Before she became America’s First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald was a New York City teen deemed “ungovernable,” and sent up the Hudson River to a racially segregated group home for “incorrigible” girls, where she was barred from singing in the choir.
The stigmatizing terms for an iconic figure who would go on to record 200 albums and 2,000 songs, reported by the New York Times in 1996, remain embedded in state law today. Under the 1962 Family Court Act, youth can come under court supervision after being found “incorrigible,” “ungovernable” or “habitually disobedient.”
But as millions of people across the country protest racial injustice, New York lawmakers moved closer this week to striking some of this archaic terminology. A bill approved by the state Senate Wednesday and now moving to the state Assembly would end the labeling of youth in need of behavioral health services as “incorrigible,” a designation that has led to hundreds of kids being placed in state care.
“The term is incompatible with what we say are the goals of the Family Court system, which are to help or assist young people,” said Mark Mishler, legislative director and counsel to Democratic Sen. Julia Salazar, author of Senate Bill S7930. “The Family Court should never say that any young person can’t be corrected or does not have positive potential. We think it’s important to get rid of this word, with its old-fashioned, racist and sexist connotations, used to drag people into the legal system in a way that is not beneficial to them.”
The word incorrigible has a long and fraught history in New York law. For at least a half-century, it’s been used in Family Court proceedings after parents, the police or school employees ask the state to supervise a youth they feel is “beyond the lawful control of a parent or other person legally responsible for such child’s care.”
If a judge finds that the youth is indeed “in need of supervision,” they may wind up in a foster home or institutional setting for up to 12 months. Others can be sent home under the supervision of probation or social services.
As of March 31, more than 220 kids younger than 18 were in out-of-home placements as a result of “persons in need of supervision” findings, according to the state Office of Children and Family Services.
Brooklyn Sen. Salazar finds the term incorrigible outmoded and unacceptable. In a memo arguing for her pending legislation, Salazar said such language “singles out girls of color for not matching expectations of stereotypical ‘feminine’ behavior and labels them as ‘uncorrectable’ or ‘unreformable.’”
In 2018, nearly half of “persons in need of supervision” court petitions involved Latino or Black youth. During the 2018-19 school year, 57% of all police interventions in New York City schools involved Black girls, according to the legal advocacy group Girls for Gender Equity.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “incorrigible” as “bad or depraved beyond correction or reform,” a word derived from an ancient Latin term loosely translated as “not to be corrected.” By contrast, New York’s modern Family Courts are considered venues for rehabilitation of youth, who are widely considered by brain development experts to have more capacity than adults to evolve and mature.
In March, holding posters saying such things as “Encourageable not Incorrigible,” two dozen high school students with the Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity joined Salazar and Assemblymember Aravella Simotas to announce legislation amending the Family Court Act.
“The juvenile legal system and probation and Family Court can do so much harm to girls of color and Black girls in particular,” said Ashley Sawyer, a director with Girls for Gender Equity. “We see Black girls being criminalized with the use of terms like ‘incorrigible’ and ‘habitually defiant’ that have such a sexist history.”
Moving forward amid one of America’s most dramatic shifts in attitudes toward systemic racism following the killing by police of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the bill will now be carried through the state Assembly by Simotas, a Queens Democrat.
The progress of the legislation indicates that the power of Fitzgerald’s stifled young voice may ultimately emerge triumphant.
The legendary American songstress is listed in the decades-old “General Record of Girls Committed,” a registry documenting arrival at the now-closed New York State Training School for Girls in Hudson, New York. A photo of the registry in the New York State Archives, shared with The Imprint by the artist and researcher Alison Cornyn, shows Fitzgerald as committed on April 10, 1933, at age 15. Under the “Offense” column, it describes her as “ungovernable and will not obey the just and lawful commands.”
Other young teenage girls committed that year had been labeled “incorrigible” and “habitually disobedient” in the log book.
In an interview with The Times nearly three decades ago, a former English teacher at the school remembers Fitzgerald as a model student, who was not allowed in the all-white school choir.
“We didn’t know what we were looking at,” a then 87-year-old E.M. O’ Rourke told The Times’ Nina Bernstein. “We didn’t know she would be the future Ella Fitzgerald.”
Incorrigibles, a state and federally funded project, has been collecting firsthand accounts from surviving residents of the girls institution where Fitzgerald lived briefly in the 1930s. The project’s director, Cornyn, said she nearly cried when she saw a reporter’s email Thursday with news of the state Senate’s approval of a bill striking the “incorrigible” term from the legal code.
“The idea is almost that somebody needs to be thrown away, that they are a lost cause, if you think about the specific definition,” Cornyn said. “But nobody is a lost cause, especially young people.”
Chuck Carroll contributed to this report.