Miami Herald tears open the juvenile delinquency system’s horrible secrets

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Carol Marbin Miller and Audra Burch are unstoppable investigators. Their 2014 report Innocents Lost laid bare the child welfare system’s rampant lack of effort and oversight in abuse investigations. Now, with FIGHT CLUB, they set their sights on the juvenile delinquency system. And what they find is appalling: mismanagement of facilities, unbelievable hiring practices, and victimization of children that the Department of Juvenile Justice was charged with helping.

As I read through these articles, I could hear the voices of clients who have told similar stories over the years. Once they’re safely out of the programs, they often just want to look forward to better things instead of re-litigating the past. They had no sense that fighting would do any good for them or future incarcerated kids. The only rational strategy they saw was to escape.

One of my students today asked how this can continue to happen. “It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. But it does make sense. If you pull vulnerable kids out of their communities and homes, put them in isolated places behind locked closed doors, supervise them with some good staff who are poorly trained and unsupported, and supervise them with other staff who are evil, malicious, or unkind — this makes perfect sense. If you prioritize investment in security systems instead of schools, this makes sense. If kids who speak out get hurt and adults who don’t play along get fired, it makes sense. And if doing all of that generates $500 million a year in revenue for people who do not have to experience any of its harms, it almost couldn’t be any other way.  Despite whatever good moments may happen on any given day at any particular program, violence has always been a feature of these systems, not a bug.

It is very easy to dismiss or rationalize away a single child’s stories of mistreatment as an aberration or justly deserved punishment. Articles like this and other acts of collective reckoning are often the only avenue towards justice available. What those in power do with these stories will reflect their priorities and assumptions about the world we live in. We have to challenge those assumptions. The solutions cannot be a pay raise for staff (money does not make you good), better video cameras (too many eyes watched these things happen already), or higher penalties for staff who hurt kids (kids should not be put in harm’s way to put more people in jail).

If you watch the looped video on the Herald’s website long enough, the answer becomes pretty apparent. You don’t need to fix them. These programs shouldn’t even exist.

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