I have heard humans are adaptable creatures by nature countless times. Are we really? As adults we know life is unpredictable and there is not a straight line to follow. We have the ability, based on our unique experiences and maturity levels to understand we must do the best with what we have. Most of us are familiar with stress, depression, coping mechanisms, and even what a toxic and unhealthy environment feels like. Still, we continue to struggle to take right decisions and find a perfect life balance. When I was 12, I moved to the United States as a non-English speaker and while seemingly distinct, I can see how my experience as an immigrant can relate to what it might feel like going through the juvenile court system. I’ll explain.
Since I started working at the Office of the Juvenile Defender (OJD), I have had the opportunity to be present in court and see the faces of our youth there, some accompanied with families/friends, some alone, waiting to hear what will happen next. Although my privileged presence is completely different, I can see myself in their eyes.
1. Fear and Anxiety: As soon as we are comfortable with doing something, we don’t really think about how we felt the first time we did it. Do you think about the first time you drove a car? The first time you did something new?
I still remember my first day of school in the United States. As a 12-year-old, I remember thinking I was never going to understand a word in English. For me, this was certain and a fact. For children who find themselves in the system, it must be tremendously difficult to understand the severity of their actions, the consequences, and the terms in dispute.
2. Loss of Identity: As adults, we know there are consequences to mistakes, we know we commit mistakes because we are human, but for children, making a mistake, or in this case committing a crime, can mean they are what they did. Most children in the system come from broken homes, have seen and experienced traumatic events, and they are likely foreign to what stability and care means.
Young individuals who go through the system can also feel a sense of disconnection among authority and themselves. They are children, but the legal process can make them feel as “delinquents” or “outsiders” even before there is a resolution. In my case, learning a new language made me feel limited. Not being able to express myself and having people dictate what I was before I could even say a word made me feel incompetent and uncertain about the future.
3. Stigma and Shame: Any type of legal matter has stigma attached to it. Of course, there are severity levels but no matter what it is, being accused or having any type of involvement in the court system can be a traumatic experience. Children can feel ashamed of their actions and worried about how others perceive them. The fear of judgement can lead to a sense of isolation and inability to seek support.
During my first year in the US and even years after, I felt guilty for not adapting and for feeling uncomfortable with my new life. I felt that if I communicated this, I was not being grateful of the opportunities offered. Masking and hiding these feelings didn’t help. Although I had people around looking after me, I still felt this way and I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I didn’t have support and basic necessities covered.
The best way to relate to a specific event or situation is by experiencing it oneself or in the best scenario, by hearing it from someone who has. We all have superpowers and one of the most important one is empathy. The capacity of relating to someone or to something is what allow us to connect and make positive changes in society. If we truly think about it, most of the world’s social issues could be resolved if we were able to have more empathy towards one another. As soon as we forget to connect, the further away we will feel from each other.
Due to the high volume of cases and the limited number of juvenile defenders, we often forget these children are being raised by broken adults and in some cases, teenagers. The additional emotional impact of navigating the system is critical and can’t be overlooked. Although one person can’t fix the problem, professionals, especially juvenile defenders, must strive to have a balance between empathy and reasoning to be the best ones out there. We all come from different backgrounds, cultures, and lifestyles but we all experience challenges that although different, shape us into who we are and what we do. The purpose is up to us. We can decide to find ways to relate to each other, or we can continue to act as if we don’t have anything in common.
A good way to begin is by encouraging professionals in the system to keep up with the latest research data and resources. Most juvenile defenders know this and that is the main reason why they do this work. The most difficult part is to raise awareness and make sure everyone else can relate to these children in one way or another without seeing them as rotten apples. Here are some reports and resources that might be helpful to share with colleagues:
North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission – Recidivism of North Carolina Juvenile Court System.
NCJJ, OJJDP, & NIJ - Youth and the Juvenile Justice System 2022 NATIONAL REPORT
Juvenile Law Center - Youth Advocacy Toolkit
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families Administration on Children, Youth and Families Children’s Bureau / National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) - 2020 Children Maltreatment
I’m convinced anyone can find an experience that allows them to relate to these children. If not, that should be a wake-up call. “You don’t know what you don’t know until you want to know”, yes, I wrote that. Sometimes it is easier to think of people as “the other” but the truth is, we are all a decision away from being in an unfortunate situation. We know this but… do they?
If you have any question or will like for us to post a blog of your own, don’t hesitate to contact me directly via email or phone at 919-890-1642. OJD will be happy to find new ways to address defenders’ concerns and aid to the best of our ability.