As the holidays approach, we often forget there are so many youth who are detained, in placement or simply away from their families. There were 50,821 youth in some type of facility in 2014, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency and Prevention reported.
Even though some young people can't be home during the holiday season, they should never feel alone. Many youth-serving agencies provide a celebration and recognition of the holidays in December, due to compassion for all youth and their needs. This year, explore creative holiday ideas to let young people who can’t be at home know they are loved and have not been forgotten. You don’t have to be an employee or a facility that services youth to make a difference.
Annually, Lead4Life, Inc. is only one of many organizations that tries to do just that: Among others, our agency goes into the Alfred D. Noyes Children’s Center in Rockville, Maryland, to provide a holiday party for detained youth. We have a wonderful church that sponsors us, as well as a solid group of volunteers. We collect socks, ChapStick, hats, gloves, playing cards, hygiene products and crossword puzzles as gifts. Each young person gets an individualized card showing there is a large community of people who really care about them and wish them peace. We have a celebration with food, music, arts and crafts. Each youth is presented with their gifts at the end of the evening.
Lead4Life staff and volunteers often see youth in the community after the event. They can’t remember our names, what organization we are from or everything they received in their bag, but they do remember we chose to let them know we care. Our executive director receives calls from volunteers every year, excited because they were out doing something and a young person approached them and said, “You came to the detention facility to give us gifts.”
This may seem like a simple response, but to our volunteers and staff it’s confirmation they helped create a positive memory for a young person and made a difference in someone’s life. If they were home, many of these same young people may not have had a chance to celebrate the holidays or create an enriching memory, due to many reasons that impact the families we serve.
How can you and your organization make a difference? Contact a local detention center or placement and request to sponsor an evening of appreciation during the holidays. Get creative with your own vibe! Some ideas include:
- Take up a collection (You must receive approval of items that can be purchased from the superintendent)
- Have your staff write personalized empowering messages in a card to specific youth participants
- Volunteer at a center and provide arts-and-crafts activities
- Ask staff to come up with their own idea for an event to recognize the youth
- Create an evening of expression: Youth can present poetry, music and other creative ways they express themselves
- Have a game night with snacks and other goodies.
Don’t allow this holiday season to come and go without letting all youth know, regardless of their situation and circumstances, we are a community that cares and loves them, and they aren’t forgotten during this time of year.
Jennifer Gauthier is CEO of Lead4Life, Inc., an emerging nonprofit serving youth and adults in the criminal justice system in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. She brings both life experience and professional training to her work of empowering young people and young adults in the criminal justice system.
File photo by Clay Duda / JJIE.org
Alyssa Rodriguez, a male-to-female transgender teen, sued New York’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) in 2006 over her treatment while in their custody. She alleges the juvenile detention center staff treated her as a male and withheld her prescribed hormone medication, court documents say. Seven years later, those court files are among the few official public records about gender identity and sexual orientation of young people in state custody, and advocates argue OCFS collects too little information about the sexual orientation and gender identity of the young people in its custody.
By not collecting this data, advocates say, OCFS puts lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people at a disadvantage because the state cannot address issues like the abuse and intimidation LGTBQ and transgender young people may face while in juvenile detention facilities. Government information about the size of the LGBTQ population in detention is instead limited to public testimony and court files, such as those from Rodriguez v. Johnson.
However, an Office of Children and Family Services spokesperson said the agency doesn’t collect orientation and gender identity data because of confidentiality concerns, and instead relies on disclosure by the young people themselves. But the number of young people who do disclose their orientation is not tracked or shared. Following Rodriguez’s lawsuit, OCFS began offering its staff training on how to treat LGBTQ young people.
A 2010 survey conducted by Angela Irvine, director of research in Oakland for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, found LGBT youth make up 15 percent of the juvenile detention population, meaning they are overrepresented at a rate of two to three times their representation in the population generally.
Judy Yu, associate director of LGBTQ issues at The Correctional Association of New York’s Juvenile Justice Project, said gender identity and sexual orientation data should be collected immediately when a young person enters a facility.
“It’s important to know who’s in your care and custody,” she said. “It’s really important to do right way because it’s highly sensitive information.”
