It was guitar class, freshman year of high school during my first week as a student. I was handcuffed outside of my classroom and read my Miranda rights by a campus security guard. I immediately went from class clown to “criminal” in the blink of an eye. That same campus police officer — the one that called me “laser boy” — thumbed through a criminal law book to find anything that he could charge me with in order to make an example out of me. I sat voiceless and defeated in that dingy security parlor, handcuffed for the entire school day. One count of “brandishing a replica firearm” and one count of “intimidation with a laser” later, I’m in the back of a patrol car on my way to being booked at the local juvenile justice center.
Mind you, this was a keychain laser no larger than a half dollar coin. The keychain was not even mine. My buddy had it attached to his keys. The juvenile justice system had just put its crosshair on my chest. It targeted me — a man who, to this day, won’t even kill bugs — as if I were prone to criminal behavior. That’s because I fit the description: young man of color involved in foster care with a significant history of trauma. I was bound to reenact at least some of what I was exposed to growing up.
Punitive justice. Biased discretion. Overcriminalization. These are a few things that demarcate the foster care-to-prison pipeline. My story, in that sense, is all too common among youth who are dually involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Later in life, I nearly lost my job because of a background check mishap. As a college-educated model citizen, volunteer and tea-loving enthusiast, I had to provide references to validate my good character and explain my high school arrest that happened roughly 10 years prior. It all falls back on overworked and overburdened social workers who don’t have the time of day to weed through the intricacies of privacy laws that “protect” youth in the child welfare system. It’s just a grossly misunderstood playing field because everyone is scared to communicate pertinent case-related context in the effort of discretion. The issue is that disclosure enters the room a little too late. Disclosure often comes after further penetration into the juvenile justice system has already occurred, at which point prevention is virtually gone. Both the juvenile justice and the child welfare systems end up being strictly reactive.
The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) was established to help “states, localities, and tribes develop effective and equitable juvenile justice systems that create safer communities and empower youth to lead productive lives.” Nowhere in its mission or vision statement does it acknowledge the necessity of communicating with other systems to get its job done effectively. However, clear information sharing guidance is needed for the success of its mission. The age-old issue here is a matter of miscommunication between local entities and federal regulators. It’s not OJJDP’s fault though; there’s a shroud of confusion that blankets the entire child welfare system. Plain and simple, no one fully understands how to navigate sharing important information about foster youths’ personal histories. That’s a flaw in the design of our child welfare system, which includes all of the systems that step in to provide life-changing “corrective measures” for our children in need.
Luckily, the child welfare system is in a period of change. As the voices of those with lived experience rise to the top, we see clearly the need for early family-based support and intervention. Think of it this way: the punitive attitude of a strictly reactive juvenile justice system overshadows the depth of needs that underlie the behavior for someone from my background. A majority of dually involved youth come from disadvantaged family backgrounds, have a history of running away, and are in out-of-home placements at the time of crossing over into the juvenile justice system. While the “foster care-to-prison” pipeline has been acknowledged, we need greater understanding of why foster youth enter the juvenile justice system, including the policing practices that lead to crossover and the key characteristics of at-risk youth.
More data collection and information sharing are needed. In March, U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) reintroduced the Childhood Outcomes Need New Efficient Community Teams (CONNECT) Act to authorize competitive grants to improve data collection on dual-status youth. This is a step in the right direction. Why not also require a simple database check before booking a minor with an offense? Just think of how a simple mention of my involvement in the child welfare system could have built empathy in the adults that treated me with callousness. I’ve experienced a lifetime of pain, chaos, and uncertainty before the age of 10 that affected the ways I bid for attention growing up. That is a pretty significant detail to leave out. So maybe give that a thought before you go on and reduce me to the word “delinquent.”