Eta Henderson knelt in front of a grave at Mount Olive Memorial Garden in south Augusta on Tuesday and with a bouquet of fresh flowers in her hand, swapped out a wilting floral arrangement on her son’s burial marker.
Around her, loved ones joined in prayer as they observed the two-year anniversary of the slaying of Naquan Henderson, who at age 18, was shot dead in a hail of gunfire during a neighborhood block party July 16, 2011.
“He was my rock,” Eta Henderson said. “I leaned on him for pretty much everything.”
Such memorials are not uncommon in Richmond County.
Homicide tops motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death among people ages 5 to 29, according to the county’s 2011 numbers, the latest available. The youth homicide rate improved slightly in 2011 after reaching a 15-year high in 2010.
Records at the Georgia Department of Public Health show 208 people in Richmond County between ages 5 and 29 have had their lives cut short at the hands of a killer since 1994.
In 2011, the death toll was 15 victims – a decrease of three from 2010, when Richmond County’s youth homicide rate peaked at 23.5 deaths per 100,000 population. Richmond County’s 2011 rate – 19.6 – is significantly higher than Georgia’s.
Motor vehicle crashes claimed 196 young lives in Richmond County between 1994 and 2011, at a rate of 14 deaths per 100,000 population.
“It’s on the downswing, which is good, but drugs, theft, sexual assault and murder are having a negative effect on our community,” the Rev. Larry Fryer, pastor of Hudson Memorial CME Church in east Augusta, said of the youth homicide rate.
Fryer, a leading advocate for criminal justice reform in Augusta, said efforts by law enforcement, school and community groups to combat juvenile violence might be working. But he cautioned that it is too soon to declare victory.
“We need to help our young people become citizens, rather than criminals,” Fryer said Wednesday, as he conducted his regular walk-through of the Cherry Tree Crossing and Turpin Hill neighborhoods to encourage young men and women and their parents to resist crime and violence.
Georgia’s youth homicide rate reached a 20-year low in 2011– going from 350 killings in 1994 to 256 in 2011, lowering the rate from 13 per 100,000 to 7.4.
The national youth homicide rate, which measures the deaths of those between 10 and 24, reached a 20-year low in 2010, dropping from a rate of 15.9 deaths per 100,000 population to 7.5, according to data released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are encouraged to see a decline in the homicide rate among our youth but unfortunately, homicide continues to rank in the top three leading causes of death for our young people,” said Dr. Linda C. Degutis, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
FRYER’S EFFORTS to reduce youth homicides are being recognized as a model for others to follow.
At the end of June, he received a letter from Gov. Nathan Deal that said Deal had established a special counsel to look at an effort Fryer launched in 2008 as a possible statewide model for juvenile crime prevention and youth rehabilitation.
The “Judge Not” program has gained the support of 12 Richmond County judges, who volunteer their time in Augusta’s school system to mentor teens.
“Through this commission, we hope to uncover new approaches to make Georgia communities safer, while increasing offender accountability, approving rehabilitation efforts and lowering costs,” Deal wrote in the letter. “While this effort will ultimately uncover strategies that will save taxpayer dollars, we are first and foremost attacking human cost to our society. Georgia has too much crime; too many people behind bars; too many people growing up without a much-needed parent and too many wasted lives.”
Fryer said he has formed a partnership with District Attorney Ashley Wright to develop a program called “One Church, One Goal: A Chance to Change.” The program, designed primarily for nonviolent felons in drug court, will provide young people a second chance by starting intervention and prevention campaigns in churches, communities and schools.
“It is supposed to be individualized to each person’s needs, and it brings community support to someone who may not have experienced that before,” Wright said. She said most homicides in Richmond County appear to be drug related, involve groups of people and are committed by younger defendants.
Wright said the “One Church, One Goal” experience will provide potentially troubled youths a role model who can help them build better decision-making skills.
“Hopefully they will encourage this drug court participant to see the world differently and help make smarter choices,” Wright said. “Successful drug court graduates have their charges dismissed, thus offering them a chance at a future.”
NAQUAN HENDERSON’S future was stolen, his mother said.
At the time of his slaying, his daughter, Kiyah Lanaii Henderson, was 2 months old.
Scared to hold his daughter because of her small size, Naquan used to tell his family how he looked forward to seeing her grow.
“She’s now 2 years old. He never got that chance,” Eta Henderson said.
Kevin Nixon was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in Henderson’s death and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The events led Eta Henderson to call on parents to be proactive by monitoring parties on social media and, if nothing else, providing security for the gatherings.
She said a new policy should be created that requires young offenders to pass a class or report to a day center to complete probation sentences, whose fines and community service she believes do not provide the deterrent needed to curtail crime.
“We need role models in our community,” Eta Henderson said. “It takes a village to raise child.”
Fryer agrees, saying he plans to present the “One Church, One Goal” concept to Bishop Kenneth Wayne Carter, the head of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, in hopes of making the program national.
Both projects, Fryer said, are aimed at decreasing Georgia’s prison’s population – the fourth-highest in the country – and the cost of youth homicides to the national economy, which the CDC in 2010 estimated to be $9 billion in lost productivity and medical costs.
“We want to build strong leaders who have a strong sense of morality, can find and keep a job and help our community grow,” Fryer said. “Because if today’s youth cannot find work, you know what they will revert to – it’s a revolving cycle.”