Should locking kids up be considered child abuse?

In June 2014, a Georgia couple was found to have locked up their 13-year-old son in the basement. When child protection workers investigated, they found the boy locked in a small room with a mattress, a box spring and a bucket for a toilet; it had no light, no books, no toys or television. The parents said they had placed him there for disciplinary reasons. He showed no signs of physical abuse or malnutrition, yet the parents were charged with child cruelty and false imprisonment.

During my twenty years as a lawyer, I have visited juvenile prisons in a number of states. The typical cell in a hardware secure correctional institution contains a stiff slab of metal or concrete topped with a thin plastic “mattress” for a bed, a metal toilet with attached sink, and limited lighting — all behind a locked hard metal door. In many instances personal items are not allowed. Kids can be held in such facilities for years (many average 30 months or 2.5 years). If it’s considered child cruelty when parents lock up their own children at home, why isn’t it similarly cruel when a state does it?

In the case of the Georgia couple, their son claimed that the infraction for which he was being punished was that he stole a DVD and then lied about it. He had been locked in a room for more than a year. In juvenile correctional facilities across the country, 75% of kids have done nothing violent. Many youth are locked up for status offenses – acts that would not be crimes if they were adults (such as underage drinking, or being absent from school).

So where should we draw the line? Where does appropriate consequence end and cruelty begin? Should the difference be the nature of the offense (whether a crime was committed), or should it depend on whether it was violent? Or should retribution be based on something else, and if so what?

Adrian Peterson was indicted for hitting his 4-year-old with a switch, but in juvenile facilities across the country teenagers are held in isolation for days at a time in the name of “punishment.” Both seem extreme, and yet one is considered a crime and the other is authorized. Is it fair that a state carry the child protection badge in one hand while passing judgment on how parents discipline, but then hold themselves to different criteria? Where’s the logic? It is clear that we are long overdue for a conversation about punishment – both for parents, and by the state.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

The photos below are of a typical juvenile prison cell taken by photographer Richard Ross (“Juvenile in Justice”)

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The Danger of Cultural In-competence

Every generation has its own way of expressing itself through slang, dress and music. Things that are “cool” for one generation become “hot” for another. Fashion that is popular during one decade is reversed by the next. Clothing styles move from baggy to fitted; long to short. That’s the way it’s always been and yet such changing trends these days can have serious implications, especially for youth of color.

In the spring of 1989 teenagers from New York City were hanging out in the park. Someone (not them) committed a serious crime against a young woman who had been out jogging, and before they knew it, several of the kids were pulled into a police station for questioning. When asked what they were doing they said they were “wildin’.” The use of this term was spun to infer that they were admitting to running around engaged in criminal activity, when in reality it was just young person’s vernacular for having fun together or in other words just socializing. “Wildin’” was slang, not a confession. Tragically, these young men were intimidated into making false admissions, prosecuted and incarcerated for many years. The Central Park Five were ultimately exonerated in 2002, but only after spending years in prison, being cheated out of an education, as well as their youth.

Trayvon Martin was walking in his father’s neighborhood in Sanford, Florida talking on his cell phone and wearing a hoody. Despite the fact that a hoody is commonly worn by youth from all backgrounds (on some level a fashion statement) George Zimmerman thought he looked out of place. Zimmerman, as well as many others across the country, stereotyped this attire and assumed that it meant that Trayvon was up to no good. The result was dire as Trayvon was killed in part due to this misinterpretation.

In 2012, Jordan Davis was in his car at a gas station with his friends in Jacksonville, Florida listening to loud music as is typical for teenagers to do. A complete stranger who also was getting gas took it upon himself to challenge the youth about their music. He then claimed that he feared for his life and ended up shooting at them and killing Jordan. It’s hard not to wonder whether his trepidations would have been the same if he and the youth were of the same culture?

Why is it that some youth can express themselves freely whether through rainbow colored hair, black “Goth” clothing and make-up, or other provocative representation with little more than a raised eyebrow, and yet others are presumed dangerous or otherwise worthy of suspicion and confrontation? Is there a cultural disconnect that can explain this? And if so, what are our obligations to address it?

