Recently I went up to Portland (OR) to visit with my dad and to take my two sons to see the Stanley Cup. As I took a morning walk, I passed a bus stop. It wasn’t just a bench seat with a pole in front of it detailing the number and destination of the next bus. It was a stone square with the front seat blocked from view unless you peered over as you walked by. As I passed, I noticed two feet sticking off the edge of the seat. Those feet were attached to a person wearing dirty black jeans and a ratty black hoodie. His arms were clenched to his chest fists tightly curled. Even in sleep, this person looked like he was ready to come up swinging. The beautiful relaxation evident in those I love when I gaze at their sleeping faces was far removed from the tense expression before me. It’s not unusual to see the homeless in the city, but what was striking to me was the sleeping face belonged to a young boy, maybe 14.
After my trip to Portland, I returned to my small town with just fleeting images of the boy on the bus bench and a lingering sadness in my heart. Reading the daily news, the headline grabbed my attention, “Teen Arrested in Florida Bomb Plot.” I clicked on the headline and a picture of the 17-year old accused of planning death and mayhem at a school in Florida popped up. I stared at the photo for a long time wondering where the anger, the destruction and the hurt originated. I said a silent prayer for him and those he had planned on murdering. My heart sagged further.
My teenage son has a friend who comes from “that family”. When the two boys became friends three years ago, my son’s friend lived with his grandmother in town. Wondering about his parents, I asked. His mom, he said had left and his dad was just busy. He said all this with a matter-of-fact look that made me ache. The first year they were friends, they still spent a lot of their time “playing” such as the time they took blow-up float toys to the river and had to walk across the golf course, shirtless and shoeless carrying giant orcas. Or the time around Halloween, I took them to the mall and they ended up one in a banana suit and the other in a gorilla suit running through Target. Last school year, his dad regained custody and he moved about 5 miles outside of town. He stopped coming to our house as much and I would see him wandering around town sometimes late into the night. He began to take on the look of a child making poor choices with no supervision. Each time I see him, my heart breaks a little more.
Although it’s easy to think negatively with images of substance abuse, violent behavior and other actions committed by juveniles, I believe we must keep our compassion. Teens do commit atrocious crimes and create a lot of hurt. I recognize that. I’ve been accused of living in a fantasy world when I continue to look into the faces of these children and dream of bigger things. My mind tries to wrap around solutions and not the current problems and behaviors. I also work with children who have severe trauma history and I recognize many of our problem youth have been harmed by adults. Child neglect and abuse are pervasive in our society whether it’s intentional or because so many adults suffer under the weight of their own addictions and mental health issues.
In response to a post I made, my friends stated the issue with these children is they do not have good parents. Often this is the case, but do we, as justice professionals, just accept that, write them off, lock them up and move on? I don’t think so. The members of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) don’t appear to either. Recently, the IACP conducted the Juvenile Justice Training Needs Assessment Survey. The goal was to identify challenges and training needs in reference to juvenile crime, delinquency and victimization. Essentially, the IACP searched for answers to the questions, “What can we do? How can we do it?” In analyzing the 672 law enforcement responses, I saw a common thread and felt validated in my “fantasy” belief children are worth saving and, as professionals, it’s our job to do everything we can to do so. Survey participants indicated the top three things their agency would need to more effectively manage juvenile or youth-involved cases would be: