What can Sayreville teach us about Shared Accountability (Justice Corner guest blog by Dr. LeRoy Reese)

The Sayreville tragedy and I believe it a tragedy for all members of that community but especially their young people represents an important opportunity for growth and measured accountability by everyone. Seems we ‘all’ have to be careful about the assumptions we make about what happened in this matter as it appears to be a good deal of variance to the narrative depending on who you listen too and whether they are using legal terms or describing actual behavior. So it may be that we aren’t talking about criminal behavior but that we could certainly be talking about something that rises above a threshold that most consider youthful misconduct. Sometimes young folks engage in criminal behavior that also needs accountability and redirection I don’t have enough information about what happened in Sayreville to have an informed opinion, seems none of us do. My point and hope is that the finger pointing stops (its not helpful), that there is a full accounting (i.e. by everyone) in this matter and that intentional efforts are pursued to attend to the injury suffered by the alleged ‘actors’ here and those who were ‘victimized.’ I assert here that all the young people in this community have been or are being hurt by this and have and/or are now being let down by the adults charged with their well-being.

Charges have been leveled not only at the youth ‘actors’ but at the coaches of the football program, the school’s administration, as well as some of the parents. It seems the adults have an important opportunity I hope they don’t miss and that is to communicate a powerful message of personal and collective accountability and evidence some redirection. There seems to be little doubt something happened in that locker room and some of the questions might be: how did it happen, how long has this type of behavior been going on, are there youth we need to check in who may have been impacted by whatever was going on who haven’t been identified, who knew and who were they accountable too, how do the young people involved here understand the issues being raised, what type of psychological or psycho-educational intervention are needed here, and are we being intentional in helping our youth heal and move forward. The defending of our children regardless of their role, the schools, football program and careers etc shouldn’t trump doing what’s right and in my opinion that means make our children whole. There is a broader dialogue needed here as every year there is some disturbing and tragic incident(s) involving high school football players suggesting we need to examine what we are messaging to our boys and young men about what it means to be a football player, male and masculine in our society (and no I am not anti sport or football, played football in high school and college).

Ms. Washington is right – WE CANNOT SCAPEGOAT OUR KIDS, we can however have meaningful dialogue about privilege and the responsibility that accompanies privilege. Football is a privilege and it has benefits for those that play, those they play for and the community. So the responsibility and accountability has to be shared and it is here where the opportunity resides. Let’s show our kids what accountability looks like, let’s teach our kids how empathy and compassion manifest and let’s not scapegoat our kids, let’s be the adults they need us to be. Sayreville has an opportunity to teach the nation what putting the best interest of kids first look like.

Dr. LeRoy Reese is an associate professor at Morehouse School of Medicine where he contributes to the Prevention Research Center and the National Center for Primary Care.  Prior to joining MSM, Dr. Reese was a senior scientist and team leader at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Dr. Reese conducts community-based health research focused on the development on healthy lifestyles, the reduction of risk behavior among youth and their families, and the modification of community based social determinants of health. He served on the Task Force of the American Psychological Association that produced the report Resilience and Strength in African American Children and Adolescents.

Follow the discussion on http://www.justicecorner.com; @twashesq

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Accountability versus punishment: Is there a role for restorative justice in juvenile cases such as Sayreville?

My recent post concerning the events in Sayreville, New Jersey in which seven high school football players are accused of hazing/abusing other players apparently hit a nerve. Although I am capable of seeing multiple sides of a situation and am open to, and even welcoming of, opposing point of views, I was surprised at how quickly some of the responses got personal. I do not live in New Jersey, nor do I have any personal attachments to the circumstances. I simply believe that in a civil and democratic society, community members should allow the judicial process an opportunity to operate before turning themselves into prosecutor, judge and jury based on what is reported in the news. I believe this all the more strongly when young people are involved. And yet simply by proposing that the accused youth should have their fate determined by a juvenile court, rather than an adult court, some people felt obliged to personally attack me.

Several individuals thought it appropriate to label the kids “criminals.” But is it fair to call someone a criminal simply because they are accused of wrongdoing? Does that strike anyone else as somewhat odd and out of place in a country that holds itself out to the world as the representative of democracy? And what ever happened to the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty?”

In fairness, in one recent Twitter encounter I did experience an interesting and appropriate exchange which underscored for me the value of social media. It concerned a question of what consequences might be appropriate if it turned out that the accusations were true. To the individual who interacted with me on this topic I say “thank you.” Although I have no idea if I swayed that person’s opinion, I appreciated the opportunity for an open and respectful discourse.

In addition to advocating that this matter remain in a juvenile court, if the youth are found responsible for the actions they are accused of, I offered the idea that restorative justice be considered. I have already gone on record acknowledging the harm that has likely been caused based on the allegations, as well as the need for corrective action. The question is, what should that correction action look like? Is there a way to hold those responsible accountable, teach them the errors of their behaviors and get them back on track? Do we as a society need a pound of their flesh as payback for their behavior? Do we need to see them suffer? Or as responsible adults can we look for a better solution?

In the event these young men are found culpable (although I choose to remain neutral on this point until more facts are revealed) if a correctional institution is the consequence, they will come out at the other end undereducated, with a felony record that will interfere with them being employed, and based on the allegations perhaps bearing the label of sex offender – for life. Again I wonder: is this the outcome we want for young people who arguably are great candidates for being positively changed? Or do we want them to understand the harm that was caused, to be held accountable and taught a better way, and perhaps grow up to become mature adults who can contribute to society? After all, as pointed out in an editorial appearing in the New Jersey paper the Star-Ledger “we created this separate [juvenile] system because while the young brain can be capable of monstrous violence, it’s a more flexible creature.”