At a minimum, it should be imperative that someone in a position of authority be held to a higher standard. Perhaps cultural competency training might help familiarize such individuals to common colloquial phrases and behavior – to keep them up to date with the rapidly changing youth culture.

Teachers, law enforcement, prosecutors, probation officers and judges are among those who play critical roles in the lives of youth. Their decisions can mean the difference between kids staying in school or being expelled; remaining with their families or being sent to confinement; being killed or staying alive. We have a responsibility to the youth of each generation to allow them all to express themselves. We don’t have to like their style, but we must do what is necessary to ensure that decisions that impact them are unbiased, just and fair.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

ALWAYS ask for a lawyer when detained by the police

Anyone who has ever watched a television show or movie in which the police apprehend a suspect is familiar with what’s known as the Miranda warnings: “you have the right to remain silent; anything you say may be used against you; you have the right to an attorney; if you cannot afford one, one may be appointed for you.”

One of the biggest and most regrettable mistakes young people make when detained by a police officer is to not ask for a lawyer. Whether you believe you have done anything illegal or not, if the police are detaining you, it is likely because they have some reason to believe that you have violated the law, or that you know something about an incident they are investigating. In either one of those scenarios, you are better off with the assistance of an attorney. Legal counsel is also more protective of your rights in the event there is an offer of a more lenient consequence, or in any plea negotiations.

Although states differ in how they interpret the 6th Amendment constitutional right to counsel (varying in such things as whether they are required to provide counsel free of charge, or when the right to counsel actually is triggered) individuals best protect themselves if they make it their practice to ask for a lawyer before answering any questions (other than basic identifying information such as name or address). Of course to avoid unnecessary conflict when invoking your right to counsel, it is best to do so calmly and politely (see Justice Corner blog post “’Pearls of wisdom’ for young Black men and others who encounter the police”).

I have seen the 6th Amendment right to counsel most trampled on in juvenile courts with our most vulnerable population – our kids. Routinely youth or their parents are allowed to “waive” their right to counsel either by a judge from the bench, or as part of the intake process. Often people don’t even know what is happening as court procedures typically move quickly, and with little explanation.

This scenario recently was illustrated in the book and documentary “Kids for Cash” which shared the juvenile court scandal in Luzerne County Pennsylvania. One of the most egregious violations that prompted the investigation was the routine practice of allowing parents to sign waivers of counsel with little explanation of what was at stake. In Luzerne County, it was customary to inform parents and youth that things would “go easier” if they signed the waiver, but then kids were locked up even though it was clear that neither they nor their parents understood that their freedom was at stake.

In the end, it is a better option to have an attorney who is assigned to represent your best interests in criminal or juvenile court matters. After all, the United States Constitution guarantees this right, so why not use it?

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. Seek an attorney with knowledge of the laws in your state if you have the need for specific information.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

“Pearls of wisdom” for young Black men and others who encounter the police

This is not legal advice, but if you are a male of color between ages 10 and 30 (or know one) you may want to keep reading. The ongoing news reports of young Black men who are being targeted, harassed and killed is keeping me from sleeping and has prompted me to respond. I feel obligated to offer a few tips for managing such confrontations with hopes that they prevent someone from an unthinkable fate. I practiced law for 13 years, including juvenile and criminal defense, as well as civil rights. As a result of this experience I have heard more than my share of incidents, allegations, versions of events, and complaints. And although nothing I can share should be construed to be legal advice, I hope that the few “pearls of wisdom” (as my grandmother would have called them) can serve to prevent at least a few people from unnecessary harm.

I can imagine how exhausting it is to have to prove to the world every day that you are worthy of respect; to feel accused with every raised eyebrow and clutched purse just for walking down the street or getting into an elevator. I can understand how draining it is to be considered a suspect as a result of the generic “Male-Black” description (no height, no weight, no age, no specificity required). This description that seems to authorize every police officer within ear shot to target the nearest male of color and stop them for questioning (or something more). I can appreciate how scary it is not knowing whether the person approaching you, or stopping you in your car may have a nervous glitch or be trigger-happy and likely to cause you harm.

I consider these harsh realities facing young men of color . . . and my heart aches for you! But more than that, I want you to stay safe, to survive, and to thrive. And to do that you have to stay alive! So these “pearls of wisdom” as simple as they may seem are what I have to offer and I pray that they somehow will help.

