Tuesday, March 19, 2013

13 year-olds in adult criminal justice system?

New rule would allow 13 year olds to be forced into the adult criminal justice system

On March 5, NC legislators introduced a bill that would allow for children as young as 13 to be placed in the adult criminal justice system.

Do you know what this means for kids who are prosecuted as adults?
  • Youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult facility than a juvenile detention
  • Kids in the adult system are 34% more likely than youth in the juvenile court system to be rearrested
  • Kids are at an extreme risk of physical and sexual assault when placed in adult facilities
  • Youth of color are more likely than white youth to be prosecuted in the criminal justice system
HB 217 would remove judicial discretion for certain felonies allegedly committed by juveniles 13 years or older. Currently under North Carolina law, judges weigh the protection of the public and the best interests of the juvenile in determining whether to transfer the case to adult court. Just by a written motion, Section 7 of HB 217 gives prosecutors absolute power to prosecute juveniles 13 years or older in the adult criminal court system and strips juvenile court judges of their decision-making powers. 

This is another attack on the youth and communities of North Carolina - removing judicial oversight leads to the unchecked prosecution of our children in adult court. This proposal is flawed and detrimental to the future of our state. 

Click here to view the facts on HB 217.

WE MUST STOP THIS ATTACK NOW! HB 217 is going to be heard this Wednesday at 10am.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sha'nell's story

Every time I’ve been to family court, I’ve felt helpless, because a judge was making decisions about my life, and I was not able to make decisions for myself. But I felt even more helpless that I was not given the opportunity to speak.

In New York City, where I live, in cases of abuse or neglect, a teenager can only be present in family court with the judge’s permission. Usually, a lawyer speaks for you.

The first time I went to family court, two women came and introduced themselves to me. They stated that they were helping my lawyer, and one woman said that she was my social worker. But each time I returned to the courthouse, there was always someone new talking to me. I kept on seeing different faces. I never saw the same face twice. I never knew who my lawyer was, either.

Every time I went, I seemed to hear them say the same things: “We are sorry…We are still waiting for the judge to call your name…Come back after lunch…The judge postponed the case for another three months…The judge is out for lunch.”

I just sat in the waiting room getting more and more upset. I had no idea what was happening in the courtroom. I started to see craziness in people, people yelling, lawyers and social workers pacing. My head felt like it was spinning, as if my life was not moving forward.

I went back to the courthouse five or six times. All the changing faces made me feel like I was not really being heard. Eventually I decided it was best if I spoke to the judge myself. I told one of the women that I wanted to be present in front of the judge. I begged her several times. She said she’d see what she could do, but it never happened.

If I had been able to be in the courtroom and see the judge and hear what my family had to say, I can’t honestly tell you what I would have said or done. At the time, I wanted to tell the judge to leave my family alone. Back then, I was under too much pressure from my father, who was telling me to say that my stories about the sexual and physical abuse were made up. Because I love my family so deeply, I didn’t want to see them in any pain.

My case was constantly being postponed and the more time passed, the more I felt pressure from my family to deny the charges of abuse. I became so unsure and confused that in the end, I even wrote letters for my family and made a tape recording stating that my stories were made up.

One reason I did that was the guilt I felt for getting my family in trouble. But I also wrote the letters because I was sick and tired of coming to court and not knowing what was going on. I was sick and tired of the judge constantly wasting my time, having me wait in the courtroom all day for no results. I was sick and tired of begging to speak to the judge and not being heard. I felt sick and tired of being sick and tired. So I decide to close the case by lying.

But in my heart, I think I really needed someone who I trusted to listen to my story and believe me. I needed someone who I felt understood me, from the heart.

Deep down, I wanted to tell my side of the story, to talk about the abuse, because I wanted the judge, or anyone, to understand that I was in pain. But I never even got to see my lawyer or the judge, so how could I know if I could trust them enough to tell them the truth?

I thought to myself, “How can this judge make decisions about my life when he has never seen me, knows nothing of me? All the judge knows is what he has heard about me, but he has never heard anything about my life from my mouth.”

I felt that in that courtroom, where everyone was speaking but me, my feelings were like a tiny drop of water. I felt that if I had a chance to speak, then my words and feelings would be like a deep ocean, an ocean of my pain and anger, that would overwhelm the judge and make him understand.

