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Innocence Lost on the Streets of Stockton

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STOCKTON -- Amidst crime scene tape and sirens was a green backpack, and a bicycle. The items, scattered on the asphalt.

Jessica Sewell couldn’t see the boy’s body; "It was broad daylight, it’s 4:30 in the afternoon," she recalled.

Although she couldn't see him, Sewell knew it was her son, the green backpack was the only confirmation she need.

"I called them ninja turtle backpacks because they were bright green, and I could pick them out of the crowd anywhere, that’s why I bought them," said Sewell."

Her son, Juwan Small was gunned down in Stockton in December 2015. He was just 17 years old.

For his mother Jessica, the pain is still raw.

"He was lovable. He was the kind of kid you get to know. He was fun," said Sewell. "He had a ton of friends, who would do this? Why?"

Those are the questions that still haunt her. Juwan’s killer has never been found.

For longtime resident Sammy Nunez, Stockton is now home to an alarming trend.

"I feel as though our young folks are feeling neglected, they’re feeling abandoned, and they feel hopeless," said Nunez.

He says the violence seen today is symptomatic of a larger problem.

"When we start looking at 13-year-olds stealing cars, 15-year-olds being murdered, that’s a reflection of us, that’s an indictment of us as a society.”

Nunez is no stranger to the streets. He’s a reformed gang member, convicted on charges of attempted murder nearly 20 years ago.

But Nunez has worked hard to turn his life around. He’s the executive director of Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, which helps to keep youth out of trouble.

"We had a lot of broken men, a lot of men who have gone through traumatic experiences and their spirit was broken," said Nunez.

Nunez believes the problem is rooted in what he calls a "severe lack of positive male role models."

"We know that young people have less restraint, they’re impulsive, they’re emotional and when you combine that with trauma, and abstract extreme poverty, that creates the perfect storm for crime to blossom," said Nunez.

But slowly, change is happening, that shift can be seen in the actions of teenagers at Fathers and Families. Fifteen-year-old Johnny Barrios has big dreams.

"I want to be a firefighter," said Barrios.

For teenagers Johnny Barrios and Micah Vasser, the violence plaguing their city is nothing new.

"I was at the park playing basketball," said Vasser.

At 13, Vasser says he witnessed a murder.

"This guy walked up out of nowhere and shot somebody," said Vasser. "Everybody else just ran and the dude was just lying there, dying.”

With help from the program, Fathers and Families, these two are doing their best to keep their lives on the straight and narrow.

"There’s a lot of violence, a lot of poverty. People just don’t have a dollar, so people are going to commit a crime to try and get a dollar," said Barrios.

All around them are reminders of what could happen, if the appeal of street life becomes too alluring.

"Once you’re incarcerated, you just think what’s the point, I already got in trouble, and now everybody is just going to look at me as a troublemaker," said Barrios.

Stockton’s Police Chief Eric Jones and his department are trying to tackle the violence head on.

He believes a solution is multifaceted.

"We have gun violence, specifically related to gangs, often, that goes back decades," said Jones.

According to the Stockton Police Department, between 2011 and 2015 there have been 21 cases of juvenile murder. There have been 116 instances of assault with a deadly weapon.

Juveniles are classified as children ages 10 to 17.

Jones says the violence, for some, is generational, cultural and simply a survival mechanism.

"Sometimes the violence problem can seem overwhelming, and where do we start? I would just say to shrink your world. Shrink your world to your neighborhood, to your park, and do something," said Jones.

The YMCA and Reinvent South Stockton have partnered to help fight the problem.

Maria Montes is a member of Reinvent South Stockton. She says it’s organizations like these that are giving kids an opportunity to stay of the streets.

"Keeping kids out of crime is giving them a creative environment," said Montes.

It’s that alternative that can make all the difference. She says she’s seen many of her friends turn to gang life.

"Seeing people sell drugs, do drugs, the shootings are happening, students in high school getting murdered because of the crime in Stockton," she said.

Stockton police say community outreach is going to be one of the biggest catalysts for change. And that begins in the home.

"It brings us together, if we have a singular message, then we can start to be more deliberate and decisive in how we send a message to the community and make a difference," said Jones.

For mothers like Sewell, who have lost a child to street violence, her life has taken on new meaning.

"Justice is not going to give me grandkids; justice isn’t going to let me see Juwan turn 30," said Sewell.

Her son’s memory is the driving force behind her desire for change.

"Take your household back! Get to know your kids," said Sewell. "Tell your kids they are loved, tell them they are beautiful, you’re smart, you can do whatever you want to do!”

It's a community working tirelessly to take back their kids from the streets of Stockton.