If you believe you are facing a criminal charge (or a civil action) you should consult an attorney who knows the laws of the state in which you live. With that disclaimer, I want young people to wake up and realize (if they haven’t already) that currently while walking around doing average things that others do – you are in harm’s way! But, I have a few ideas (again, not legal advice) that you may want to consider as . . . well, let’s just call them “prevention techniques.”

Let’s be clear though – these guidelines are not kryptonite; if someone is set out to hurt you, there is little you can do. In the event, however, that a situation can benefit from various interpretations it may help for you to be pro-active and do what you can to avoid unnecessary escalation. I’m warning you in advance, these tactics may not be easy to do, especially when you feel that you are being unfairly singled out, but keep in mind that the result you are seeking is to walk away from the situation safely, and ideally without being handcuffed or arrested.

  1. Stay calm

No matter what type of tone or harsh words someone uses against you, do your best to remain calm. Do not raise your voice or appear agitated. It is important to give the impression that you have self-control, rather than seeming hot-headed and reactionary. Often when an officer responds with force, they assert that it was necessary to bring order to a chaotic situation. Remaining calm can help avoid such an escalation. Don’t give them an easy excuse.

  1. Show your hands

Although this didn’t seem to work for Michael Brown, making it clear to someone approaching you that your hands are free of weapons that may injure them usually is enough to at least get them to pause. It is considered to be a universal signal that you mean no harm. Even I, as a (let’s say mature) woman of color when stopped while I am driving make it a point to place my hands on the steering wheel in clear view. I also ask the officer for permission before attempting to reach for my purse to get my license or registration (“officer my license is in my purse on the seat, is it okay if I get it?”). It may sound silly, but if it puts them at ease, and helps me get through the traffic stop with less headache, to me it’s worth it.

  1. Be polite (even when you are offended)

Although it’s hard when an officer (or in Trayvon Martin’s case a civilian) approaches you with negative assumptions and accusations, I encourage you to remain level-headed. People like this are usually expecting a gruff response – so it can disarm them when instead you respond with the opposite. Since I was raised by Southern parents I was always taught to say “Sir and Ma’am” and have found that to serve me well in many situations. A well placed “sir” or “ma’am” signals to the recipient that you are disciplined and well-mannered and may prevent an ugly confrontation. If that sounds like a stretch, at least be polite in whatever way you can.

  1. Show ID when asked

I have heard so many misinterpretations of whether or not a person is required to show identification or answer simple questions when approached by law enforcement. My rule of thumb – in general, when asked, if you have one go ahead and show it. It’s just ID. I actually don’t feel the same when asked to consent to a higher level of intrusion such as a search. But, when asked for basic information such as your name, or where you live, it’s often less eventful to respond with basic information rather than challenge their right to inquire (especially if you are informed that there was a report of suspicious activity — whether you believe it or not). After all, who wants to be placed in handcuffs, or taken down to a police station unnecessarily when simply responding to a few questions could avoid it?

  1. Don’t run

Another sore subject is how fast or how slow to walk to avoid suspicion, and for that I have no bright ideas. But, if you believe an officer is trying to get your attention, running away is more likely to stimulate their anxiety than not. And you know if they have to chase you, when they apprehend you, it won’t be pretty.

When I practiced civil rights law, I had the opportunity to visit a police academy to learn how young recruits were being trained. We were investigating stop and frisk practices known to be prevalent in communities of color. One clear message that I left with was that police officers are trained to protect themselves – first and foremost! And it is with that in mind that I implore our young people to stay calm, show your hands, be polite, show identification if you have it, and don’t run. Don’t give them a reason to fear for their safety – or to claim it.

I in no way mean to condone improper actions by law enforcement or to disparage the good ones. Clearly I have not attempted to provide an exhaustive list of suggestions or presented the various sides of the issue, but rather just a few thoughts that I hope will come in handy, and may serve to keep everyone safe. I also know that many may disagree with me, preferring civil disobedience or other protest strategy when confronted without just cause. For those, I understand that point of view in the context of an informed action plan, but not for our youth to act upon alone.

