U.S. News

For families of radicalizing U.S. youth, a help line

BOSTON (Reuters) - Melvin Bledsoe felt helpless as he watched his son transform - becoming distant, converting to Islam and changing his name from Carlos Bledsoe to Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad.

Program coordinator David Phillippi (L) and Executive Director Myrian Nadri with "Parents For Peace", a support group founded by parents whose children were involved in extremist violence and which is starting a telephone helpline for people who fear their loved ones are being recruited into extremist organizations, speak to Reuters in Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S., March 23, 2017. Picture taken March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The Baptist father of two wishes there was someone who could have offered him guidance before the 22-year-old attacked a U.S. Army recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing a soldier and wounding another in 2009.

“I didn’t have any help. I didn’t have no one to turn to, no one to lean on but my other family members,” Bledsoe, 61, who runs a tour company in his native Memphis, Tennessee, recalled in a recent phone interview.

Bledsoe, hoping to give parents in similar situations and fearful of calling the police more options than he had, founded the nonprofit Parents for Peace and launched what it bills as the first citizen-run U.S. telephone help line to counter the ideologies that lead to violent extremism.

The help line, which quietly began tests of operations in December but only now is making itself known widely, is aimed at filling a void in the United States and perhaps avert violence by offering parents and others a way to better communicate with loved ones flirting with extremism, according to people who study it.

“It could be a powerful thing. People don’t have anywhere to go if they have a concern about their kids and they don’t want to go to law enforcement,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.

Another group, called Life After Hate and based in Chicago, offers assistance to people personally involved in white supremacist organizations who are looking to break away. And some Muslim leaders across the country offer counseling to those tempted to turn to violence.

The Parents for Peace help line - +1-844-49-PEACE (+1-844-487-3223) - models itself on suicide help lines and other groups addressing such issues, and is open not only to those dealing with militant Islamist ideologies but also white supremacist and other radicalizations.

The United States has seen dozens of extremist attacks since the Little Rock incident, from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre carried out by militant Islamists, to the 2015 mass shooting at a historically black Charleston, South Carolina, church by a white man who wanted to start a race war.

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Although very different ideologies motivated the attackers, many followed similar paths to violence, immersing themselves in angry online communities.

“Former neo-Nazis and former jihadists report similar things,” said Myriam Nadri, a therapist of French-Moroccan heritage with an office in Boston who is the group’s executive director. “They talk about experiences with humiliation, they talk about extreme rage and anger.”

Calls to the help line are answered by two staffers, who work out of a tiny office in Boston. They begin calls by taking time to hear out callers’ concerns.

The counselors then advise callers on techniques to persuade their loved ones to open up about their activities, in order to counter the secrecy that militant and criminal groups usually urge on their members.

So far, the line has received just a couple of calls, but Nadri said she expects the volume to pick up as the group does more to publicize its existence.

In some cases, callers may be put in contact with Bledsoe or other members of his group who have lost loved ones to extremism. Bledsoe’s son survived his attack and is serving a life sentence, while other members of Parents for Peace have seen relatives killed.

Their number includes Carole Mansfield of Burton, Michigan, whose granddaughter, Nicole, traveled to Syria to join its civil war and died in the fighting in 2013.

“I’m battling cancer and I just hope and pray that I can live long enough to help at least one family save their loved one,” Mansfield said in a recent phone interview. “That’s the mission that I have in my life.”

The help line makes clear that callers who fear an attack is imminent should call authorities. The group otherwise has avoided working directly with law enforcement, and has not sought any funding from the U.S. government’s “countering violent extremism” program.

That Justice Department program, established during Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration, aimed to address the factors that drive some to violence by providing grants and other resources to community groups to develop prevention efforts.

Obama’s successor, Republican President Donald Trump, now wants the program to focus solely on Islamist militancy, rather than also addressing white supremacist groups. That move has drawn criticism from Democrats in Congress.

The proposed policy shift makes Parents for Peace’s neutrality all the more important, Bledsoe said.

“It should be about any extremist,” he said. “Parents for Peace is willing to talk to anyone who feels there is a threat.”

Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Jonathan Oatis