Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Community solutions

Last week I struggled. Struggled with the decision of how four pre-teen boys should face consequences for their actions. I realized that just as a young child doesn't grow up thinking, "I want to be a drug dealer who runs from the police," a parent doesn't raise a child hoping that he/she will do things that warrant them going to a juvenile detention center.

After reading this article, Troubles Mount Within Texas Youth Detention Agency, I am glad we came up with a different solution for the boys who stole the money from the After-School Academy.

After talking to their parents and some wise friends, we decided that we would all (each parent and their boys) go to Smokey John's for Bible study. Smokey hosts a Thursday night Bible study (Warriors for Christ) in his restaurant that primarily focuses on formerly incarcerated men and women. Even though a couple of the boys who stole the money from the After-School Academy denied having any part in stealing the money (despite the fact that they were there and were wrestling over some of the money that was stolen), everyone involved was required to attend.

Only one of the parents showed up (which was disappointing and somewhat frustrating...but not unexpected) and only three of the boys went (which was also frustrating, but considering that the fourth one's attitude would probably have changed the dynamics in not such a positive way, maybe it was good he didn't go). The ride there was somewhat irritating listening to each boy complain, laugh at the situation, and demostrate a cavalier attitude.

Once at Smokey's, Chuck and Conrad (both formerly incarcerated, I believe), sat down with me, their mom, and the boys and began a conversation. I was amazed at the boys' attitudes changed and I was amazed at their rapt attention. I watched the one sitting by me (the one who insisted he shouldn't be there because he wasn't even involved...except for wrestling over the money...which he didn't end up with) lean in closer to catch every word. Chuck and Conrad both talked to the boys, but also asked some thought-provoking questions. Although the boys gave pat answers about how what they did affected them and their community (taken directly from our talk on the way there), it was obvious that they were taking in what was being said.

Though we didn't get to stay the whole time due to yet another family situation that arose while we were there, I was pleasantly shocked when we walked out and all three boys asked, "Do you do this every week?? Can we come back?" I assured them they were more than welcome to come as often as they liked.

Do I think that one night and that one talk solved the problem, changed their thinking, and their actions will be angelic from now on? I'm not that naive anymore.

However, I did notice some things that I think are extremely important to note.

1) Chuck and Conrad were men (one White, one Black). Maybe it was just the fact that they were men. Maybe it was because they had been down the path of prison before. Maybe it was because at least one of them looked like them and could talk their lingo. Maybe it was just because they were gentle and kind, but firm about the consequences. I think it was all of the above.

2) "I'll come. Why not [come again]?! This is better than the projects." (as stated by the kid who "wasn't involved) Some kids recognize that having alternatives keeps them out of trouble. But positive alternatives have to be available (which there are none for teenagers right now in Turner Courts).

3) No matter how genuine and ready-to-change they might be at that moment, it takes a lot of work to help them see their good intentions through. On the way home, I mentioned that I was taking kids on a college trip the next day. Two of them were very excited and said they wanted to go. In that short, 12 hour time period, they either lost motivation, changed their mind, or decided they had better things to do, but they never showed up. After knocking on their doors, one was still asleep and the other didn't answer the phone or door. Maybe something came up. I don't know. I never heard from them (and, yes, they have my phone number). I know this is an uphill battle. It takes a lot of time and investment. This wasn't the first time they have gotten in trouble and, unfortunately, I'm sure it won't be the last. Somehow we need to find ways to support kids who are so easily caught up in the negativity surrounding them.

Despite my frustrations with the parent and the fourth child not showing up, I am still glad we didn't involve the police. I'm definitely not above calling the police, but I wonder how much the juvenile justice system prevents future negative behavior or actually perpetuates it. These boys need adequate solutions as to how to deal with real life situations. I don't know that an over-crowded, under-staffed facility that just maintains the boys' existence and often results in violence and other negative behavior within can offer them that.

Today, I choose to focus on the one parent and the three boys who went to Smokey's and seemed genuinely impacted. I choose to think that at least a seed was planted even if they don't choose to nurture it right now. Life choices are ultimately theirs. But I do believe that in order to raise the chance of making good life choices, we (as a city, a community, a society) have to provide intense support and multiple opportunities for them to be able to make those choices.
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