OCFS does collect demographic information such as gender, race and age.
There are three ways people respond to challenges in life. Okay, I realize I am making a big generalization, but this has been my observation of three broad categories we all seem to fall into when things get tough. This way of looking at people grew out of my time in prison, which is hugely stressful, making it a good laboratory for studying people.
The first group will respond positively to challenge. They will assess the situation, see what changes they need to make, or what strategies they should adopt, and start working. These are the guys in prison that go to school, stop using drugs, alter the ways they think, or do whatever else they need to. In prison, I would guess they make up about 20 percent of the prison population, if that much.
The second group tends to get worse. They are the ones who learn more about crime or start new bad habits like drug use or violence. They often enter prison for less severe crimes and graduate to more serious ones. They don’t care about getting better at all. They are usually overwhelmed by life. They don’t really understand why they are there, and their stories usually involve a lot of blame for everyone but themselves. They make up about 75 percent of the population, from my experience.
The third group is the smallest, totaling maybe 5 percent or less. They are the ones who could go either way. I realized this group existed when I worked as a teacher. For nearly 15 years, I taught everything from the alphabet to vocational trades, and in that setting I saw the difference I could make in pushing someone towards one of the other categories.
Just a few caveats: first, most of us will shift around in these three groups, but tend towards improving or deteriorating; next, it isn’t easy to predict which way someone is going to react, so we shouldn't be quick to categorize; and lastly, I don’t believe these categories reflect morality or character, but our reactions to adversity are based on our fundamental makeup and our upbringing, combined with our environment. Most importantly, none of these are foregone conclusions; if we can shift the environment we can change the percentages as well.
Since my release I have seen how the same categories apply here in the free world too, and we can use them in evaluating not only people, but also programs for juvenile offenders. In some ways it is triage. Some kids are going to do what they need to do on their own. Some are going to do wrong no matter what. We can safely deal with the first group in ways that support their chances of success, which means giving them the opportunity to get right back on track. On the other side, we have to be careful with the second group. They are not a good risk for certain programs, and will require the most intervention and monitoring. They can be helped; it just takes a lot of work.
My biggest interest is in the third group. With less effort they can be helped, and a lot of our influence can be decided on the front end. It is pretty clear for instance that locking up kids is an ineffective way to influence their behavior in a direction we want. Incarceration tends to push people towards the “getting worse” group. Whether it is trauma, stigmatization, loss of family connections, contact with more serious offenders, gang involvement, or a myriad of other factors, being behind bars is not good for kids.
A proactive approach that offers support in education, family connection, safety and restoration after a crime, for example, will push these kids in the direction we want them to go. As tempting as it is to want to push kids who commit crimes out of sight and punish them, the most effective strategy is to engage them in a way that doesn't stigmatize or further marginalize them. They are going to be affected by what we as a society do; the question is in what way. Let’s use a little logic to get more of what we want.
Wouldn't it be nice if life were simple--that the answers to our problems were obvious and problems solved with painless ease? Take for instance Johnny, the boy I described in my last essay, who from birth was toted around by his Mom to trap houses to get her fix. No telling what he saw--or much worse, what others did to him--in those places. Johnny is a confused kid, emotionally pained by fear of insecurity. His weapon of defense: defiance fueled by anger.
Johnny pains us too, because he is aggravating with his chronic disobedience of the rules. We keep sanctioning him, with the misguided notion that punishment will change his attitude, until we give up, wash our hands, and commit him to the state thinking we did all we could do. The paradox of juvenile justice is that on one hand we do have the capacity to diagnose his cause of delinquency and we do know what it will take to improve his behavior, but on the other hand most systems don't know what to do or don't have the resources or both. Our response is to give up and take the road of least resistance--detain or commit by default. When the means to do what is right for a kid is not readily available, we dump our problem somewhere else--a detention facility, state custody, or in a long-term secure facility.
Consequently, most states, including mine, have a lot of low-risk, high-needs kids in state custody that could otherwise remain in the community if judges had the resources necessary to effectively treat these kids. We commit them to a place we call secure, but the truth is they are insecure. They aggravate the insecurities of the Johnnys who will return home one day worse off than when they entered.