In the end, if you believe that your constitutional or civil rights are being violated, or that you have been unfairly stopped, it’s better to get through the situation without being handcuffed, arrested or hurt and then consult an attorney, rather than trying to raise that argument in the moment.

Your bright future depends on you staying safe, staying healthy and staying strong!

Please share your thoughts and comments and let’s have a healthy dialogue.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

Zero-tolerance for kids is a fast and slippery slope to lock-up

Many people assume that when kids get into trouble while they are in school that they are sent to the principal’s office, held after school, or maybe even suspended. Another assumption is that school “zero tolerance” policies refer to situations in which student or faculty safety is at issue. But “zero tolerance” is actually a much stricter standard than many realize. It provides no opportunity for explanation, offers no permission for extraordinary circumstances, and often allow consequences that defy common sense.

It is not my intention to undermine the serious concerns we should all have as a result of numerous school shootings across the country. But as scary as they are, that is not the primary reason there are an average of 70,000 youth behind bars on any given day in America. The reality is that juvenile justice systems across the country are full of youth who have been referred from their schools. And the referrals are not for what you might think based on the violent stories we hear on the news. Unbeknownst to many, most referrals to juvenile court are for typical youth misbehavior such as minor fighting, being verbally disrespectful to a teacher, being playfully disruptive or even for just missing school.

Take for example a simple school fight between two 13-year-olds. Not one involving weapons – just a simple disagreement between two young people where one or both lose their composure and end up hitting each other with their hands, or throwing an object that makes contact with the other. Even if neither is physically harmed, they likely will be charged with some version of “assault.” Instead of resolving such a matter at school, both individuals (the initiator and the responder) may end up being taken to juvenile court.

Kids who are brought to the attention of the juvenile justice system are typically handcuffed, processed and brought before a judge. If they are lucky, maybe their case gets diverted so that they avoid formal processing. But if they are charged with a crime, they then enter a complicated web of scheduled court appearances, probation supervision, reporting requirements and are forced to agree to strict compliance with an unrealistic set of expectations (so unrealistic that most kids violate within a matter of weeks or months). Parents who want to be involved have no choice but to miss work (sometimes jeopardizing their jobs) to accompany their child to court, often on numerous occasions while the matter is pending – but this is another matter which should be considered separately.

More often than not, the youth referred to court end up being put on probation or community supervision. Probation, while seemingly an appropriate alternative to incarceration, often serves as a slippery slope or a gateway to stiffer penalties. The typical probation contract is so extensive that it virtually can be impossible to comply with; especially for youth who are struggling with trauma, family issues, or other challenges. In addition to regular check-ins with the assigned probation officer, youth have to promise to attend school, not be late, comply with a curfew, obey all rules of the house, and not get into any additional trouble. Adults likely would agree that such requirements seem appropriate. The challenge, however, lies in the response to a youth who slips up — which given their young age is inevitable.

When a youth on probation makes a mistake, the consequence is often incarceration. Whether they are late for curfew, miss an appointment, talk back to their parent, disagree with a step-parent, smoke marijuana, miss or are late to school, they face being locked up. And the reality from the data is that many youth are in fact confined for such infractions – even if not for the first violation (although there are number of situations where this is the case) more often than not after a repeated error. Seventy-five percent of youth currently incarcerated are there for non-violent offenses, including technical violations of probation. This means that a different response by schools to youth misbehavior could literally mean the difference between a young person getting a diploma or ending up on a fast track to jail.

Does anyone know what happened to the days when kids could be kids, when a school fight was just a school fight and when accountability was appropriate? When did adults and school officials decide it was acceptable to overreact to the slightest infraction, disrespectful comment or rude behavior from a teenager? Why exactly do we need “zero tolerance” especially when it puts so many kids into harm’s way? Who else thinks that it’s time for us to adopt a more common sense approach?