It’s been about three and a half years, maybe more, since I’ve been in family court. I still think about it. What I had thought I wanted was not really what I wanted. I thought I wanted to go home and let my family win the case. But now I can see that if I had gone home, I would have still been in the same predicament that I had been in before (the sexual and physical abuse, the drug abuse). So I think that the judge’s decision not to send me home was right and I thank him for that.

But even though I think the judge made the right decision without me being present, I still think the lawyers and the judges made a mistake by not allowing me to be in the courtroom and know what was going on, and for not giving me a chance me to speak up for myself.

I found out what went on in the court several years after the hearing, three months before I was about to be discharged. I finally met my lawyer when I was about to turn 21, and he showed me the records from my case. That’s when I found out what my family and others had said about me, how they’d portrayed me as a liar, a manipulative child, and how my father had said that he loved his family and would never do such things.

The day I read those records, I felt angry, upset, betrayed. It seemed as if my father won the case, and I had never had a chance to tell my own part of the story. Reading what they’d said about me so many years later, when I no longer had any chance to defend myself, seemed much worse than if I had heard what they’d said there in that courtroom.

If I had been there, I know that maybe instead of standing up to my family, I would have been overwhelmed by what they were saying about me. Maybe I would not have had the heart to drown my mother in more pain. In the past, when I had spoken with her about the abuse, she would cry and ask me how I could do this to my family. After that, I never had the courage to keep on with my protests.

When my mother would condemn me as a liar, a devil child, I would just agree with her, because deeply, I truly love my mother and it hurts me to see her in pain.

But even if I’d been silent in court or agreed with my family’s charges, I still don’t think that it would have hurt me more than I’d already been hurt. And even if it did hurt me more, I still would want to have been present. Because my life is my life, and I want to be in control of it. Since I couldn’t be in control of whether I was staying in care, at least I wish the lawyers and judges could have let me see and hear from the people who were deciding how my life would be, and for them to have seen and heard from me.

In the end, I believe that having no knowledge of what was going on in that courtroom—and finding out the truth about what happened there years later—hurt more deeply than anything I would have heard from my family then. I wish I’d had more support to speak up for myself rather than just having someone try to speak for me.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Manny's Story

By the time I got sent to my third foster home when I was 8 years old, I’d started to believe that all my experiences in foster care would be negative. I was trapped in a circle of revolving doors, and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to stay in one place.

At my first foster home, there was a kid named Robert who thought he could bully my younger brother Daniel. One day I got so fed up with him that I punched him in the face, and my brother and I got kicked out. Then we were sent to live with my uncle, which was great, until he kicked us out. He said it was because Daniel and I were always fighting.

After getting the boot from my own family, I started to think I couldn’t rely on them as much. I figured I could only be independent. I also believed that since I wasn’t in those two homes for very long, my next home would be the same.

On my way to my next foster home I thought I’d better be ready to leave in three or four months, and I was already worried about where I’d get sent next. I was also scared of what my new foster mom would be like. I pictured her as a witch with razor-sharp teeth and claws.

I walked to the door with Daniel and my social worker and rang the bell. I heard barking and I was terrified at what she might have in that house—perhaps a pit bull trained to scare little kids, or torture them as they slept.

The door opened and I saw a woman with a happy face, anxious but full of excitement. She welcomed us in, but I was cautious due to what I’d heard at the door. Then I looked down, and saw a little dog whose bark was way bigger than his bite.

I looked around the apartment and I liked what I saw, but I was still on my toes.

The woman said her name was Melba. She showed us our room and told us to make ourselves at home, but I didn’t unpack my things just yet. I felt like there was no point since we would be leaving soon anyway. My brother and I stood in the hall as Melba and my social worker talked in the living room. I started to imagine the horrible things she would do or make us do when my social worker left.

When my social worker came in to say goodbye I thought, “Yup, this is it.” I heard the door slam shut and my heart started to pound as I heard footsteps closing in toward the room, but I played it cool and sat on the bed. Her mouth opened and just when I thought she was going to breathe fire, she asked, “Are you guys hungry?”
Daniel said yes, but I said no. I was, but I wasn’t comfortable asking her for anything. When she went to use the bathroom, I ran to the kitchen and grabbed a little something to eat.

The first few months were all the same. I would get home from school, go to my room, close the door and do my homework. When Melba would come by and ask if I was hungry I’d usually say no. She didn’t annoy me or force me to eat. She gave me my space, which was what I wanted. At dinnertime, I would just stay in my room.

