Juvenile Law Center

In Memoriam: Shirkey Warthen, 1989-2012

Juvenile Law Center continues to mourn the loss of one of its most passionate and dedicated Youth Advocates, Shirkey Warthen, who was shot and killed on April 17, 2012. 

The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program will honor Shirkey in a mural that will be installed in his Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood on his birthday, September 17, 2013.  The mural features Shirkey's 2009 poem "Paint Me Like I Am," which calls for the need to "decrease the violence and increase the peace" in the streets. 

At Shirkey's memorial service in 2012, Staff Attorney Riya Shah shared these memories of his commitment to juvenile justice reform and helping disadvantaged youth. 

Over the last four years, every member of Juvenile Law Center's staff had the opportunity to meet or work with Shirkey.  We have all been touched by his warm heart, his sense of humor, and his loyalty. And, we have been inspired by his commitment to making a positive change in his life and in the community. 

We first met Shirkey about four years ago.  We had just started a new advocacy group (Juveniles for Justice) at the West Philly E3 Center. Every week, we brought pizza and talked with the members about their experiences in the juvenile justice system and their ideas for change.  One day, Shirkey wandered into the room. Like some others who drifted in, we assumed he just was there for the pizza. So, we offered him a slice and expected him to leave shortly thereafter. But, within seconds, he was engaged in discussion.  

Shirkey meeting with Congressional staffers on Capitol HillShirkey meeting with Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill

From that moment, he committed to the program and to bettering the juvenile justice system – a system he was once a part of. Shirkey was thoughtful, articulate, and passionate about working with youth and improving the juvenile justice system for those who came after him.

 In his first year with our program, he worked with his peers to create a legislative campaign to ensure that staff wasn’t harming youth in detention facilities.  He drafted emails and made phone calls to legislators in preparation for our trip to Washington, D.C. where he and his fellow youth advocates met with Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill. Following our meetings in Washington, DC, I received an email from Senator Specter’s aide who specifically mentioned how impressed he was with Shirkey because he was able to draw from his experiences to advocate for change.  Shirkey had a unique ability to communicate and connect with individuals from all walks of life. Whether he was talking to a group of youth in placement or to a legislative aide, his message was clear, concise, and always impassioned. 

Shirkey and 2011 Juveniles for Justice members with former Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission Executive Director Bill Johnson

 After his experience in DC, Shirkey dedicated his time to Juveniles for Justice for the next three years. He remained an active member and contributor. He led group discussions and always brought new ideas and perspectives to his peers. He advocated for change to members of the school board, city government, Philadelphia police, and Department of Human Services. He knew he was speaking on behalf of the thousands of youth in the juvenile justice system and he made sure his voice was heard. 

Shirkey recruited new Juveniles for Justice members by telling youth that he was proud to know that he was making a difference.  He said that being involved in Juveniles for Justice made him think of younger kids, those coming behind him. Not only did he want to change the system to make it better for them, he also wanted them to benefit from the positive outlet it was for him. And he started at home. He recruited his younger brother, Raheem. He told us that he felt like Juveniles for Justice was a family and he wanted his brother to be part of it.  

Over the last couple years, Shirkey grew to be a strong, thoughtful leader. The other youth looked up to him as a role model because he had overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers to become an advocate for others. He recognized that as a veteran member of the program, he had a responsibility to impart what he had learned and to guide them.

Shirkey at a 2012 Juveniles for Justice meeting with Philadelphia Department of Human Services Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose

Through this work, Shirkey expressed an interest in pursuing a career working with disadvantaged youth. He felt that many young people didn’t have individuals they could look up to and talk with and that mentorship could steer youth down the right path. What Shirkey didn’t realize was that he was already a wonderful mentor and role model. 

Although he struggled for years to complete his education and find a job, he persevered. Even after he recently got a job at a steel factory, he remained a dedicated Juveniles for Justice member – the group even moved their meetings to evenings so that Shirkey would be able to attend. He would come in weary from a long day’s work, but still committed to advocating for others.

His resilience and passion for making a difference influenced not only his peers but also me and the rest of our staff.  In our work, we constantly see young people who are defeated by broken systems. But Shirkey wasn’t defeated. He was inspired by the broken system – inspired to make it better. He didn't just want to change his own life; he wanted to change the lives of others. He didn't just want to better himself; he wanted to better his community.

He watched as many people in his life were pulled back into the juvenile or criminal justice system. But he was determined to stay on track and complete his goals. With each advancement he made, he was always reaching back to pull the next person forward. 

Shirkey holding a check from YOUTHadelphia for Juvenile Law Center's youth engagement programs

On behalf of all of us at Juvenile Law Center, we want to express our sincerest regret to Ms. Puriefoy and the rest of Shirkey’s family. We have all lost a very bright young man.

Shirkey was on a path to make a better world for young people who went through similar situations as him. But his work was not yet complete.  He once said, “if nobody does it, change isn’t going to come.” Those of us who knew and respected Shirkey have a responsibility to honor his legacy by continuing to make positive changes in our communities and ourselves.  If we don’t, change isn’t going to come.

News Articles About Shirkey

"Youth mentor Shirkey Warthen gunned down trying to squash argument," Alex Wigglesworth, Metro Philadelphia, 4/18/12

"Young? Unemployed? You're not alone," Emma Jacobs, WHYY Newsworks, 3/9/12

Support Juvenile Law Center

One of the most important lessons from our 40 years of experience is that children involved with the justice and foster care systems need zealous legal advocates. Your support for our work is more important now than ever before. Support