I admit that I fell victim to this default system during the first few years on the bench, and it was frustrating. Our detention and commitment rates were high--and so were our recidivist rates! Something had to give in my community to reverse this vicious cycle of detention to commitment to re-offending. Juveniles entering our system were getting worse, not better. This is true in many states--including my own!
I did not get that help until 2003, after four years into the job--and it wasn't in the form of money. My court joined over 100 courts from around the country to participate in the Annie E. Casey Foundation Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI). The JDAI modelm, along with the networking, taught me to think outside the box.
The foundation of any successful local juvenile justice system is leadership through collaboration, and JDAI helped us to realize this need. Something had to give, and that “something” was us! We had to stop pointing fingers and saying, "Its not my problem," or coming up with social, legal, political and who knows how many other reasons our creative minds can conjure to excuse why we can't be and do different for the good of our kids--and ultimately our community.
We created a juvenile justice cooperative and from it many cooperative protocols were produced in accordance with the Community Based Risk Reduction law that exists in our juvenile code (OCGA 15-11-10). That's right! It is public policy that judges exercise leadership to bring stakeholders together to develop cooperative agreements to address and prevent delinquency, deprivation and unruliness.
Over time, this cooperative caused a cognitive shift through the relationships that ensued between the agencies--a realization that the juvenile justice system is not a single entity, but a collection of independent public and private groups that can do far more for kids and families if their resources are shared and realigned to focus on a desired outcome--prevent delinquency and reduce recidivism.
This cognitive group shift resulted in a 70 percent decrease in the average daily detention population and 43 percent fewer commitments to state custody.
Johnny is now on GPS and he and the family are being evaluated by our Clayton County Collaborative Child Study Team (Quad C-ST), our single point of entry into our System of Care (SOC). This group of multi-disciplinary stakeholders meets weekly to assess kids and families to develop a plan that targets the reasons for his behavior, his childhood trauma among others. The stakeholders share resources, a concept foreign to us in the beginning, but a way of life now.
Recently, I made a presentation as part of a panel at the Carter Center, an annual symposium on mental health sponsored by former First Lady Rosalyn Carter. I had the privilege to share the panel with Dr. Julian Ford, a leading researcher on child trauma and delinquency.
He shared studies focusing on trauma child victimization as a pathway to delinquency, including clinical and epidemiological studies indicating that three in four youths in the juvenile justice system have been exposed to some form of trauma. Trauma could include violence, abuse, neglect, or an accumulation of stressful life events such as family problems, including death, drugs, parent-child conflict and mental illness.
Studies indicate that victimized children under age 12 are at serious risk, especially if in a family of low function, and may respond as a victim and act out in self-protection. Their self-protective responses, in their child’s mind, can translate into defiance of rules and authority.
Dr. Ford states it this way--a traumatized youth's "thinking tends to be reactive, rigid, impulsive and defiant. This, in turn, leads to distorted views of self, peers and relationships and difficulty solving ordinary social problems."
Sound familiar for us in juvenile justice?
Dr. Ford and others have recommendations for judges--require an assessment tool to determine the presence of trauma stressors to design an order that targets the trauma needs of the child using proven interventions, such as emotional dys-regulation and survival using victim based information processing to help the kid recover from victimization.
Detention and commitment re-traumatizes the kid--yet it happens too often because commitment becomes a default when the hammer is the only tool.
Most systems of funding are ineffective and wasteful--not to mention hurtful! We spend more money removing kids from their home, even though about half could be treated at home at a cost far less expensive--and with greater success.
A number of states have made changes in how they do business, with good outcomes. The changes were dramatic--the type that makes people insecure and push back, making excuses why we cant do it, for fear of change.
For those feeling the insecurity and want to push back, now you know how Johnny lives every day of his life.
Our insecurities keep many of our kids locked up in a world of insecurity. Something has to give.
Every day, nearly 50,000 children are forced to spend the night away from their families because of their involvement in the juvenile justice system, according to a new report.
It’s not as if these youth have no one to care for them. Families of young detainees care deeply about their children, but often feel helpless when their children get into trouble -- especially in the face of high adult incarceration rates, zero-tolerance school policies and reduced social services, which can make it difficult for families to offer support. Add to this a juvenile court system that practically shuts out family members from receiving or offering input, and the feelings of frustration and helplessness multiply.
