They’re called “throwaway kids” or “super predators.” They’re assumed to be the product of “bad parenting.” They’re “unloved and unwanted,” we’re told — “unwanted” except by the prison industrial complex.
Well, guess what: As thinking Louisianans learned the hard way, labeling troubled kids like that tended to become a self-fulfilling predictor of lives lost to alienation and dysfunction. Juvenile prisons turned out to be highly efficient factories for the manufacture of criminals.
Over the past decade and a half, we’ve made some progress in reducing the incarceration of children in Louisiana and other states, but work is badly needed on the other end of the “school to prison pipeline.” We now need to build and resource the programs and services that help young people coming out of adjudication to reconnect with their communities and build successful lives within them.
And that means we need help — yours included.
Twenty years ago, when I began my journey in what I call “the youth injustice system,” as the office manager of the newly formed Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) I took countless phone calls from frantic and overwhelmed parents seeking help for their children.
Typically they would have been referred to the court system’s Families in Need of Services (FINS) program, only to despair of getting the services their kids needed. They’d turn to us at JJPL.
I recall a very involved mom who called about her son “Tommy,” Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Tommy was a child with significant medical issues who presented enormous challenges to his mother, who was single. She had tried all of the limited resources at her disposal. Eventually, in a state of desperation, she turned to FINS for help and allowed her son to be sent to a “boot camp.”
It wasn’t a solution and soon Tommy’s untreated medical condition landed him in the state prison system’s now-closed Jetson Correctional Facility. There, his ADHD and other mental health issues went completely untreated and he was beaten by two guards. Failed by a system purporting to help, he was released with no aftercare plan.
Tommy’s life had been forever changed, but for the worse. He was filled with anger and never trusted people again because he never got the help he needed. He spent later years in adult prison and was in and out of treatment facilities. His relationship with his mother was never the same. I remember her saying through tears that she needed more help when he came home than she needed before she entrusted him to “the system.”
Tommy’s mother was one of too many parents who handed their children over to FINS, not realizing that the child would become trapped and consumed by an increasingly privatized prison system, one that offered substandard treatment while profiting financially off each child left rotting behind bars.
At the turn of the century, there were over 2,000 children incarcerated in Louisiana, more than half of them for minor, non-violent offenses. When the system opened its gates it would spit out children with no measures in place to ensure these kids were successful in re-entering their communities.
I worked with parents to organize a statewide nonprofit now known as Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. FFLIC helped educate the state legislature to pass the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003. This bill closed the notorious Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth and ended private prisons for juveniles in Louisiana.
It also ended the correctional style of treatment for children, replacing it with a more rehabilitative model built around treatment services. The bill provided positive behavior supports and restorative practices to keep those vulnerable children off the streets and in school learning.
Much has changed since then, but there is still much to be done. Today there are fewer than 400 children in the state system, but more than 40 percent of them have mental health needs. Missing from the reforms are the community-based services that could support those young people when they return home — the support that helps them resume an education, get a job and deal with mental health problems.
Meanwhile, zero-tolerance behavioral policies continue to push children out of schools and into the criminal justice system. FFLIC focuses on helping parents stand up for their children and keep them from being sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline. But even with these reforms in place for more than 14 years, children are still being criminalized for youthful mistakes.
Last year FFLIC fought for six months to have a suspension removed from a five-year-old child’s record for “stealing a ChapStick” that was on a craft table during art time. The suspension ended, but the child, now seven, will have that “theft” on his record for the rest of his academic career. He will also live with the trauma of being made to feel like a “thief” by the school. Teachers are still labeling him a “problem child” and denying him opportunities for accelerated learning despite his being very bright — precisely the kind of student who would benefit from a more challenging curriculum.
For the past 16 years, FFLIC has been on the cutting edge of family engagement, youth justice, education reform and now youth organizing. The stories remain the same: not enough services in the community. Parents who are already in poverty are being made to pay the high cost of school uniforms or see their children kicked out. I know a parent who was slapped with a $10,000 bond for a child who was locked up for accidentally breaking a neighbor’s car window with a BB-gun.
Working to combat the war on our children, FFLIC has developed our Let Kids Be Kids campaign to educate lawmakers on the many ways they deny children their basic needs and then criminalize their youthful mistakes. Working with our families, FFLIC has developed a three-point platform that identifies the barriers our families continue to face even after reforms were put in place. This platform will educate lawmakers on ways to reduce the mistreatment that leads to the incarceration of children. If we truly want to end the practice of jailing youth because they are struggling, we can’t continue to cut needed services and underfund those that remain.
Since the juvenile justice reforms of 2003, FFLIC has remained on the forefront, holding systems accountable to do right by our children. After a lot of hard work, we recently received the unique and unprecedented opportunity to collaborate with the state Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) on our Ujima Project.
FFLIC’s Ujima Project is designed to ensure that children who have been locked in Louisiana’s Juvenile Justice System have the support and resources they need upon return to their communities. Many young people tell us they don’t even know what it means to live a successful life. We pair them with mentors from our youth group, Black Man Rising, to develop a vision and a plan for success, a plan shaped by input from the young person. What better way to create the buy-in that turns a dream into a commitment and a child into a productive adult.
Ujima connects the dots. We assist in organizing the peer support that helps young people reach for a more promising future, surrounded with supportive caring adults. Incorporating one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, Ujima seeks to build and maintain community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, so we can solve them together.
FFLIC seeks to celebrate the child’s release and reunite the child, family and community to support the youth’s success plan. It doubles as a strategy to reduce Louisiana’s recidivism rates — among the nation’s very highest, especially when it comes to youth returned to correctional custody for committing new crimes within two to three years of release.
Many parents report the shame associated with having a child incarcerated, and in many cases, the families are isolated and lack support when their children come home. Coupled with the lack of available community- based programs, this grievous deficit leaves families only more frustrated and their children at greater risk of a deeper descent into the system.
FFLIC knows that family, community and solid programming are the key to the child feeling loved and supported. To learn more about getting involved, please call me at 504.708.8376 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is available online at www.fflic.org
A New Orleans native, Gina Womack is executive director of Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children.
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.