What IF . . . we collectively met the needs of kids?

What if all adults felt compelled to help meet the needs of our kids. If we really treated them as OURS just because they were a part of the village, a part of our collective community. The footprint of the juvenile justice system would surely be smaller. Kids who experienced trauma, abuse or neglect would be responded to with compassion and understanding even when they expressed themselves by acting out. Educators would be equipped with tools to respond to misbehavior in ways that provided appropriate accountability without exposing impressionable adolescents to the negative influence of juvenile institutions. Youth who engaged in repetitive risky behavior would receive the kind of individual transformational attention that would expose them to pro-social impacts and redirect them towards a more productive path. Young people who warranted an out-of-home intervention because their mistakes put others at risk would receive a true rehabilitative experience in a setting that was designed to teach and correct rather than punish.

What if we as a progressive society said “NO MORE” to treating kids like criminals for normal adolescent misbehavior? Could we eliminate locked detention facilities in favor of community resource centers? Could we tear down razor-wired juvenile correctional institutions and replace them with places that provided instruction and therapy? Could we transform juvenile correctional officers into youth counselors who were skilled in building relationships as a way to exercise influence and authority, instead of wielding the kind of power that only comes with a uniform and a badge?

What if we made sure that all kids had their basic needs met — enough to eat, and a safe place to live, would that enable their ability to read and learn, and would that then result in less delinquent behavior? And when they made mistakes (as all human beings do), if together we provided opportunities to address youth transgressions while helping them learn empathy and the impact of their actions on others, would that produce more responsible adults? If we attended to kids’ minds and their hearts, would we have a more peaceful community?

All people need fellowship and fun and bonding. If we don’t provide healthy connections for kids, they may gravitate to destructive relationships that can lead them down a risky and unsafe path. If we really want a safer community, we need to work together to develop our young people to become their best selves. Individually, we may not have all that they need, but if we work together I believe that we can. If it takes a village to raise a child, then all caring and conscientious adults have a role to play. What IF we all played our part …?

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

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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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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