These are the findings of Families Unlocking Futures: Solutions to the Crisis in Juvenile Justice, a report released Monday that offers a blueprint for reforms that involve family members at every step when a child gets into trouble, whether at school or in the juvenile justice system. It’s based on the belief that timely and appropriate intervention, with the help of families, can prevent the inexorable march for some children from school to juvenile court, and ease their transition from detention back into society.
Such detention doesn’t just take an economic and mental toll on detainees and their families; it also affects taxpayers and state budgets. Each day a youth spent in a juvenile facility cost taxpayers $241 in 2007, the report finds. Multiplied by 64,558 youth, states across the county spent a total of $5.7 billion for detention that year.
Family members surveyed for the report said they frequently felt ignored at proceedings in juvenile courts, overlooked by probation staff and shut out of their children’s lives in correctional facilities, even when it was time for their children to be released.
Eighty-one percent of family members surveyed said they wanted to learn about their children’s court dates in a more timely fashion. Eighty-five percent wanted court appearances to be held at a time when it was easier for them to attend. Ninety-one percent thought courts should involve them in deciding what happens with their child if he is found guilty.
Once their children were in detention, 75 percent of family members said they faced serious obstacles to visitation, and more than 50 percent said they found it difficult to reach facility staff who could tell them how their child was doing. Only 32 percent said juvenile justice professionals discussed their child’s release plans with them before release.
“Kids are told, ‘It’s your release day. Grab your clothes, it’s time to go,’” said one California parent quoted in the report. “This is poor planning on the part of systems and only sets the kids up for failure.”
Getting children back into school after their release was either “difficult” or “very difficult” for 69 percent of those surveyed.
The report makes several recommendations for juvenile courts to solve this large-scale lack of communication with families.
“A young person’s parents and family should not only be invited, but also encouraged to participate in school disciplinary hearings, and in juvenile court diversion, detention, adjudication, and dispositional hearings,” the report says.
Parents should be notified when a school is considering suspension or other disciplinary procedures; when a student is arrested; and they should be told where their child is being held. Families should receive guidance through the court process; be allowed flexible visiting hours; and charged affordable calling rates to ensure more frequent phone contact with their children, the report recommends.
The blueprint further calls for wide-ranging reform of the juvenile justice system, including eliminating zero-tolerance and stop-and-frisk policies, decriminalizing status offenses and drug possession, and encouraging a restorative justice approach to youth courts.
Released by Justice for Families, a national alliance of organizations that work with relatives of children involved in the juvenile justice system, the report’s recommendations are based on findings from a survey of 1,000 family members across nine states, from 24 focus groups involving 152 youth and their family members across nine states, and from a review of hundreds of news and academic articles on juvenile justice.
Photo by Justice For Families
Given the high rate of torment suffered by LGBT youth in custody, activists applauded last week’s finalizing of a landmark law that took nine years to get from adoption to implementation.
Last Monday, the federal Department of Justice finalized a set of guidelines under the Prison Rape Elimination Act that could help stem the risks of the already at-risk LGBT population that is incarcerated, including minors.
“We were already working on this issue while PREA was being passed, but this raises awareness,” said Sarah Schriber, senior policy analyst with the Chicago-based Health and Medicine Policy Research group and community convener for the Illinois Court Involved LGBTQ Youth Task Force.
According to Schriber, few juvenile detention center personnel even knew what the existing anti-harassment rules were. “A much harder part is making those policies meaningful on the ground,” she said. “We’re really lagging in education.”
Along with anti-harassment policy, the new regulations create federal requirements for employee training and place limits on cross-gender searches and screenings, ensuring they only happen behind closed doors with a licensed medical practitioner.
Much of this work was already underway in Illinois, due in part to a coalition of researchers, lawyers and justice department personnel. In 2010, the Illinois Court Involved LGBTQ Youth Task Force was established to draft better policy for the Illinois juvenile justice system and lead employee trainings.
Two years later, the task force has led trainings for nearly every Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center employee who works directly with youth, educating personnel on policy and broader issues and on definitions related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Similar workshops are being held for juvenile prisons, run by the State of Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, as well as Cook County juvenile probation employees.
