Based on my personal experience, I do not believe that children and youth should be incarcerated or detained. When this happens, it does harm to them that will last throughout their lives. Incarceration impairs their development and limits the life outcomes for adolescents. Resources could be better used to rehabilitate youth by offering them services and support. Many youths who have experienced trauma will not receive the help they need in order to overcome it. The goals of alternatives should be aimed at rebuilding individuals and strengthening families, but there is a punishment-based model of policing instead.
As a juvenile, I was taken away from my family. This disrupted my whole life by severing every tie that connected me to my existence. Contact with family and friends was cut off. There were short visits and sporadic collect calls, but these proved to be futile efforts of preserving contact over the years. It was difficult to maintain relationships with my family because I lost contact with most of them. School was no longer a priority because I was stuck in a juvenile justice system that did not value my education. I did not get the foundation that I would need to survive in the real world. This same system did not value my future or care to see if I had one. My religious beliefs also did not matter. I was completely separated from my long-standing community support that I had in my church group back at home. My art and recreational activities were not factored in either. I had many different passions that were extinguished by my incarceration. Stripping away everything that I cared about left me feeling broken and hopeless.
Being in the juvenile justice system traumatized me. I am still haunted by the emotional anguish of family separation, the lack of support especially when things were bad, and the hindered emotional development that arose from years of compounded abuse. Mistreatment was reoccurring in my group home and foster home placements. The daily sound of yelling and facing hostility made me put up walls and have trust issues. The tears lasted for days, months, and years on end without solace. Neglect went on in plain sight and was ignored. I experienced the displacement of being shipped around like cattle and having no say-so in the matter. I unfortunately experienced overt racism because of my skin color. I constantly felt inadequate and worthless. I felt like I belonged nowhere and just wanted to go home. The screams and inconsolable sorrow that I witnessed going on for hours at a time gave me nightmares. I was torn away from the new people I met and cared about and lost every friendship that I tried to build. Instability and turmoil replaced my otherwise happy teenage life that I would have most likely had at home.
There was no plan. The intention to give me permanency was never there. There were no provisions made for our healthy development or well-being. Mental health support was getting put into an isolation room with the light on 24/7 for supervision. It was hard to find anyone who cared. Occasionally, someone did, and it helped to make life bearable. No youth should ever have to look in the mirror and consider their own life unbearable. I know numerous youths who lost all hope and decided to give up on their lives very young. They chose drugs and the streets. They searched for love but found death. They should still be here, but their lives were failed by the people who should have cared about them.
I look back now and wish that there could have been a clear path to getting my life in order. I got out of juvenile hall and foster care with the clothes on my back and was homeless. No youth should ever become homeless once they turn 18. No youth should ever have to eat food from the garbage can or steal food like I had to. There should be supports in place. I wish that there could have been a school-to-college pipeline or a safe transition into adulthood. Job training for actual careers and/or having a certificate or degree in a field that’s useful is vital to having self-sufficiency. Funding for former foster youth should last as long as it is needed by the person. Having the cutoff at age 18 or 25 is leaving too many people vulnerable to harm. I am almost 40 and I’m still struggling. The cost of living is increasing exponentially. It is too hard to come out of the juvenile justice/foster care system and be able to survive. It took years to become stable, and that eventually only happened for me by chance. I struggled more than I should have had to. I almost didn’t make it.
Strengthening families should be a priority. Both incarcerated youth and their parents should not be barred from each other. Something should have been done to protect and maintain my relationships with my family and my friends. My parents, grandparents, siblings, and extended family should have stayed in my life. This was my support system. My contact with everyone was broken. The friends that I made while in custody became valuable to me. There are so many people that grew dear to me, only to get removed from my life permanently through moving from placement to placement. I still miss my friends, and I know I’ll never see them again. Having to lose all of the people I cared about in life was like dying an emotional death. Most of my relationships today are hindered by my time in custody and by the impact that it had on me. Some of my relationships were not able to be rebuilt. The broken attachment and time did not heal me.
Every result of youth who are aging out of care is a policy decision. If policy was in place to ensure that all youth had access to education, employment, and housing, I think there would be better outcomes. I returned to the same neighborhood and was disconnected from resources that would have helped me. Other resources that I would have needed to gain stability just were not available. Housing is still not available. I should have been able to go into the community and get reintegrated instead of just being dumped in the street. Support could have been in place to set me up with employment. I could have been taught basic life skills like building good credit and budgeting. I could have also learned about what it takes to have good mental health and physical health. Instead, I was hindered by the lack of knowledge and put at an extreme disadvantage. I still feel like I am far behind, even though many years have passed since my experience of detention. Youth must be able to thrive and have positive aspirations for their lives. The adults around them need to make sure that this is possible, and resources need to be made available for it to become a reality.