The Double-Edged Sword of the Justice System

We launched a writing contest to see what former foster youth had to say about their time in care or their experiences with the justice system. The contest gave youth the opportunity to write on one of three themes: “What does home mean to you?” “What’s one thing the child welfare or juvenile justice system could have done to help you but didn’t?” and “How has the criminal justice and/or correctional system impacted your family and you personally?” Here is the winning essay for the “justice system impact” category.

As someone who grew up in a strict, religious society, I was never one for trouble. Sure, I would rebel against my mom every now and then and not tell the whole truth to a story, but I never got in trouble with the law. The law terrified me to the point where I never broke it. My father was the one who taught me that. He always said that I could never lead the life I wanted if I wasted it trying to prove to authorities that I was the bigger man. I always believed that and followed the rules. It’s a little funny, since my father is currently serving a 30-year sentence in prison.

The day my father was arrested was the last time I saw him for about four years. Despite his actions that led to his arrest, he was my favorite parent. He taught me about the nerdy side of life. He showed me the “must” of all sci-fi: Star Wars (originals and prequels), Star Trek, Stargate, a lot of old black and white films, and many more. This man influenced my love of reading, my interest in crossword and sudoku puzzles, and my love for video games, even though I am terrible at them. He also ruined me: my mental health, trust and innocence.

It’s been almost 16 years since he sexually abused me, and to this day, as a 21-year-old, I can’t cope like I should. The day he was arrested was sad and a relief. I never knew that what he did to me could be punishable by law because I was a kid. I believed that it was normal until I was a teenager and began to question everything.

Mari Reaves

I wasn’t allowed to go to the court hearings for my father because they concerned me and my family. I wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to my father. There were so many things that as a 14-year-old I didn’t understand. I was legally banned from ever seeing my father until I was 18. I couldn’t talk to him, write to him, see him, or pretty much ask about him. The correctional system deprived me of closure from my father. Instead they put me in a room and made me talk about the terrible things he had done. What they didn’t know is that he stuck up for me when my mom tried to abuse me. He held my mom back from hurting me countless times. He abused me in his own way and I knew that, but not all villains are evil through and through.

The correctional system thinks they know best when it comes to the well-being of others. “It’s not your fault” was said several times to me. I know it wasn’t my fault for anything that happened, but apparently, I’m not allowed to feel any sort of love or empathy toward my dad. I wasn’t allowed to be sad that he was gone. I was supposed to feel happy that he’s rotting away in prison for the rest of his life. The criminal justice system has deprived my father of his humanity.

My family fell apart because of this. My mother’s relationship with me got worse by the minute. She was so happy he was gone. My oldest brother was away at college, so he wasn’t around much. My other brother did what he had to do to cope with it and my youngest siblings depended on me. My mother hated me more and more and I just needed to get out. I had to hold everyone and everything together because I was old enough to comprehend what was going on. I knew things were going to get worse, and I had to lie to my 12-year-old brother and my 10-year-old sister by telling them things were going to be OK.

My dad being arrested made me grow up into a 30-year-old at the age of 15. I had to figure all of life out before I was 16. Instead of going out with friends, dating boys and having a normal teen-hood, I had to sit at home and hold my little sister while she cried. I had to console my siblings and be their parent because our own parents were lacking. I defended my siblings when my foster dad cursed at us, swung at us and kicked us out of his house. I had to go through so much that no 15-year-old should, and when I got separated from my siblings, that was the end of it. My mental health was destroyed. When you’re a certain age, the system — justice and foster — seems to think that you’re ready for the “adult” talk. The talk about placements, where I want to go, things my mom said in meetings to my caseworker, etc. I told myself that I was grown up, but I wasn’t. I didn’t get the childhood I needed, and I didn’t get my teenage years either.

The correctional system ruined my life in many ways, but it also saved me from an imminent suicide. I’m not sure that would have ever happened but if I had stayed where I was for any longer, I know I would have tried to take my life because no one in their right mind needs to live the way I lived before my father was arrested. My dad being arrested was a wake-up call; almost like I woke up from a haze. I was brainwashed my whole life and when the real world came in and took my dad away, they pushed me into a brand-new world.

I can’t say the same for my four other siblings because it’s not my story to tell. We all dealt with it differently, some of us still in denial that my father is a true sex offender and criminal. I’m the only one out of my siblings (as far as I know) that has openly talked about this. I don’t think it should be forgotten and put behind me. I think that the issue of how my dad was arrested should be openly discussed, but that’s not how I was raised. I was raised to hide all my problems behind closed doors. However, my mom always told me I had a big mouth, so I’ve never been afraid to talk about this issue.

The issue being that I was rescued from a dangerous household, society and mental state. The issue that I should be upset that my family was torn apart. The correctional system took part in helping me even though they never really knew that. Their involvement in arresting my dad led to bigger things. It led to Catoosa County and Walker County officials to make sure my family was transitioning from having a dad to being without one. Only by doing so, they were able to reveal that my mother was also abusive, and I was placed into the foster care system with my two younger siblings. From there, we were able to finally live a somewhat normal life. My little sister and I ended up getting adopted by the same great parents and I keep my little brother close by at college with me. The way things turned out for my family isn’t exactly a happy ending to a sad story. It didn’t end happy for most of us, but it usually never does. It’s sad that sometimes things need to get messy to be put in order. Some things need to be trashed for new things to come into play. I don’t have many regrets after this whole ordeal happened except that I never got to say goodbye. The last time I saw my father was when I was 18, sitting on the stand in court and watching my father sign his parental rights away. I never got the proper goodbye, but I guess no one does.

There’s a good and bad side to what the correctional system has done for me and my family. It tore us apart, but it gave me a chance to be free and live a life that’s not under strict order and secrecy.

Mariann “Mari” Reaves, 21, has a dog named Lucy. She’s currently enrolled in Kennesaw State University while also training to be a dog show handler. She was in foster care for five years and was adopted by a great younger couple along with her little sister.

Right now, Fostering Media Connections, publisher of The Imprint, has the opportunity to raise $10,000 in matching funds, but we need your help! With your support, we can work with more former foster youth writers to share stories like this one.

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