The issues facing LGBTQ youth in custody are often invisible to juvenile justice personnel and policy makers, because many young people choose not to self-identify, said Mykel Selph, director of the Office of Girls and Gender at Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
But a 2010 study by Angela Irvine, director of research at the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency, found 13 percent to 15 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system consider themselves gay or gender non-conforming. In the overall population, 5 percent to 7 percent of youth identify this way.
According to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, LGBTQ youth are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, likely due to higher rates of bullying and harassment and lower social support at home.
Once in custody, research suggests gay and transgender youth may be more likely to experience sexual assault and harassment.
Research from 2007 by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found 67 percent of gay or gender non-conforming men reported sexual assault by other inmates, a rate 15 times higher than among heterosexual, non-transgender male inmates.
Some sexual abuse and harassment stems from housing gender non-conforming youth with members of their biological sex. In the nation’s juvenile justice centers, a young transgender woman must still live among young men.
“People assume if you put a transgender female in a female unit, that person will assault others,” Schriber said. “Often it is the other way around.”
In Chicago, Cook County Jail has begun housing transgender women with other women, but Schriber said the policy is harder to change for youth facilities.
“People don’t understand that gender identity is pretty well established early on,” she said. “They think it’s a phase.”
The PREA guidelines mandate that “in deciding whether to assign a transgender or intersex resident to a facility for male or female residents, the agency shall consider on a case-by-case basis whether a placement would ensure the resident’s health and safety.”
But there are smaller changes detention centers can make to create a safer environment, Selph said.
Allowing transgender boys to wear boxers or having every youth in custody wear the same clothing, instead of blue and pink t-shirts, can go a long way in helping a transgender youth’s mental wellbeing, Selph said.
“Homophobia can happen in a very subtle, unintentional way,” Selph said, during a recent gathering of experts and practitioners hosted by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “When we talk about safety, emotional safety is implied but not focused on in a deliberate [way.] It is emotional safety that is of the utmost importance.”
Christie Thompson is a reporter with the Chicago Bureau
Photo by Advancing Transgender Equality
A report released this month takes an in-depth look at how girls are represented in North Carolina's juvenile justice system, how the numbers have shifted over the years and why females are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system despite the overall decrease in juvenile crime. Representing Girls In the Juvenile Justice System, released by the North Carolina Office of the Juvenile Defender, looks at not only the characteristics and risk factors of girls in the juvenile justice system, but also offers several best practices to best serve the unique issues this population faces.
Since the early 1990s, due to policy changes, the number of girls in the juvenile justice system has been on the rise. Basically, the increased amount of girls in the juvenile justice system can be credited to the “relabeling of girls’ family conflicts as violent offenses, shifting police practices concerning domestic violence, processing of misdemeanor cases in a gender-biased manner and a misunderstanding of girls’ developmental issues,” according to the report.
Currently, it’s estimated that girls make up 30% of youth arrested and 24% of youth serving time in detention centers. Studies show that girls are more likely than boys to be placed in these centers for less serious offenses. The majority of the female youth, and all young people in the juvenile justice system, are people of color. Also, the type of offenses that girls more typically commit varies from those of boys. Girls tend to commit less serious crimes but are arrested for status offenses, such as running away, curfew violations and underage drinking, at a rate double of boys.
The risk factors for boys and girls entering the juvenile justice system also differ. Girls and boys react differently to most situations so it’s important to take gender into account when evaluating a youth’s past. For example, peer and romantic relationships often have opposite effects on young girls and boys. While boys are less likely to be involved in criminal activity when in a romantic relationship, girls tend to commit more offenses. Girls are also more likely to be afflicted with mental health disorders than boys.
Because of the numerous differences between male and female juvenile offenders, the ways that they need to be treated should be different as well. According to a study done by the Girls Justice Initiative, 89% of the 118 attorneys and 61% of the 97 judges interviewed across the county agree that girls in the juvenile justice system do not receive adequate services. This report offers best practices starting from how to communicate with girls when first enter to the juvenile justice system to how to best serve them after they leave in order to reduce recidivism rates and address the circumstances that led to their incarceration.
