Bernadette Leite seeks ways to stop youth violence

When Bernadette Leite founded a support group for young survivors of violence, she didn't realize that she was taking a public health approach to solving a pervasive cultural problem. She was simply trying to meet a need illustrated by the aftermath of the tragic shooting death of her 17-year-old son Khalil.

Stephen Thomas, a faculty member in the School of Public Health's Behavioral Science and Health Education Division, immediately realized the vast potential in Leite's work.

Leite, an Austell resident, is administrative assistant/community liaison for the Minority Health Research Laboratory, which Thomas directs. In 1993, Leite founded Kids Alive and Loved (KAL) after her son was killed in an apparent drive-by shooting. "My main focus is raising public awareness and trying to change youths' opinions about the need to have a gun and to use it," said Leite, who also has 17- and 15-year-old daughters and a 9-year-old son. "It has been my experience that when a loved one is killed, the young family members and friends want to take revenge. They feel that street justice is the only way to accomplish that goal."

The unresolved rage that young people feel when they lose a family member or friend to violence prompted Leite to form KAL. "I realized the need for a place for these kids to go and feel safe to talk about their feelings and expose themselves, and hopefully get some help in dealing with the pain, anger and frustration at having lost someone," Leite said.

A public health approach

Leite likens her work in youth violence prevention to efforts designed to slow the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS. She said that the health care community was not able to make a dent in the spread of those diseases until they took a public health approach and began to educate people about risk factors and prevention.

"The same thing is true of violence," said Leite, a native of New York City. "A lot of people just don't know the real deal when it comes to violence. Most people think, `oh, it's just somebody bad that got killed.' But the accessibility of guns in the home, for example, may lead to a greater potential for homicide or suicide."

According to Leite, the criminal justice approach to youth violence prevention has failed. "They've been locking up more people, and the laws have been getting stronger and tougher," she said. "But what's happened? We are still seeing a steady increase in homicides. With the public health approach, we deal with the person. We don't throw them away. We recognize that they have a problem and try to get them to talk about it. That's where mental health comes into the picture. We have a lot of programs now dealing with the mental health aspect of an individual, and I don't think that was taken into consideration very much before. When somebody got shot, they fixed him up and sent him home. Now when somebody enters the hospital, they are more likely to give him counseling or some kind of mental health services before they send him back out on the street, and hopefully keep in touch and see what's happening."

A history of violence prevention

Preventing violence against youth and children has long been an important goal for Leite, who holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and sociology from Boston University and a master's degree in guidance counseling from Eastern New Mexico University.

Before her son's death, Leite was involved with First Steps, a program in which "parents and volunteers go into the hospitals to see new parents and establish a rapport with them so they do not turn to violence and child abuse," she said. "A large number of people we see are very young mothers. Statistics have shown that these are the people who tend to turn to child abuse. They are young and they may have any number of children. I've dealt with mothers as young as 23 who had as many as five kids already. They needed support with parenting skills and somebody to listen to them."

Since forming KAL, Leite has concentrated on raising public awareness of youth violence and helping youth rethink the ways in which they handle conflict. "There are conflict resolution programs in some schools, but a lot of the youth in our program have either dropped out of school or they've graduated and they're in limbo," Leite said. "They're either waiting to go to [college or vocational school] or trying to find a job. These youth are the largest segment who are at risk for becoming either perpetrators or victims of violence. I also try to help them understand that the perpetrator is in need and is also a victim and that their families are victimized too."

Leite said that KAL meets every Wednesday evening and is open to anyone.

"It is not uncommon for grassroots movements to be started and sustained by a charismatic individual," said Stephen Thomas of Leite's work with KAL. When Thomas first met Leite, he felt "a sense of integrity and humanity, a determination that her son's death would not be in vain. I knew that Bernadette had the intestinal fortitude to take her experience beyond her own personal tragedy."

Thomas plans to use the results of Leite's work with KAL to further the efforts of the Minority Health Research Laboratory.

As for Leite, she has truly found her niche. "I didn't realize at the time that I met Dr. Thomas that my thinking was a public health approach," she said. "I've come to realize that it is, and that it's a very good fit for me here. I'm very happy to be where I am."

--Dan Treadaway