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

Kids in the juvenile justice system should be given the opportunity to just be kids

As the summer days draw to a close in favor of cooler temperatures and falling leaves, I remember a moment from just a few months ago that both warms my heart, but also adds fuel to my fire to spark change. It’s a hot summer day in South Carolina. I sit with a bottle of water on a mostly empty college campus. What would otherwise be a virtually quiet day is interrupted by sounds of cheers and laughter from teenagers competing in Olympic-like events. Spelling bees, swimming competitions, track, volleyball and tug-of-war are on the itinerary. Chants and songs of encouragement fill the air. Canopy tents are set up for each team to block the heat from the sun. Beads of perspiration on everyone’s foreheads, adults and youth alike; cold water bottles are passed around to help with hydration. Everyone is smiling. This scenario is familiar to most who live in neighborhoods or cities where sporting events are the norm. But can you imagine where I might be and why on this day it seems out of the ordinary?

The activities I am observing in fact are not unusual, they happen regularly in communities across the country. Sadly the oddity of this situation is the youth involved in them. The youth I am watching have been arrested and brought in front of juvenile judges to face penalty for their actions. Whether charged with fighting in school, disrupting the family home, or for acting out in various ways in the community, these youth are more often than not disconnected from positive social interactions such as the activities I am witnessing. Juvenile justice systems across the nation are full of youth who have misbehaved (most for relatively minor infractions) but who face harsh penalties. Many youth are not as fortunate as the ones I am watching – most youth who have committed similar infractions are removed from their homes, schools and communities often for many years. Labeled as incorrigible and delinquent, youth in the juvenile justice system, and particularly those who have been placed away from their home as part of their punishment are on a downward spiral — that is if such a descent is not interrupted by positive interaction with caring adults.

While most seem to believe that tougher penalties, detention or a locked cell is the proper way to address youth who have been arrested, suspended, expelled or kicked out of their homes, the reality is that such a harsh response is usually counterproductive. Instead of learning a lesson or being “scared straight,” kids who are locked up in response to their misbehavior are subject to an environment that teaches tough street lessons of survival rather than positive coping skills. The event I attended happens to be a learning activity organized by a provider that specializes in working with kids who have become court involved. There are only a handful of programs that I have come across nationally that have found a way to help system involved youth reclaim their childhood while at the same time addressing those anti-social behaviors that landed them in trouble. Responding with love, encouragement and the instillation of hope soothes the harm caused by trauma and neglect and allows kids to look in the mirror and see “a kid” rather than a tough guy who has to prove something to the world.

Providing youth the opportunity to develop such pro-social skills as working towards a goal, supporting one another, team work, and good sportsmanship is not a cutting edge theory. Schools and communities invest in these types of activities across the world. And yet in lean economic times, budgets for such investments are drastically reduced. Large numbers of youth nationwide are left unsupervised and forced to navigate large chunks of unstructured time. And then when the obvious happens, when youth lead one another into impulsive activities that cross the boundaries of the law, society wants to respond with undue and unnecessary harshness.

No longer does adolescent misbehavior result in grounding, after school suspension, or parents working out an appropriate consequence. These days, juvenile court is the go-to punishment. And not just for a lecture or community service. More often than not, youth who are sent to court end up on probation or being locked up. When that happens unless connected with a responsible, caring adult with the aptitude to bond with the youth and teach while at the same time holding them accountable for their actions, the results are often dire. Dropping out of school, inability to hold a job, disconnection from family and positive reinforcements and ultimately a cycle of infractions, court-involvement and jail is the typical result to over-criminalizing juvenile behavior and punishing kids as if they were adults.

As I sit quietly in the hot South Carolina sun and observe teenagers that communities have labeled as “troubled” actively engaged in activities that most of us would find normal and even common, I am bewildered. Why can’t this model of support, encouragement and teaching be the go-to response for such youth? Why can’t we replace the correctional institutions with programs that provide a therapeutic approach? As Maya Angelou said “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” When kids are provided an opportunity to know better – they do better. We know that incarceration is expensive, harmful and doesn’t work. It’s beyond time that we take a hard look in the mirror and make a logical, more-informed decision.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

Images we create for youth should match the positive outcomes we seek

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. What then does that mean for images that are created for people without their consent? Especially those that cause shame: Handcuffs? Shackles? Orange jumpsuits? Cells? Razor-wire fences? Escorts with badges? Escorts with guns? Crowded facilities? Clothing stamped “inmate!”