This article originally appeared on Reclaiming Futures
Photo by flickr user staticjana
Scrawled on the bottom of handouts, the backs of postcards or between the lines of wrinkled notebook paper, the writings from the kids in a San Diego-area juvenile hall provide a window into much more than just their mind and soul.
“I Really don’t Remember my childhood because I’ve tried so hard to block it out,” Brown, a 16-year-old girl inmate, wrote as part of an assignment “Born, Not Raised” author Susan Madden Lankford handed out. “The earliest memory I have is at the age of 11 when I was malested by my grandfather.”
Some wrote elegantly, poetically even, with a form that can only come from practice and attention in literature class – or perhaps just attending class at all. Others struggled to string together coherent sentences, or express their ideas and feelings in terms that could be understood. More often than not, the writings were dotted with misspellings and poorly executed penmanship.
Even from the one line, fill-in-the-blank answers that seemed common response on the author’s worksheets, the reader is offered a peek into a world seldom visited by those not forced to live it.
Worksheet question #8: If you have one wish to change something in your life, what would it be?
Joseph Minton, 16: “my mom and dad’s drug uses.”
For these kids, it was (and is) reality. Some never had a parent to teach them to read and write, or time to perfect their skills. Some were happier to find a bed in juvenile hall than return to their turbulent home lives. Others couldn’t wait to hit the streets again, with no plans to change the habits that landed them in the clink in the first place. Of course, each story is unique and impossible to sum up in a nicely worded paragraph, or even an entire book, but as you travel through the oversized pages of “Born, Not Raised,” an unmistakable pattern begins to emerge.
Spanning the course of two years, photojournalist and author Susan Madden Lankford paid weekly visits to the juvenile delinquents of San Diego, with her college-aged daughter in tow. She discovered that these kids, the juvenile delinquents, were much more than the label implied. They were ordinary people, not unlike teens across the nation, struggling with and searching for many of the same things as their peers.
The book is amazingly insightful about the lives, minds and challenges faced by many young people on the brink of criminal enterprise. But it isn’t a work of photojournalism or engaging literature, as one might hope.
Lankford, an award-winning photographer and photojournalist, starts by detailing the many hurdles and meetings it took to gain access to the other side of the metal doors at the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility in suburban San Diego. She pulled it off, obviously, but early on you’re disappointed to learn that bringing the camera along was out of the question. So, we rely on the kids to paint a picture of their own realities.
Focusing predominantly on female inmates, the book chronicles the life of a small group of young offenders as they make their way in and out of state custody – leaving the narrative at the detention door. Lankford is searching for the reason, searching for the connection between life events, development and what led these kids to varying degrees of disruptive and destructive existences – often a tale of broken families, drugs, violence and ultimately, incarceration.
She largely drives the story through the guidance and professional insight of child-adolescent psychiatrist Diane Campbell. Throughout the book, Lankford offers short reprieves from the tireless Q&A-style transcriptions of interviews with the kids, Campbell and other professionals with brief paragraphs and introductions designed to move the narrative forward – forcefully at times.
Billed as a work of photojournalism and anthropology, the book is stuck somewhere between academic research and raw dialogue. The size of the sampling and the resulting work does indeed provide strong insight into the inner workings of troubled teenage minds, but can hardly be classified as anything more than a slice of the big picture.
Lankford, with Campbell’s supporting expertise, makes a strong correlation between early childhood development and teenage delinquency, pushing solid parenting as the best deterrent to criminal activity. But the flow becomes stilted as the author tries to transition from one Q&A session to the next, doing her best to stick in interesting details and set the scene with little more than a few paragraphs at a time.
Ultimately, you get the feeling you’re being led from one room to the next, hearing only the dialogue and exchanges that further the child development argument. At times the connection between the teens being interviewed and the broader insight Campbell dishes out is terrifyingly poignant, but by over-directing the conversation Lankford manages to oversimplify and cast doubts on her own argument. Often the interviews with officials in the juvenile justice system seem disconnected from the expert opinion and overall arc of the story. At the least, other factors that contribute to disruptive juvenile behavior are given much less weight by the author than early childhood development, while they seem to matter more – much more at times – to the staffers working with the kids.