A restorative justice option actually focuses on the needs of the victims and the involved community in addition to dealing with the conduct of the accused. It emphasizes addressing and repairing the harm as opposed to simply punishing the offender. For youth, it is especially worthwhile as it allows for them to accept responsibility for their actions and make amends rather than maintaining innocence — this in and of itself is an important component of rehabilitation and an important character trait to instill.

The harsher option (jail time) may be the stiffer punishment and make many onlookers feel more satisfied, but a restorative justice alternative is likely more effective and beneficial to society and all involved.

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

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

Who’s fighting for the kids in Sayreville?

The arrest of seven teenagers who played on the Sayreville War Memorial High School football team is being mishandled on so many levels. The manner in which it is being publicized and the intensity of the prosecution is influencing a perception that these kids are criminals as opposed to young people who need accountability and redirection. More egregiously, it fails to highlight or hold responsible the adults who in my mind are culpable for creating and allowing a culture of hazing and for failing to properly supervise.

Of course I am not dismissing the seriousness of the allegations or the harm to the youth who were assaulted and bullied. It is a horrible situation and deserves to be addressed. I simply believe that there are more appropriate and rehabilitative ways to address the misconduct of the 7 football players rather than criminalizing them and locking them up. I also see this as an opportunity for a much needed conversation about youth justice – should the motivation be punishment or accountability and what does that mean?

I agree with some points that have been made in connection with this case, but there are many others that I vehemently take issue with. I agree that: (1) the behavior was egregious, (2) there is a negative hazing culture underlying Sayreville football that needs to be addressed and (3) the young people should be held accountable. What I disagree with is that the consequences require criminalization, or that the youth are solely at fault. I take serious issue with the idea that the youth could be prosecuted as adults – if the Middlesex County prosecutor goes that route, there should be a public outcry!

This situation begs the question: If we understand that young people make impulsive and thoughtless decisions, why should we entertain or authorize the idea of punishing them as if they were adults? When we factor in the brain science and adolescent development studies that demonstrate a significant difference in the brains and thinking patterns of kids at least until they reach the age of 25, shouldn’t we re-evaluate our response when youth violate the law? Policies should reflect the understanding that youth misbehavior warrants a different consideration than an offense committed by an adult (even when that behavior causes harm).

As a former criminal defense attorney, I want more information, and I believe that the Sayreville community should be asking for more as well. It will be important to know what type of hazing has existed at Sayreville in relation to football and other sports activities and for how long. Where were the adults (both that day and in creating the culture that allowed this roguishness)? Did the youth charged previously endure hazing themselves at the hands of other players that may have influenced their behavior?

The adults connected with the football program are responsible for the culture that encouraged the athletes to engage in such rambunctious conduct, and they are the ones who must be held to a higher standard. It’s unfair to allow the young people to be the scapegoats. And it’s wrong to destroy their future while subjecting them to consequences. It may not be a popular position to take, but who’s going to stand up for the kids and prevent their lives from being ruined over this terrible incident?

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

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

The eyes that haunt me

My recent visit to a juvenile facility left me with heartache. As a former defense attorney and juvenile reform consultant, I’ve been to my share of locked facilities, but this visit for some reason unnerved me. It was more than the dismal physical space I’ve observed so many times. I’ve certainly seen the typical correctional complex complete with razor-wire fences, a myriad of locks and bolts, and barren cells. I’ve seen the expensive over-equipped surveillance control rooms with hundreds of cameras that offer multiple views of the facility at various angles.

What struck me in a different way during this visit wasn’t the sterile building and rooms, it was the eyes of the youth that I encountered. Despondent, unfocused, almost lost eyes. Eyes that had clearly experienced trauma and despair, and now seemed to just go through the motions.

Teenagers are supposed to be spirited, inquisitive, engaging — even irreverent. They are not supposed to be robotic. When I’ve visited institutions in the past, the young people I met seemed at least interested in who and why “the strangers” were there. Most seemed to welcome a new face to at least break the monotony of their daily, weekly, and monthly routine. But on this tour, line after line of youth barely looked up or even seemed to notice the visitors among them. I saw a kind of disconnect that transcended sadness. It was almost like they had given up; having submitted to the cold regimen of their circumstances.

I didn’t get the sense that the caretakers were unnecessarily harsh, but rather that they were detached. From what I could see, the correctional officers were professional and courteous — perfunctory, but not engaged. Even during the eating times, most preferred to watch the youth eat, rather than sit down and eat with them. Less than 20 minutes was allotted for meals with no talking, just eating. I wondered to myself, how I might feel if someone I loved had made a mistake that caused them to be in such a place. Month after month (and year after year) of walking in line, being told when and where to sit, when and where to eat, being talked at, rather than talked to?

No matter what they did wrong, these kids deserve a second chance at life and a bright future. But how can such an atmosphere serve a rehabilitative purpose? What is meant to be “corrective” in reality is nothing more than a well-manned warehouse. There is a reason that a separate juvenile system was created. It was the result of the recognition that kids being young in both mind and experience can be reformed. At some point we as a society understood that the impulsiveness that could drive an adolescent to commit a criminal offense was something that development and the right amount of support and attention could easily overcome.

But somewhere we’ve gone off course and reverted to subjecting our youth to the same harsh prison environments that we send adults. What’s worse is that 75% of the kids that are sent away have done nothing violent, but are still placed behind bars. And these places are harmful. They not only strip our kids of their dignity and desire to achieve — they crush their very spirit. They say that the “eyes are the windows to the soul” — I suppose that’s why the eyes I saw are haunting me.

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

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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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

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

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