Impressions of one’s environment, as well as how people are treated, leave imprints that translate to the reflection kids see in the mirror. Visions leave a residue which settle on the heart as well as the mind. If adults can help young people to see their beauty, their intelligence, their goodness and the strengths they have inside, they will see themselves as strong, capable and smart. If, however, they are ignored, constantly criticized, or allowed to think they are unworthy or simply aren’t worth anyone’s time, that will convey a different feeling, and one that can be hard to overcome.

Young people are shaped by their families, their communities as well as the “child-serving” systems they encounter. For most that system is school where if lucky their value is reinforced by adults who teach them that life is a canvass and then provide them with a paintbrush and vibrant colors to paint with. Less fortunate youth are forced into the legal system, whether through their own actions or that of a caretaker and that provides a different lens – one that is significantly gray.

On any given day there are nearly 70,000 young people who are incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities; 75% are there for minor or nonviolent actions (truancy, under-age drinking, minor school infractions). Most of the institutions are prison-like in construction; complete with razor wire, small cells, concrete and bars. Not the type of environment that fosters a positive self-image.

Images are powerful, and they are directly connected to youth achievement and well-being. Everyone a young person encounters has the power to either reinforce their value or tear them down. When we as a society respond to youth misbehavior with arrest, shackles, prison jumpsuits and a prison-like environment, can we really then expect that they will be empowered to change for the positive? And when those correctional settings include adults who are trained in coercive instead of rehabilitative tactics, the feeling of despair is compounded.

Young people (even those who have made mistakes) need to see their inner strengths so that they can envision a good life for themselves. One full of hope, promise, and even fun! Staff who work with these youth have more success when equipped with therapeutic tools and listening skills, instead of being trained to use restraints and intimidation.

The juvenile prison complex across this country needs a makeover – inside and out. Kids need school-type environments where they can be taught pro-social skills, not prisons where abuse is rampant and negativity is reinforced. Adults charged with working with vulnerable youth have a responsibility to not only “do no harm,” but to do what they can to be a positive influence. This requires that we create environments that instill hope and reinforce images of self-worth so that kids can see a picture of themselves that includes a brighter future.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq / email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

Can we pause? How might the Ray Rice situation inform justice reform?

Like most of the country this week, I too was shocked and appalled upon seeing the footage of the domestic violence situation between Ray Rice and his now wife, Janay. After uttering a few choice expletives, followed by a bit of name calling, I then paused – and took a deep breath. After all, I am a former defense attorney, and a former civil rights advocate, it wouldn’t be right for me to so quickly join in the negative banter. Would it? But the video was so raw, it’s as if I could feel the pain myself!

My training, however, and especially my recent work in juvenile system reform cautions me to refrain from fast reactions and at least attempt to get a more complete understanding. But there’s a video!!!

But if I’m not willing to at least be interested in the rest of the story, what does this mean for my efforts to influence a more effective response to juvenile offending? Then I remembered one of my favorite books “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz that recommends that we not make assumptions. I have interpreted this to mean that I authentically should seek to understand rather than react.

Channeling this agreement that I have made with myself, I thought of some questions I might want to ask before jumping on the “lock him up and throw away the key” bandwagon. I would like to know more about Ray Rice’s background, as well as that of his wife. Did he grow up in a home where he witnessed or was a victim of domestic violence? Has he suffered a brain injury or other physical damage that could explain such an outburst of aggression? Was there a severe childhood emotional trauma that was somehow triggered? And for his wife – what has occurred in her life and her background such that she has made a decision to stay in such a difficult situation?

It is human nature I suppose to react, to judge and seek punishment. But as an advocate for justice reform, especially for youth, I have learned that the more appropriate response is to pause and take time to gather more comprehensive information, rathering than focusing solely on the offense. And then to seek effective resolution.

I am not recommending this lightly. Domestic violence is an issue of extreme personal nature to me. Just a few years ago a beloved family member was murdered by her husband who then killed himself. She had a PhD in business, was a college professor at a prominent university, and was a beautiful person inside and out. And yes, when I learned of her murder, I was baffled. I did not want to believe that someone so strong, independent and successful could have intentionally remained in a harmful situation. But I was wrong.

