“Setting our children free will make us safer, not less so… Raze the buildings, free the children, and begin anew.” Nell Bernstein
I spend a great deal of my ministry listening to the stories of young people--on the streets, in jails, in camps, and on street corners. When I listen to their stories and witness their courage, I always feel like they have the courage, the hope, the will, the vision to change our world. It is no secret young men and women have always formed the backbone of movements for change around the world. It also seems that they face the most repression and hatred.
While juvenile detention rates are falling in the US, they have not been falling in Grays Harbor County. This county in particular has been known for strict adherence to juvenile justice codes and one might say these policies left their mark on several generations of our children. Most of the crack down has been on status offenses (offenses that would not be punishable if the offender were an adult: truancy, drinking while underage, running away), giving Grays Harbor the dubious distinction of incarcerating the highest rate of child status offenders in the country.
I remember, as a child, living in a rough neighborhood in central California. The couple next door would frequently lock their daughter, just a few years younger than myself, in her room or in a bathroom for extended periods of time as punishment, or simply as confinement when they left the house. As a 10 year old, what I remember most was her endless screaming and crying. No one, but especially not a child, is designed to be locked alone in small places.
A practice well known to break adults, isolation is a widespread and common practice in our juvenile justice system. Recently, the juvenile facility in Junction City came under fire when family reported that their son was kept in solitary confinement for a week (a practice that many consider torture), leaving him suicidal and depressed. While the behavior of the parents in my childhood neighborhood was eventually reported and investigated as child abuse, the same behavior in a juvenile jail or prison has been considered not only legal but normative.
Nell Bernstein recently published an expose called Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison. She documents the beginnings of the juvenile justice system in the 18th century “as a mechanism for gaining control over the children of the poor.” Relying on extensive interviews and data collection, she documents story after story of isolation and dehumanization and abuse. For example, 1 in 5 children reported sexual abuse at the hands of guards. For many children, the trauma is too great and, in some states, the recidivism rate for juvenile offenders was 80%. Bernstein argues that the very act of isolating and locking children up just when they most need relationship and love is in and of itself traumatizing and destructive.
Bernstein's documentation squares up with the stories I hear on the streets and in jails. Across the country, young people have told me about their experiences in juvie: getting their bones broken during arrest, spending so many months in solitary that it permanently affected their mental health, being told by judges and jailers over and over that they would never amount to anything, learning to defend themselves because they have no other choice, recognizing that as children they simply have no rights (legal or otherwise), spending more of their lives on the inside than out, losing hope in any possible future, losing faith, developing a consistent fear and hatred for authority. Many of these children have already endured significant trauma in their lives—they have been handed around in foster homes, they have been sexually and physically abused, they have lost significant numbers of family and friends, they have lived on the streets. Sometimes, juvie is the thing that breaks them.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl writes that “there will always be individuals and societies that turn against their children.” This is overwhelmingly evident on the streets of Grays Harbor.
In Grays Harbor, judges are quick to defend the extensive use of the juvenile justice system. We, and the system our society has created, seem to have forgotten that our children are our future. A community that victimizes them, jails them, beats them, leaves them living under bridges, and hands them from foster home to foster home, labeling them criminals, predators, and dangers to society will one day reap what we sow.
For me, on my end, I watch kids leave the system and enter early adulthood with few resources. As young adults, they often hustle on the street to survive and they continue to fill the jails on a regular basis, creating an endless cycle of street to jail or prison.
I watch these young people, with a courage born of desperation and an indomitable will to survive no matter the odds, desperately fight for life in a world that does not seem to care if they live or die. And I wonder: why have we turned against our children? How can we possibly expect a bright future if our young people are relegated to the margins without any future or hope for something better? How do we listen to the voices of our children, of our future?