Most of the time when I was in my bedroom, Melba would come in and ask if I’d finished doing my homework. I have to admit, it felt good to know she cared. We’d sometimes have little awkward encounters. Maybe a “Hey” or “Hi” but nothing more than that.

After five or six months, I started thinking I might be here longer than I’d thought. I also noticed Melba’s consistency when it came to feeding me and checking my homework. Sometimes I’d take some change off her dresser to see how she’d react, but she never seemed frustrated.

I started to feel a little warmer inside. I began to answer, “Yes,” when she asked if I was hungry, and I started leaving the door to my bedroom open. We even started to have conversations about things we liked or had in common. I found out that she’d had other foster children living there, but they were given back to their families. I thought that maybe the same thing would happen to me.

I felt happy that under Melba’s care those kids had “survived” long enough to be returned to their families. I felt she could do the same for me until I was reunited with my family. This let me feel comfortable trusting Melba. Pretty soon I started to hug her when I came home from school, and I started showing her more affection than any of my previous foster moms.

On my 9th birthday, Melba took Daniel and me to the World Trade Center, which I’d never visited (this was shortly before 9/11). When we got to a huge building that towered over me, she said, “We’re here.” I thought that we were going to do something boring, but I was shocked when we got inside. There was actually a huge variety of shores and restaurants. I’d never seen anything like it in my entire life.

We looked everywhere and we got to eat pizza at a cool restaurant, which I wasn’t used to. When we sat down I tried to think of the last time I’d eaten at a table like that. I was so happy that she remembered my birthday, took me somewhere and had gotten me a present.

After that, I opened up a lot more. I believed that Melba had paid her dues and earned her stripes as my foster mom. I started talking to Melba a lot, and I often found myself the one starting the conversations. We’d talk about the news, school, TV and anything else worth talking about. The conversations weren’t three hours long, but they were progress nonetheless. I also began to get closer to her family, which was cool. They didn’t live with us, but they all treated me as if I was really part of their family.

Around the time I turned 14, I realized adoption was a possibility. We didn’t really talk about it, but as time went on I knew that eventually it had to happen.

One day Melba sat me on the couch and said, “If you want to be adopted, I am here for you.” I had grown to love Melba, but the idea that I couldn’t live with my parents again seemed weird to me, and made me sad. I had to think about my situation before I could make a decision.

For years, my birth mother had filled my head with the dream that I’d be going home. But it never happened. Every time she made a promise that I could go home and then didn’t keep it, I felt knocked down to the ground. That’s when my mother would come again and lift up me up, only to knock me down again. But eventually, I got used to her routine.

When I finally realized that going back home wasn’t going to happen, I knew that adoption was what I wanted. Now we’re in the process of making that happen.

Melba has already been my parent for so long; the only thing that the adoption will change is that my brother and I will legally belong to her. Melba has given me advice and taught me those life lessons that you need to succeed, like saving money, helping people and taking school seriously.

Melba and I have developed a bond over the past several years. I am happy that I finally got a break from the negativity, and soon it will be permanent. Melba has been my salvation from a dramatic and awful life. We started from one brick and built a skyscraper of trust, understanding and love

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

In Their Own Words

Several children who live in foster care in NC were asked to write a response to the following question: “What would you tell a judge about your family?” 

Their responses varied, as one would expect, from gratitude to social workers and judges for "saving them," to children who felt betrayed by the system.

 Here’s what they had to say.
* * * * * * *

by Destiny, age 16
"Thank you for changing my life." That is one thing that I would say to a judge.
If it was not for the judge's decision and the decisions of many other people along the way, I wouldn't be as successful as I am today.
I am successful in the way that I present myself, the activities that I participate in, as well as the morals and values that I have set for myself with my foster parents. I am a cheerleader, making A/B Honor Roll, president of two clubs, taking multiple AP and Honor classes, have a job, and preparing to start my senior year of high school. I am successful because I overcame an obstacle that most of my friends could not even imagine going through.
A judge's decision helped make me into the person I am today, with my mother and father--not the biological ones. It changed my life. That one decision that changed my life for the better was the best decision that somebody could ever make for me.
That is why I would simply say, "Thank you, Judge."