By the end, each chapter had turned into a struggle, with more insight coming from the teen’s work than the writing itself. Parenting, especially in the early years, definitely plays a major role in childhood and life development. What you see from the kids, however, is not the gearing of hardened criminals – although some are in the making – but a yearning for stability, family and above all else, love.
For all the dull moments, “Born, Not Raised” is worth the read for anybody directly dealing with at-risk or troubled youth, or simply looking for an avenue into the peculiarities of the teenage psyche. Yes, times may change, but the foundation of what it means to be human remains unshaken.
“Take care of your kids cause it sucks when on one cares,” 15-year-old inmate, Yale, wrote.
Erin Dale, a probation officer in Cobb County, Georgia’s juvenile drug court, has never come across a kid who started using marijuna as young as Zach Dykes.
“Seven years old,” Dale said. “Pre-teen, like 11 or 12, is the earliest I’d seen before Zach.”
Zach, 17, is currently in the Cobb County, Ga. Juvenile drug court program. Up until this April, the Hillgrove High School senior had smoked marijuana on and off – mostly on – since he was 7. He’s been locked up on drug charges and probation violation four times.
But you just can’t help but like Zach, Dale said, particularly now that he’s showing drive and dedication to accomplishing some things in his life.
“He’s always wanted to do right and he’s always honest and takes responsibility for his situation,” Dale said. “That is not usually the case with kids we see. Most will do whatever they can to get away with something, but not Zach.
“Until about a year ago, though, he was kind of floating around wanting to get through with probation and school, but something clicked. Since then, he’s raised his grades high enough to play football and he’s putting things in motion to do things with his life.”
Both Dale and Scott Merritt, a certified substance abuse counselor who has worked with Zach the last year or so, hope Zach stays focused on staying clean as opposed to being a caretaker of his older brother, Robbie, 23.
Robbie was released from prison earlier this month after serving 18 months on a drug conviction. Robbie says seeing Zach clean and sober is one of the greatest gifts he’s even been given. Both talk about helping the other stay clean. That sounds good, Merritt said, but it can become a not-so-good approach.
“It’s possible to feed off each other in a good way,” he said. “But when first opportunity comes along to use, I just don’t know Robbie well enough to know where he is in his recovery. I think where Zach is, he’s strong enough to make a good decision and not go down that path. But I’m trying to get through to him that he can’t be responsible for his brother’s sobriety. He can’t protect him and make his decisions.”
Added Dale: “Zach thinks his brother coming home is a positive, and we all hope it is.”
For all teenage recovering addicts, the holiday season can be tricky.
“A lot of people think it’s a great time for kids, and it can be,” Merritt said. “But it’s also just as stressful for kids as it adults. They experience the stress their parents are under and often have just finished some end-of-semester exams. And with school out, the structure is missing and the opportunity to use increases.”
Dale thinks Christmas will be a good time for Zach, though.
“How Christmas helps or hurts is a case-by-case thing. Sometimes, the holiday is a trigger for bad memories or just a trigger to get together with the wrong people and use,” she said. “But a lot of time, when families get together and take the time to see how much improvement there has been with someone like Zach, it can be a real positive reinforcement for all the hard work.”
Christmas is synonymous with redemption to me. Christmas a few years ago expanded that belief to a higher level. My 16-year-old son would not be joining us for Christmas for the second year in a row. He would be serving time in a federal juvenile correctional facility instead.
In September of that year, he was charged with stealing a gun from a local pawn shop. He was questioned for hours. He made the police mad, so he was arrested.
My son did not act alone and law enforcement knew it. However, he is of a strong and stubborn determination and would not give information they wanted. He instead would hide emotions behind attempts at what he thought was intelligent wit. Instead this came off as immature sarcasm and could anger even the most patient adults.
In a detention center 90 miles away, he sat day after day in his cell staring at the walls. He learned to stuff socks down the toilet and flood his cell for excitement; Typical behavior of kids in a cage with no treatment, inadequate educational structure and surrounded by anti-social peers.
On one visit I witnessed a young boy sitting in a chair in the detention center, shaking and waiting for “his tour.” I asked my son why the boy was there. He told me the staff prepped the kids in detention encouraging them to bang on the doors and scare the “tourists” under the guise of a failed scared straight program. My son couldn’t do it. I was proud of him.
