I’m compelled to write about the work I’m doing now with my new employer, Volunteers of America, Dakotas. I do many things with VOA, but among my favorite duties is working with youth through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). You can research for yourself what’s all entailed, but the premise recognizes that kids are inherently good creatures who sometimes make mistakes either through their own poopheadedness, or (more likely) as a result of their circumstances. VOA was awarded a grant to make the programs I work for – the Reception Center and Evening Report Center – happen. South Dakota was in desperate need of reform; for several years now, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and other entities consistently ranked our fair state as one of the worst when it came to incarcerating youth. Can guess which demographic was detained more than others? Sadly, Native American youth in South Dakota are more likely to go to prison than college.
Don’t get me wrong; there are many reasons for which I agree detention is warranted. However, having been a troubled youth myself and having worked with at-risk kids the past four years, I know most kids need treatment, recovery, and lots of counseling – not bunks, bars, and solitary confinement. Hugs and good listening work well, too. I mean, what options are left for kids who get thrown into juvenile detention centers (JDC)* and then get released to the same environments with no new resources? It’s a cruel and vicious system setting them up to be professional offenders.
So a coalition of sorts was established and VOA stepped forward to house the JDAI programs. We work in partnership with the Department of Corrections, JDC, law enforcement, social service agencies and others to make this program a success. Here’s how it works: A child is arrested for something, often runaway, petty theft, curfew violation, or minor infractions, such as fighting in school or yelling at teachers (which in this town often leads to an automatic suspension – #schooltoprisonpipeline). They’re taken by police to JDC where they undergo an assessment of sorts to determine whether they’re eligible for our program – we cannot accept youth who exhibit violent behaviors or need detox or are threatening to hurt themselves. Police then bring the youth to our location (which is a stone’s throw from JDC, conveniently) and we do further assessment of ongoing or future needs. Because we can offer free or reduce-cost services through VOA (family counseling, community service, GED/diploma study, etc.), we can get the kids hooked in to some valuable on-the-spot services. Once our assessment is complete, the youth stay in our care until a parent or guardian can pick them up.
It’s important to note how our facility is situated: No bars in sight. Kids have described it as homey and comfortable. We have food and the kids cook it themselves if they’re hungry. We have games and books (although we could use some age-appropriate – 13-17 – donations in that area, hint-hint) and cable TV. We have a fully-equipped gym. It’s a pretty neat place, actually. And we send the kids home knowing we’ve also given their parents resources and strategies to cope with their child’s behavior. Most importantly, in-person follow-ups are completed to make sure those resources are utilized.
We’re still in our infancy, but we’re consistently thrown examples of why these programs are needed and effective. Here’s a recent instance: “John” comes in throwing a nice tantrum. He’s 16 and mad as hell. Someone triggered his anger and he began yelling and cussing out the people he was around. He started punching walls and throwing stuff. So the cops came and he was taken to JDC. Because he hasn’t had any other infractions, he came to me at the Reception Center. The cops uncuff him (kids + handcuffs = sad state of affairs) and leave. I call the number for his guardian, but John tells me that number often doesn’t work. So we try a few other numbers. Someone answers one of the calls but can’t be bothered to pick up John right now. He’ll get a message to one of John’s relatives. Maybe. So I get to talking with John. He calls me a bunch of names, but I’m confident enough to know I’m not really a “mean bitch” like he says and I offer him something to eat. He must’ve been starving because he ate the whole box of crackers I offered him. That calms him down a lot. I ask if he likes music and that gets him talking. We discuss the merits of Drake and Lil’ Wayne and move seamlessly into what got him so angry. By this time he knows my real name and he’s told me where he’s from and what went down from his perspective. Turns out his dad died not long ago and someone in the group he was with was making fun of dead folks and he snapped. He really couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was said, just that he really misses his dad. He stays with an older brother, but he’s moved around so much that he just hangs out with whomever has something going on. His mom lives and works five hours away in Pine Ridge; she doesn’t have a car, so she can’t see him, although he says she calls him once a month (if you’re heart isn’t aching for this kid by now… then you have no heart). He calmed down enough after about 30 minutes to sit and do our assessment paperwork. It’s quite thorough questioning we do, so that he was able to sit with me and complete the whole thing (a good hour’s worth of questions) says a lot about his patience, social skills, and desire to connect.
I love kids. And my path has always been to help them however I can. It’s a cultural thing for Native Americans; in Lakota, the word for children – wakanyeja – literally translates to “spirit being” or “holy being.” That says a lot about how my culture traditionally viewed young people. I’ve tried to incorporate this concept into my personal and professional life. Mentoring is a particular proclivity of mine. I feel like all the negativity (group homes, cop cars, teen pregnancy, OH MY!) I’ve experienced in life allows me to relate and connect with these kids more effectively than others. I wish I could take all these kiddos home and hug them for all they’re worth (that’s a lot of hugs!). I know that’s not a magic bullet; they’re still going to make mistakes in life. But if for the two or three hours I have access to them I can be a positive influence, then who am I not to take full advantage of that time?
One of my classes this summer semester is a graduate research course in administration. We come up with topics (sky’s the limit really) and write a research paper. Pretty basic. We discuss our topics with other classmates to hone our research, which for me has been pretty helpful. One classmate in particular got my attention with her project on JDAI. She works with a detention program in South Dakota and she wants to show how ineffective JDAI programs are in benefiting youth. You can probably imagine my reaction (something along the lines of “ARGH!!”). But I wrote to her how I could see she obviously had the right focus (in helping at-risk youth) and that I would personally and professionally be interested in reading her results, being that I work for the state’s only JDAI program (which really hasn’t been around long enough to track the kind of impact she hypothesized). So I told her given my access to JDAI data I could help her come up with lots of reasons why it was, in fact, helpful and beneficial to youth. We shall see if she takes me up on the offer.
Incarceration is an easy – if expensive – answer to lots of our society’s problems. It beats having to deal with the real issues (poverty, inadequate public education, lack of resources for overburdened parents, ill-prepared young mothers, poor funding for under-staffed and over-worked non-profit community agencies… I could go on and on). What’s more, being incarcerated as a youth makes you 3 times more likely to enter adult prison later in life compared to those youth who aren’t incarcerated. Talk about a rough start in life. Actions and behaviors once associated with “typical” teenage behavior (i.e. dumb mistakes) were put into new context after Columbine and other school shootings. Metal detectors replaced administrative door greeters, pushing and shoving became classified as assault and battery, and skipping a class triggered truancy and runaway charges. The “school-to-prison pipeline” is not a new concept, but it’s certainly been an effective way to weed out impoverished and minority youth from schools.
I will leave you with one more heartbreaking story from one of my first overnight shifts: “Brian” is brought in. This quiet, tired, and undersized 11-year-old boy has his handcuffs removed after being picked up for curfew violation. It’s just after midnight on a Saturday morning. Turns out Brian’s father is serving a mandatory weekend in jail. His mother is long dead. Brian went home after school and missed the last city bus for a ride to a friend’s house across town where he would stay the weekend. So he started walking – no phone to call for a ride, and probably no money for an obscure pay phone somewhere. Stopped at another friend’s house for dinner on the way. Hoofed it again. Dilly-dallied at Wal-Mart for a while, continued walking. Police see him walking and take him to JDC where he’s given an assessment and it’s determined he can join me at JDAI. We call the friend’s mom and he’s sent on his way about two hours after arrival. If it weren’t for our program, Brian would have spent the whole weekend – maybe longer – locked up.
*I do not mean to imply JDC isn’t a valid option for some youth. I mean to imply it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to so-called “problem” children.