Class for Incarcerated Teen Dads, Status-Offending Girls and Trauma, and “Holistic” Indigent DefenseApril 1st, 2014 by Taylor Walker
PROGRAM TEACHES PARENTING SKILLS TO TEEN FATHERS IN LOCK-UP
A prison class in California, called the “Baby Elmo Program,” teaches incarcerated teenage fathers how to be parents, and helps them build relationships with their young children, with help from Elmo videos. While still in the early stages, the program has been implemented in Sacramento, Fresno, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, and Orange County, and program leaders held a conference in Los Angeles last week with corrections officials statewide.
KPCC’s Shirley Jahad has the story. Here’s a small clip:
Originally named “A Parenting Intervention for Incarcerated Teen Parents,” the program was later dubbed the “Baby Elmo Program” by its teenage participants, referring to the Sesame Street teaching tools it uses. According to the program’s manager, the key message they try to pass on to troubled young fathers is the importance of making personal contact with their children. “The only way you are going to develop a relationship with your child is not through abstract courses or a strict program,” said Ben Richeda, who runs the program. “It’s really going to be ‘I know the food my child likes. I know what makes him smile. I know makes her laugh when she comes in the room.’” Richeda says the goal is to teach the parenting skills in order to break the cycle of abuse and neglect that can lead to a path of delinquency.
INCREASE IN YOUNG GIRLS ARRESTED FOR STATUS OFFENSES: THE STORY BEHIND THE STATISTIC
Girls are more likely than boys to be arrested for status offenses (age-related crimes, like truancy, running away, violating curfew laws, or possessing alcohol or tobacco), and the numbers are on the rise, according to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
In an op-ed for Youth Today, Jeannette Pai-Espinosa, president of The National Crittenton Foundation, says the numbers are important, but don’t tell the whole story. She says that these status offenses that often earn a young girl a reputation as a “bad girl” are often coping mechanisms for underlying childhood trauma. And when these girls get thrown into the juvenile justice system for things like running away from a turbulent home, or self-medicating with alcohol, they are not receiving the help they need to become successful adults.
Here’s a clip:
According to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s issue brief, Girls, Status Offenses and The Need For A Less Punitive and More Empowering Approach, a disproportionate number of the status offenses petitioned in the courts every year are brought against girls. Between 1995 and 2009, the number of petitioned cases for curfew violations for girls grew by 23 percent vs. only 1 percent for boys. The number of petitioned cases for liquor law violations for girls grew by 41 percent vs. only 6 percent for boys.
Simply put, behaviors such as skipping school, running away, breaking curfew and possession or use of alcohol places girls at increased risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Girls entering the system because they are detained for a status offense often fall deeper into the system rather than getting the support they need to change their lives.
What the numbers fail to reveal is the story behind the statistics. As the president of The National Crittenton Foundation, I have had the great privilege to get to know many of the faces behind the data — girls and young women who were involved with Crittenton agencies because they were referred by juvenile justice or child welfare systems. While their stories are as diverse as they are, the most common shared narrative for the girls served by Crittenton agencies is that their early lives have been shaped for them by abuse, neglect, violence, addiction, family dysfunction and the betrayal of their trust by the very people whose job it was to love and protect them.
Victimization of girls typically precedes their involvement with the system. Up to 73 percent of the girls in the juvenile justice system have histories of physical and sexual violence. A study of 319 girls in the juvenile justice system in Florida found that 64 percent reported past abuse, including 37 percent reporting abuse by a parent; 55 percent reporting abuse by someone other than a parent; and 27 percent reporting both types of abuse.
What the statistics also don’t tell us is how girls cope with the dangerous, damaging and traumatic circumstances in their lives. In fact, their “adaptive coping behaviors,” including running away from homes where violence is prevalent, self medication with drugs and alcohol, truancy and unruly behavior, are the very same behaviors that put them at risk of entering the juvenile justice system because they are detained for a status offence. In other words, we criminalize them for coping behaviors that are actually signs of strength and resiliency against the abuse and neglect they have experienced. What is the result? A system that fails to help the girls get the help they need to recover from the abuse and neglect they experienced long before they entered the system.
Pai-Espinosa also gives five ways to address the problem:
- Promote universal assessment for girls and boys involved in the juvenile justice system to better understand their exposure to violence, abuse and neglect.
- Advocate that girls in or at risk of entering the juvenile justice system receive gender-responsive, trauma-informed services to heal from the violence and abuse they have experienced.
- Push for the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act, with a focus on preventing detention for status offenses and the importance of gender responsive and trauma informed services
- Support HR 4123, Prohibiting the Detention of Youth for Status Offenses Act, introduced recently by Representative Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) and
- Endorse and advance the important work of organizations like the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses.
Over the weekend, the LA Times had an editorial in support of HR 4123. Here are some clips:
It is unjust to lock up minors for offenses that wouldn’t be offenses at all if the “perpetrators” were only a few years older. The practice is costly, and ineffective as well. Substantial research has shown that incarcerating teenagers for these non-criminal actions doesn’t deter them from committing the same offenses again once they’re released; quite the opposite. After being housed with true juvenile criminals, they are more likely to commit real offenses…
Legislation by Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles) would ban the incarceration of status offenders across the country, requiring states to find more useful ways of handling these cases. HR 4123 doesn’t eliminate penalties for status offenses, just the harsh discipline of lockup. Offenders could still be penalized in various ways, including required community service or Saturday classes to catch up in school. That, combined with counseling and other services for offenders and their families, would be fairer, more productive and almost certainly less expensive than having them do time.
MOVING TOWARD A MORE COMPREHENSIVE—”HOLISTIC”—INDIGENT DEFENSE APPROACH
“Holistic” indigent defense—in which a team of attorneys, social workers, and other advocates work together to provide much-needed services to defendants who can’t afford to hire a lawyer—is building momentum in the Bay Area. The approach aims to keep people from reoffending, and may help ease overcrowding in California prisons (although there’s not yet much data on the effectiveness of “holistic” defense against recidivism).
The San Jose Mercury News’ Tracey Kaplan has the story. Here’s a clip:
Born partly out of a conference in the late 1990s at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, holistic defense in its most elaborate form uses teams of criminal, civil and family defense lawyers, social workers, parent advocates, investigators and community organizers to address the needs — legal and otherwise — of defendants who can’t afford their own lawyers.
The idea is to keep people from coming back into the criminal justice system — thus save taxpayers money — by limiting the consequences that can arise from even a misdemeanor arrest, such as deportation and the breakup of families, loss of a job, revocation of an employment license or eviction from public housing.
“An arrest is never just an arrest — it can explode someone’s life,” said Robin Steinberg, founder of the Bronx Defenders, the nonprofit agency of public defenders leading the holistic defense movement. “Even when you get the not-guilty verdict, you don’t hug them and send them into the night. That’s when the work begins.”
From Rhode Island to Texas, and to Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties, the general principle has started to catch on, especially the notion of teaming social workers with lawyers.
However, some supporters say holistic defense faces a major obstacle — lack of funding for even basic services, and not just in poor parts of the country such as the South.
“Can the Bronx Defenders’ model be replicated across the country?” said Mark Stephens, chief public defender in Knoxville, Tenn., who attended the original Harvard conference. Though he supports holistic defense and has eight social workers on his staff, he said, “I don’t see it happening.”
Hard data is still scarce on whether the approach keeps people from reoffending. But some public defenders say California must innovate because a federal court order forcing it to reduce prison overcrowding prevents the system from merely locking people up.