As a Camden County assistant prosecutor for 25 years, Diane Marano witnessed the devastating effects of gun violence on the city’s youth. She spent the last 21 of those years as section chief of the juvenile unit, where she gained a piercing understanding of the faces and names – and lives – behind the cold statistics.
But for all of her awareness, the 1978 graduate of Rutgers School of Law–Camden was often left wondering, “Just what led to this?”
The Medford resident is now exploring the critical issues surrounding juvenile gun violence as a Ph.D. candidate in the childhood studies program at Rutgers–Camden. Her dissertation, “Gun Acquisition and Use by Juveniles: A Phenomenological Approach,” examines the pathways into juvenile gun acquisition, the various types of gun use, and youth involvement in illicit activities.
Through the Juvenile Justice Commission, Marano interviewed more than 20 male, juvenile gun offenders, learning firsthand how they were first exposed to guns, how and why they acquired and used firearms, and how guns made them feel.
“I wanted to find out why gun acquisition and use was so attractive to these young men, especially with a proven history of negative outcomes, including death, injury and incarceration,” says Marano, a member of the childhood studies program’s first cohort since 2007. “It was a luxury for me to ask these questions that had been building up for over 25 years.”
Among her findings, Marano learned that most youth she spoke to were not exposed to guns in the home. Often their parents did not approve of guns, and only one juvenile recalled receiving a firearm as a gift from a parent.
Many youth recounted being exposed to firearms as the result of chance encounters. In many instances the juveniles had found guns, which held a wide range of meanings to them – including fear, fascination, or indifference – depending on the context of their overall values. For instance, one youth recalled seeing a gun when he was 12 years old. However, as a successful student and athlete, he wasn’t very interested. He then found another gun several years later, this time while he was involved in a gang and selling drugs.
“The gun was essentially the same, but his life was different, so the gun held a very different meaning for him,” explains Marano, who also holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania.
With her extensive background in criminal justice, Marano says that she expected to find that youth who lived in dangerous neighborhoods needed a gun to feel safe. This proved not to be the case. Many youth did not even view their surroundings as dangerous, seeing it simply as “home,” even when drugs and violence were common. The youth instead made a clear distinction between being in and out of “the street lifestyle,” which corresponded directly to their need for a gun.
Some youth spoke of the influences that drove them into the street life, in spite of its inherent dangers. Several juveniles acknowledged being raised by single mothers in a financially strained household. As they came into their adolescent years, they felt increasingly uncomfortable being dependent on a mother who was struggling to make ends meet. At the same time, Marano explains, the money that they could receive from selling drugs or committing robberies was much more than what they could earn in a legitimate job.
“In many ways, their home situation was pushing them, and the street was pulling them,” Marano says.
In the same respect, Marano explains, many youth acknowledged that their fathers were often absent, deceased or incarcerated, leading these young men to conclude that they couldn’t rely on their fathers to fulfill their basic needs.
“As one young man told me, ‘That’s okay, I’ll get it myself,’” she says. “And that’s what he did.”
Through the course of the youths’ responses, a continuum of needs and wants rose to the surface. On one end of the spectrum, juveniles acknowledged selling drugs to buy basic necessities, such as food and clothing, while on the other, one juvenile acknowledged having all of his basic needs met, but wanting to live a more glamorous lifestyle.
“He said, ‘Some people sell drugs to live, I sold drugs to live it up,’” Marano recalls, adding that the range of responses could perhaps best be summed one by one juvenile, who said, “A gun is a key – to anything you wanna do.”
Marano acknowledges that often the juveniles shared stories that resonated with her past experiences in the court room. She recalled one such incident that took place as she sat at counsel table with a juvenile. When the sheriff came to escort him to jail, the young man turned and peeled off several dollars from a roll and handed them to his mother seated in the first row.
“That was a clear indication to me who was supporting this family,” she says. “I now have a greater understanding of the dynamics at play in situations like that.”
It is precisely this level of insight and understanding that Marano sought upon pursuing her Ph.D. in childhood studies at Rutgers–Camden. As she neared retirement in 2007, she attended a kickoff event for the program, and was immediately impressed with its intensive, interdisciplinary nature.
“It really fit my range of interests in criminology and history,” says Marano, who credits this integrative approach for not only building on her prior experience, but guiding her exploration of juvenile issues within larger historical, socioeconomic and cultural contexts.
She recently presented a lecture, titled “The Out-of-Place Child: The State's Right to Intervene in Private Affairs,” at the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association’s national conference. The presentation explored the legal history relating to American children, focusing specifically on how poor children came to be “bound out” as indentured servants or apprentices in 18th and 19th century New Jersey and other states.
Upon earning her Ph.D. in January, Marano would like to conduct related research on juvenile gun violence with other populations, including juveniles who have been waived up to adult court for gun offenses, as well as explore public-health initiatives aimed at helping young people after they have been the victim of shootings, such as those who are hospitalized for treatment of gunshot wounds. She would also like to examine vulnerable children's perceptions of safety and security, such as children currently residing in shelters for victims of domestic violence. In addition, she would like to explore identity development among Native American children living in South Jersey.