In New York, foster youth are subjected to the “Raise the Age” policy, which prosecutes teens as adults for criminal offenses, causing older foster youth to be put in juvenile justice centers or detention facilities because they don’t have a proper family placement. This policy advocates and enforces increasing the age limit to 18 and older for putting youth into these prison facilities. However, we should not be raising the age. Instead, we should be erasing the age. Erasing the age creates a system with no age limit, instead of the “raise the age” approach, which feels like a three strikes-you’re-out rule. The first strike is to be alone, with no parental or guardian supervision. The second strike is your cultural background. The third strike is your criminal history and age. With these strikes against you, the “raise the age” policy enables a system built to help the youth fail. Without an age limit, we can help everyone from childhood to young adulthood stay out of these juvenile justice facilities and gain access to the resources they need to survive and thrive.
Growing up, I had no family. My dad suffered from alcohol abuse, and my grandma was an elderly woman who could not care for me. By the time I got to the fourth grade, I had to teach myself how to do everything, like putting on sanitary products. Maybe it would have helped to be older, as this situation was overwhelming. I was only a child with no one to talk to or explain myself to. I felt accused, and to society, I was a criminal.
When I was 11, I got arrested for the first time for fighting with a peer from school because I broke her eyeglasses. The girl’s mom came to the school with the police and wanted to press charges on me and have me pay for them. The teachers could not contact my father. They arrested me in front of everyone and took me to the precinct. That was one of the worst days of my life because I was young and emotionally unstable.
I look back now at that moment and realize I felt embarrassed, sad, alone, and outraged. I was angry because I had no one to talk to and ask me what happened or why it happened. I didn’t have anyone to speak on my behalf. It became a habit for me, fighting every day in school. I would get picked on and did not even understand why I was being bullied, so I would get into a fight. I would be the one to get arrested because the student always came with their parents, and I didn’t even have a guardian to come to my defense.
At 12, I got arrested again. This time, it was not because of a fight. I was hanging with an older crowd who snatched another person’s phone and ran away, so I did the same. We were all caught. The person did not end up pressing charges because we were still children. Everyone’s parents came to pick them up from the precinct, and I was there again, alone. My grandma could not make it this time, so I was thrown into a juvenile detention center for three months until my dad sobered up and took me home.
Eventually, I was put in foster care. I was not asked if I would like the placement or foster parents. I was just placed there. No child should have to go through that. There should be a system where the child can meet the family first, see the environment, and have a choice on whether or not they want to stay at the placement. It’s horrible to go through a group home system with staff that curse and yell at you all day before you get a placement or a foster parent that doesn’t care and neglects you, and now you’re being bounced around to different strangers’ homes or just mostly around strangers all your life. You don’t know who has your best interest at heart. The child welfare system needs new solutions to provide foster youth with the things they need for a stable home environment.
Potential solutions to improve the system:
- Mental health support is necessary for juveniles. Youth should not have to experience the feeling of being put in chains and cuffs, especially in the Black community. It is a traumatic experience for an 11-year-old African American kid to get into a fight and end up handcuffed and thrown into the back seat of a police car. If this were the case for a white child of the same age, police would try to calm the child down, find someone to talk to them, or send them to the hospital for assistance. Discrimination has to stop.
- The legal system should always focus on reunifying families together. This can be done by protecting the parents or guardians and assisting them in obtaining appropriate resources, such as funding and access to mental health services. It is about giving parents group therapy with specialists so that they have a safe place to go and express themselves. The youth deserve the same: a safe space for their mental health. Treatment, or hotline they can call and talk to, should always be available 24/7.
- Foster parents must also have a relationship with the parent or guardian. There should be a program for foster families to meet the actual ones. For example, kids who are born into the system or do not have kinship, like me, should have options to pick their family or look into a database where they can find long-lost family members who might be willing to take them.
- They should also close juvenile halls and open safe havens for children to access resources instead of shutting them down with cuffs on their wrists and putting them in jails. Courthouses should not be involved, and the judges should not have the right to decide where a child ends up. It should always be the child, the parents, and the social worker’s decision.
Yes, we all know everything takes time to fix. But if we start from within and act now, we can make a change with the children of the future. This way, we do not let society label us criminals or say we are too damaged to become anything. We are still the future doctors, lawyers, and business owners. By erasing the age, we can help more children have a brighter future and become leaders who give great examples, demonstrating that the foster care system is not the end of the road. Do not raise the age; instead, erase the age!