What LifeWorks can say about the UT slaying suspect

A student wears a black ribbon on her arm during a community gathering in honor of Haruka Weiser on the University of Texas at Austin campus on April 7, 2016. Photo by Shelby Tauber

The killing of Haruka Weiser last week was a tragedy in every way imaginable, and LifeWorks joins her friends and family in grief. We join our community in the struggle to understand why this happened, how it could have been prevented and how we can feel safe and whole again.

My intent in sharing our experience of last week's events is not to restate the information that is now public about the challenges faced by Meechiael Criner or to create excuses or sympathy for the accused, but rather to describe the role of our organization now and moving forward.

Late in the morning of April 4, Austin Police Department officers brought Meechiael to LifeWorks as a runaway. LifeWorks provides critical support for youth who are homeless, aging out of the foster care system or are young parents. Having an officer bring in a runaway to our shelter or to one of our counseling centers is part of our long-standing partnership with the Austin Police Department to support the safety and care of homeless youth in our community.

We engage youth in longer-term support to promote self-sufficiency. In each case, there is interaction with mental health professionals, appropriate screening, communication with Child Protective Services and a tight protocol of systems to ensure that we know the histories of the youth we serve.

On the night of April 7, officers arrived at LifeWorks' emergency shelter — a safe haven for youth who have suffered homelessness or abuse — to take Meechiael into custody. The officers handled the event with professionalism and sensitivity toward our youth and staff. The days that followed have been exceptionally difficult as we have tried to come to terms with the reality of a violent crime and the circumstances of the arrest. The publication of the shelter's address — and the ensuing media and public attention — have only escalated the struggle.

I have been asked repeatedly over the past few days "what I can say" about LifeWorks' involvement in these events and about the accused. Everything I've stated here is a matter of public record, and the circumstances of Meechiael's childhood will undoubtedly unfold in the public eye over time. If he is found guilty of this terrible crime, we will be left to debate whom is to be held responsible for his fate — himself alone, school bullies, foster care, parents? I hold no hope for an easy answer.

There is nothing straightforward about the impact of abuse and trauma, but there are some things we do know. LifeWorks recently produced a white paper, "Vulnerabilities and Opportunities: Profiles of Foster and Non-Foster Youth Served by LifeWorks," that illustrates the unique needs and barriers experienced by the foster youth our organization serves. A few examples include:

  • A larger percentage of foster youth reported a history of depression, suicidal ideation, mental health hospitalization and attempted suicide, compared to other at-risk youth.
  • A significantly greater proportion of foster youth had been involved with the juvenile justice system.
  • The average household income among foster youth was significantly lower ($209/month versus $1,006/month) than other vulnerable youth.
  • Housing situations for foster youth tended to be more unstable, with a greater proportion residing in emergency shelters or staying temporarily with friends.

These findings, among many others explored in the white paper, help explain vulnerability, but they do not diminish accountability. They point to actions we can take to ensure the health and safety of our youth, including child abuse prevention, mental health services, parenting support and safe and affordable housing. They also point to the need for our entire community to remain focused on eliminating abuse and its tragic consequences.

At LifeWorks, we try to establish self-sufficiency for youth facing terrible challenges through safe housing, mental health services and educational and workforce training. If we, and community-wide efforts, succeed, then we will break generational cycles of abuse. Last weekend, a brave and heartbroken co-worker reminded me that after the anguish of the past week, now is the time for us to stand tall and do our work. There has never — never — been a greater need.

As LifeWorks moves forward, we remain resolute in our commitment to our youth, our community partners — including Child Protective Services and the Austin Police Department — and everyone who grieves the loss of Haruka Weiser.

Susan McDowell

Executive director, LifeWorks