* * * * * * *

by Autumn, age 15
I would ask that judge, why treat my parents like convicts? Is this really what's best for the children? Is our case only a number to you? Is my voice actually heard? For I feel my voice is only a raindrop in a demoralizing storm....
Why are you in such a hurry to close our case? I love seeing my mom's smile, and receiving my dad's hugs. Seeing them is what keeps me motivated and level-headed....
Adoption may be the answer in your book, but in mine it shuts the door to who I really am.... Yes, you have found a great foster home for us. As far as your plan for our future, I'm not so sure I can agree with that right now.
I know I don't have very much input, but just one more question: what would you do if you were in my shoes?
Autumn’s essay won second prize, for which she was awarded $50.
* * * * * * *

Olivia, age 13
Reading my family's history, you probably wouldn't like them very much, but neither you nor anyone else knows my family like I do. My whole life I sat back and listened to the harsh stereotypes and cruel accusations, but today I am reaching out.... They love me unconditionally and will always support me. Of course there have been hard times, but haven't there been hard times in every family? They are good people regardless of their backgrounds.

* * * * * * *

When I was six, I went to court. All I did there was cry. I was speechless. I didn't know what to say. I was scared.
Now, six years later, I am in a great home. I couldn't ask for a better family.
Take my dad for instance, with his corny jokes! And my mom--she's good at tennis and helps me with homework. My brother Reed is good at soccer and likes to play video games. My brother Seth wants to be a missionary, and my sisters Maggie and Callie both just graduated from college. My brother Shawn lives in California.
Then there is me, adopted into this big, happy family. I would want to say this to a judge because I have had a good experience being in foster care, and some people don't get good experiences.
Some day I also want to help kids experience a happy life!

* * * * * * *

I'm a sibling from a family of eight. Kindergarten through elementary I was a great kid. When I was in the 5th grade my mother caught breast cancer but was a survivor. In my middle school days I began making friends, experimenting with drugs, and gang banging. At that age I felt my reputation in the streets was way more important than an education. I was known for stealing cars and fighting. I was going down the wrong path.
When I was 15 I got sent to juvenile for stealing and then I was sent to out-of-home placement because I was out of control and rude. I went to a level one group home. I was there for 6 months, showed improvement, and got discharged. I went back home.
It was okay, but my mom's cancer came back. It spread, and she died of bone cancer. These were hard times for me, so I kept myself busy by robbing and stealing. I felt alone and wasn't being disciplined for my actions.
On June 22, 2011 my dad gave me, my little brother, and my little sister away to DSS due to lack of income, discipline, and motivation. He said his mindset was gone due to my mother's death. Today I'm in foster care. I go to therapy, I'm pursuing my GED. Me and my father have no contact at all.
I've learned that second chances are mistakes' best friend. A wise man once said: "the only way out is the way through." I understood right away. I went through the stealing and robbing stages and it wasn't me. Now I want to be a mentor and let other young teenagers know that there is a way!

* * * * * * *

I have been in foster care for six years.
Before I went into foster care I had a bad attitude and could not control my anger. I used to tease the cats and even killed my sister's fish. I would not follow directions. I would always do things my way and not the adult's way.
But after I went into foster care I learned how to control my anger and get along better with my siblings. I would like to go back home and get along with my siblings much better than I used to.
I would tell the judge that I have completed all my goals, and that I am confused about why they won't send me back home to my family.

* * * * * * *
Messages for a Judge about My Family

I will ALWAYS love my family. No matter what they do, I will still love them.
—Sarah, age 15
There are so many things I could say to a judge about my family, but if I had to choose one thing, I would tell them that no matter what, we never give up! Sometimes it becomes very hard for my brothers and I to persevere through things such as mowing the lawn, doing homework, and even eating broccoli. I thank God that I am blessed to have parents like mine. --Sasha, age 16
I hope that the judge would see that my family is the best and that they all love me to death and have been with me and supported me since I was born. Next month I am transitioning from the foster home back to my home with my family. I am so excited to live with them again and show them how much I have learned from my experiences at the foster homes and group homes. I have lived away from my family for three to four years and I can't wait to go back home! --Taylor, age 17
I was 11 when I was placed in foster care. . . . I have been in 6 foster homes, 4 group homes, 1 lock down PRTF, and soon to be stepped down to another foster home. . . .
My sister Destiny will soon be 18, and has planned to sign herself out of foster care. My mom has requirements she is supposed to meet but hasn't really made an effort. My dad signed away his rights. Outside of my sister I have no close family I would be able to live with. The court initially gave my mom a year, but kept extending it till it turned into four years. But my team keeps telling me it's still a possibility to live with my mom.
--Krystyna, age 15