand their boundaries. No longer content to play in the backyard, Custardo’s 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter run the risk of getting drawn into fights, she said.
Across the street from Custardo is Bernice Gray, a married mother of three boys who moved to Forest Park two years ago to escape the negative influences of the city. Gray home-schools her sons, ages 10, 12 and 17, and has made fast friends with Custardo and other parents on the block. About a month ago, while she was exercising on the paths that run through the park district, she had an intense confrontation with a group of teens who later told her middle child that they would kill his younger brother and harm his mother.
“Verbal assault is one thing, battery is another,” Gray said of the altercation.
She quickly marched from her house into the streets to find the boys who had threatened her children, and found a group of 10 or so hanging out on Ferdinand Avenue, she said. Calmly but sternly, said Gray, she explained why using racial slurs and threats of violence harms them as much as it harms others. Several days later she saw one of the boys from that group, and he apologized for his behavior.
“I actually wasn’t impressed,” Gray said of the contrition. “I expect that.”
Both Gray and Custardo see that event as a teaching moment for other concerned neighbors and the municipal agencies they are now appealing to. Showing these adolescents that someone cares will do more to solve the problem than angry voices and threats of punishment. To that end, Custardo and Gray said they would like to help organize a teen center in Forest Park, but need the help of local government.
Commissioner Rory Hoskins, who often hears abusive language at the parks when he’s there with his children, said he fully supports the idea of a youth center. Hoskins has mentioned it to his colleagues on the council, the chairwoman of the Forest Park Youth Commission, and the school district. There are no specifics at this point, he said, but there has been talk of using the village-owned property at 1000 Beloit Ave. or opening a haven on Madison Street.
“For every one you see in the village hall, there’s probably 10 who share that view,” Hoskins said of the problem. “Like I said, I’m a consumer at the park and I hear it all the time.”
Erin Parchert, superintendent of recreation for the park district, said she has not heard from parents or the police of any growing concerns with unruly behavior, but would be willing to help find a solution. Both the park district and the village offer various programs for teens and are working to collaborate on more, she said. As for enforcement efforts to make sure the park is enjoyable, Parchert said problems are dealt with swiftly.
The group of teens involved in the assault of a district employee is no longer allowed on the grounds, she said.
“We’ve not had any sense that things are not going well around here lately,” Parchert said.