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Romano: Before the stolen car you will likely find stolen dreams

Their lives ended in a stolen car in the middle of the night. Presumably, their childhood dreams ended long before then.

If blame must be assigned in the tragedy of three teenagers dying on a Palm Harbor road, this is as good a place to start as any.

Yes, you could talk about a juvenile justice system struggling to strike a balance between rescue and accountability. Yes, you could talk about the lack of personal or parental responsibility. Yes, you could talk about troubled schools, endless bureaucracy and any other societal ill you choose.

All are factors and, in time, all must be addressed.

But nothing will change until we confront the one problem that has preyed upon generations of children growing up in poverty-filled circumstances:

The dearth of hope.

How do you explain kids who do not fear arrest? How do you explain kids who do not worry about school? How do you explain kids who accept an unnatural death as a logical outcome?

How do you dream of a better life if you have no hope of one?

"I have lawyers who have told me they can't do juvenile cases any longer because they can't handle seeing these kids with their dead eyes," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "How awful is that? How painful is it to think that they have so little hope that their eyes have gone dead at 17?"

The Tampa Bay Times' groundbreaking report "Hot Wheels," which detailed the stolen-car problem in St. Petersburg earlier this year, has rightfully been cited often in the past 48 hours.

But there was another, more recent investigative report on St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhoods that is equally instructive, although the teenagers in this crash were from North Pinellas. The Times published a story Sunday showing poverty in Midtown, which has been a hub for car theft in Florida, has actually grown worse in the past 20 years or so.

READ IT: $200 million later, why are St. Pete's poor black neighborhoods worse off?

That's antithetical to what we all have come to expect of the American Dream. Instead of hoping your children have a better life than your own, it shows a statistical probability of a more challenging world.

In no way is that meant to excuse all of the events that led up to a car full of teenagers racing through a red light with the headlights off and the speedometer pushing past 100 mph. Somewhere along the line, we all become the choices we make.

But, as a community, we need to understand how desperation can play a role. How difficult it can be for a child to see beyond his circumstances and imagine a different kind of life.

This isn't a police problem, and to suggest otherwise is reckless and foolish. It's not even a problem of the juvenile court system, although tweaks might be necessary there.

This is an economic problem and a community problem. This is a problem that must be addressed long before a teenager shows up in a courtroom in an orange jumpsuit.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said the time has come to stop pointing fingers and start focusing on early prevention. To set up peer groups, much like teen suicide-prevention groups, and to reach out to kids through social media.

"When you grow up poor and with no vision or hope, it's easy to disregard the consequences in order to do something that makes you feel good for one night," he said.

"But I'm tired of this. I'm tired of the crying, the hand-wringing, the frying of chicken and the singing of songs. This isn't just about law enforcement. This is about the entire community, and we've got to start helping one another."

RELATED: Hot Wheels, how kids are driving the Pinellas car theft epidemic

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