In November, my son was told he was being released. Puzzled, he was led out of the front door in street clothes and was immediately handcuffed and placed under arrest by federal agents. He was transported downtown to the adult jail. The feds don’t have to follow laws regarding site and sound separation of adults and juveniles or any other state regulations. The reasoning for taking his case federal escapes me to this day.
In the middle of the night, my son was taken to federal detention center 180 miles away. He was allowed to attend classes for school. He quickly moved up the point system to earn privileges. I visited often and we would try to piece together a future that did not include prison, and it was so hard to watch my son lose hope in the future. He had no thoughts, plans, or dreams beyond surviving his punishment. He felt constant anxiety waiting for his day in court.
Without warning, three months later, they moved him back to the original county detention center, again in the middle of the night. When I called and found that he had been moved, the detention officer commented, “I don’t know why your son is in here. He doesn’t belong here. I really wish him the best.”
After six months in detention, my son pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year and a half in a federal juvenile correctional facility in a neighboring state. We received no phone call asking input for his rehabilitation . He served his time and we visited faithfully, but there was no family counseling. He was a skeleton of his former self in form. But he progressed in his schooling graduating nearly a year early. He took the ASVAB test and the ACT test; he scored exceptionally well on both.
The following January, nearly a year and a half after he was charged, he was released. We received no communication regarding a transition plan, living arrangements, treatment recommendations, or progress made while incarcerated.
In February, my son, now 17, wanted to attend college. He didn’t return to his home town. He didn’t want to see his “old friends.” We helped him get an apartment. A week later, he had a job and was registered for school. He accomplished this without a car and in 20-below weather.
On his 18th birthday, he had a transition hearing where the state was to decide whether to transfer him to adult probation. He showed up with a restitution check in hand and not a mark on either his state or federal probation records. They grudgingly released him from state probation after implying that his check was probably not good.
The military wanted to recruit him – remember those outstanding ASVAB scores -- but he was on federal probation. He didn’t quit. He applied for early release despite the prohibition against releases before one year. With help from his probation officer, the judge let him off for 90 days to enlist. After dogged attempts and nothing but praise about him from his recruiter, my son was not granted a contract. He returned to probation. He was crushed.
As he was trying to get into the military, he continued to search for better jobs. He decided he wanted to work for a veterinary clinic. He wanted to work with animals and it would fit his class schedule perfectly. I encouraged him to look up every veterinary clinic in town and put in an application. A week later, he had a job as an assistant at an animal clinic. Six months later, he found another job that paid even better.
My son has accomplished all of this despite the fact that he has suffered from relentless bouts of strep throat since his release, which I attribute to poor nutrition and stress that wreaked havoc on his immune system. He was extremely underweight carrying 148 lbs on a 6’1” frame.
Ironically, I work in a juvenile court where I have helped secure services for a Second Chance Court. Boys who have committed violent crimes that make my son look saintly are offered intensive treatment instead of incarceration.
I secured Thinking for a Change, a 22-week evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy program, to help change thinking errors that delinquent youth often possess. These youth receive family therapy, individual therapy, and attend court every Tuesday. I watch over countless weeks as their facial expressions soften, they start to smile, they hold their heads up, they speak out about successes, they start to speak of a future and their parents talk about the positive changes they are witnessing. I watch them graduate after a year or more and go on with their lives, no strings attached. My son even served as a guest speaker at Second Chance Court this summer and spoke about the strength from within that it takes to make positive changes in life.
This year, my son is coming home for Christmas, and we are on a new chapter. We will figure it out together. I wonder how tough it must have been for him to speak to the Second Chance Court participants and watch them being given the grace of redemption that he was never afforded.
My prayer this Christmas is redemption for my son and a change in the juvenile justice system-with a focus on restorative justice -- not punishment. I remember my son’s first words to me when I saw him after his release. He said, “Mom, it is so strange. I walk up to doors and just stand there. I still assume they are locked.”
I cry now at those words, because in many ways doors do remain locked for him as he is haunted by the scarlet F for felon and the words redemption and juvenile justice remain an oxymoron.