Walking in Another Mother's Shoes

Friday, May 11, 2012

by Grace Bauer

In 2001, my 13 year old son, Corey, was sent to what the “New York Times” called the worst juvenile prison in the country. What crime had he committed that earned him this hellish journey? He stole a $300 stereo out of pick-up truck after he smashed out the window with a crowbar. His sentence was five years in the one of the most brutal facilities in the US. He would join nearly 2000 other children locked up in similar facilities in the state of Louisiana. He would become one of the 75% of kids charged with non-serious offenses.

Lest you begin to think such places only exist in the rural South, consider that nearly 2.2 million children are arrested each year, in our country. According to the Annie E Casey Foundation's, 2008 Kids Count Essay and Data Brief, on any given night, 100,000 youths are confined in juvenile jails, prisons, boot camps and other residential facilities! By and large these places are dangerous, ineffective, wasteful and according to the research, unnecessary. They house children of color at disproportionately high rates.

When I first visited my son who is white in that youth prison in Louisiana, I found him housed with mostly boys of color. In my ignorance at the time, my first thought was "...dope on the corner." I now know that the majority of drug users are white and that people across races use drugs at similar rates but who is incarcerated for drug related offenses is disproportionate. 

During that first visit, I found my son battered and bruised. He and the other children were confined in an institution notorious for its brutality. If we truly acknowledged the humanity of all of the children and families impacted by our nation’s youth incarceration, I believe we would make a 180 degree toward more effective community safety strategies. Instead, we continue to spend precious and dwindling taxpayer dollars on the one thing research has proved time and again doesn’t work. In fighting for my own son, I found the justice system was racially and otherwise unjust and discovered a new family to fight for.

We, families of children who are system involved, are often thought of as “lazy”, “uneducated,” “uncaring” and worse. A new report being released by Justice for Families gives us a much different picture of families and relies on substantial data rather than outdated “tough on crime” rhetoric. When my own son became involved in the juvenile justice system I was lost and confused which ultimately led me to make decisions for my son that were counterproductive and outright dangerous to his physical well-being in that time and place and his long term future. Had I had more information about the facility where he would be warehoused, a greater understanding of the legal process and his right to council, I would have made very different decisions.

I was given a second chance to make different decisions for my youngest daughter, nearly seven years later. Today, that daughter is in her second semester of college, having earned a 3.7 GPA in her first semester and has never again been involved in the system. Sadly, for my son, that second chance never came. Today, he is living on taxpayer money, serving a twelve year sentence in a state prison.

In twenty sites across eight states, Justice for Families, the Data Center and our local partners, led by families of kids involved in the system, conducted two dozen focus groups and took exhaustive surveys from more than a 1000 families who were involved in the juvenile justice system. We conducted a media review that looked at hundreds of articles discussing families and juvenile justice. Lastly, we conducted an extensive literature review of promising approaches led by systems and community based organizations. Families designed the focus group and survey questions and collected and analyzed the data, proving that families are capable, they do care and they do, indeed, want to be involved.

With my son’s involvement in the juvenile justice system, I joined the ranks of families nationwide that have no voice in the care and treatment of their children and even less say in the processes and mechanisms of the system. Of the families surveyed 79% reported that they were never asked by a probation officer what should happen to their loved one. In addition to this, 92% of families surveyed wanted to be more engaged in local, state and federal policy discussions regarding how juvenile justice systems work and the kinds of programs that are available. This data and the analysis that followed certainly debunk the myth that we don’t care!

As with my own son, families are not given the information they need to feel informed, oriented or supported. Our report will show that the overwhelming majority of families were never told about the dangers of detention or the negative impact detention can have on a young person. It will also show that most families experience court professionals as being unhelpful. Yet, when a child fails to do well in a prescribed program the system blames the child and the family without considering that the program actually failed the child. Given good information and full disclosure about the negative impacts of detention, families would have the chance to make better decisions concerning their children as I was able to do with my own daughter.

I often ask people to consider how they would feel if it were one of their own children , if they were to walk in my shoes. My son was a young person struggling with the death of his beloved grandmother. In his greatest moment of need, we treated him with brutality rather than care and love. Rather than spending a handful of dollars on grief counseling, we spent a boatload on putting him in a cage and cutting off communications with the people who loved him most. This damaging course of action is repeated thousands of times daily all across the US. Our report will show that most family members are unable to visit their loved one for a variety of reasons including lack of money, long distance placements and facility rules. Most would like to have been more involved in their loved ones treatment while they were in residential treatment. Imagine your child in trouble and then imagine how hard it would be to be cut off from that child when they need you the most. It’s a heartbreaking and powerless feeling to not be able to help your own child and to be made to feel you are the problem.

Incarceration of young people is bad public policy. It drains resources away from the very solutions that offer young people a shot at a successful future, while also increasing recidivism rates and decreasing public safety for all of us. Look around your own community. Do your streets need repair? Are recreation centers offering all they once did? Do the schools in your neighborhood have adequate funding? Do the elderly of your community have the resources they need to buy their food and medication? Incarceration robs us all!

What I can’t tell you in this article, what no report can ever adequately define, what no statistic can fully explain is the long term and deeply damaging consequences of locking up children in cages and what it does to that kid, their families, their communities and ultimately to our society, as a whole. To see what the data can’t tell you, you must look into a mother’s heart or into my son’s bruised and battered body and mind or the millions like us. We ask you to help us spread the word about our new report and ask you to challenge the “tough on crime” rhetoric of politicians in your own community. Would you like to learn more? Join us on our website and contact us to learn what you can do to end this country’s addiction to incarceration and to win justice for all families.

Grace Bauer is the Co-Director of Justice for Families, a national alliance of local organizations working to transform families from victims of a prison epidemic to leaders of a movement for fairness and opportunity.

This blog is part of Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way blog series. Make and send a custom Mama’s Day e-card at www.mamasday.org. Strong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.