In trying to make sense of my relative’s death, I learned more information about her husband. He had been a child of trauma, and that emotional harm likely had not been appropriately addressed. He managed to get a college degree and a graduate degree, but scholastic achievement without emotional healing was not enough.

I am not excusing what happened to my loved one or to Janay, but I am seeking clarity so that I can process more effectively. I’m not a proponent of a free pass, especially for violent acts, but I am an advocate for problem resolution. Bad actions warrant consequences. But I believe that they should be appropriate and focused not only on accountability, but also promoting rehabilitation.

In Ray’s case, I might suggest that he undergo serious therapy, perhaps have a brain scan to discern whether there is a physiological injury that requires healing, and also that he volunteer to work in a crisis center for domestic violence and participate in a restorative justice process. He should engage in activities that could help him truly appreciate and hopefully learn from his mistake. I don’t see what jail would help, and I can’t appreciate why he should be suspended from his career forever? Perhaps that’s because I’m a believer in forgiveness. But also because I believe in what works. Justice in my opinion dictates a fair and just result, not necessarily a harmful one.

And if we truly want to engage in a conversation to better understand and try to resolve domestic violence, we will need to be honest about our value system as a country. We must confront the awful statistics, and we must acknowledge that it’s never just about one bad actor. Perhaps we should just pause and look for our lessons?

Share your comments here to engage in a healthy dialogue.

Tanya Washington is a social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq

All kids should have support like Kayden

I expect that by now many who follow Facebook and other forms of social media may have seen the video of the little 2-year old boy, Kayden Kinckle, posted in July 2014 as he learned to walk on his new prosthetic legs. Most of us smiled and laughed as we watched Kayden figure out how to balance behind his pint-sized walker with a woman behind him encouraging him and making sure that he didn’t fall. She asks “You got it?” and he quickly replies repeatedly with each step he takes in a high-pitched toddler voice “I got it . . . I got it . . . I GOT it!”

As much as that video warmed my heart, I simultaneously was struck with the sad recognition that the sympathy and support that Kayden has is needed by so many kids but unfortunately is not available to them. All kids need a caring adult standing behind them, coaching them, making sure they don’t fall, or when they do helping them to get back up. But many don’t have one. And this isn’t just for toddlers, it is critical for all young people at least until they reach full development and are able to successfully manage life on their own.

Kayden is lucky to have a caring, nurturing and responsible adult standing behind him to meet his needs and who is cheering him on. But the reality is that many kids, especially those who end up in court, are not this fortunate. When kids show up in family or juvenile court, whether due to abuse or neglect committed against them by a caretaker, or because they have misbehaved, they in many ways are similar to Kayden. You may not see the physical impact of their circumstances, but they are often recovering from non-visible emotional scars and similarly are in need of love, support and coaching.

It is easy to have compassion for little Kayden, and even root for him to succeed, but we need similar empathy for system-involved kids, even when they are acting out inappropriately in response to unknown and unseen trauma. Rather than judge and punish based solely on their negative behavior, we should view them as having a hurdle that needs to be better appreciated and then addressed. Our response to court-involved youth should be similar to our reaction to Kayden – we should try to understand their hurt and then help them to overcome any challenges so that they too can smile and rejoice “I got it!”

Tanya Washington is a social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq

Ferguson: Ten Bloggers Speak Out

Interesting commentary. This tragic event has impacted people from different backgrounds across the country. I just hope that it will spark transformative dialogue.

WordPress.com News

Many details about the violent death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, remain unclear. What is beyond doubt is the intensity of reactions to this story — in the media and in neighborhoods all over the US (and beyond). Here are ten personal perspectives on this event and its aftermath, from writers representing a diverse cross-section of the WordPress.com community.

14938226361_6a7a43dfda_oImage by Shawn Semmler (CC BY 2.0)

Gukira

Writer and scholar Keguro Macharia reacts with his usual incisiveness to one of the signature chants of post-Ferguson protests :

If “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” is an expression of “humanity,” as one tweet has it, we must ask for whom that humanity is available. In fact, the insistent repetition of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” by black bodies across the U.S. might offer a less promising narrative: it might suggest the banality with which black life forms can never gain access to the vernaculars of the human.

hands up, don’t shoot

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