New York is the only state other than North Carolina that prosecutes youth as adults when they turn 16. According to Raise the Age NY, an advocacy campaign for increasing the age of criminal responsibility:
Nearly 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds are arrested and face the possibility of prosecution as adults in criminal court each year – the vast majority for minor crimes (75.3% are misdemeanors).
Furthermore, more than 600 children ages 13 to 15 are also prosecuted in adult criminal courts –seriously diminishing their life prospects before they’ve even entered high school.
Over 70% of the children and youth arrested are black or Latino. Of those sentenced to incarceration, 80% are black and Latino.
On their own, the statistics above are disturbing, painting a bleak picture of a system that is misaligned with science around adolescent development and the experiences of so many, including policy makers, who remember being young, impulsive, and rebellious. When paired with the voices of young people and the exposure of the hypocrisy evident in laws governing youth behavior, as in a recent PSA from the New York Center for Juvenile Justice, the statistics take on an even more penetrating message.
Because I’m 16, I can’t drive at night.
Because I’m 16, I can’t get a cell phone without my parents.
Because I’m 16, I can’t get a flu shot without my mother’s consent.
At 16, I’m not allowed to watch an R-rated movie alone.
Because I’m 16, I can’t sit on a jury, but I can be tried as an adult.
Listen to these young people making the case for “Judging Children as Children.”
According to San Francisco Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, there are 65,000 children and youth in foster care in California—by far the highest population of any state. Each year over 4,000 foster youth “age out” of this system. Within the first 2 to 4 years after emancipation, 51% of these young adults are unemployed, 40% are on public assistance, 25% become homeless, and 20% will be incarcerated.
Importantly, attention is being turned to this crisis and individuals and communities are mobilizing. In a recent report on KALW Local Public Radio in San Francisco entitled “A Starting Place for Former Foster Youth,” journalist Rachel Wong highlights individuals in the San Francisco community who are experimenting with new ways to support these young people educationally, professionally, and personally. Wareene Loften, age 73, is featured in the story as a striking example of the power of leverging individual talents to make change in the lives of others.
After one year volunteering as a mentor at Guardian Scholars, a program at the City College of San Francisco that provides support for foster youth, Wareene Loften “recognized pretty quickly how much the students struggled with housing.” As a real estate agent, Loften felt that her skills and services could be put to good use. At first, Loften helped by locating open sublets for individual students in local residences. Then, in December 2012, she convinced an owner of a home near City College to let her rent the house and then sublet it to four Guardian Scholar students. In doing so, Loften was able to do what she thought was best for her students— to provide opportunities for independent living and a flexible payment schedule. “I pay the rent upfront, and they reimburse me, so I’m giving them that leisure time to get their money together,” she says.
The project has been a success with Loften’s ingenuity and outlook on foster youth being praised by tenants like Darrel Molett:
Not a lot of people believe in foster youth. They believe we mess things up more than fix things. And she took it the other way around. She said we fix things more than mess things up.
Looking forward, Loften is looking to expand her model and hopes to recruit more likeminded people to join the cause. The fate of too many young people in California and across the country is at stake. As she explains,
Somebody needs to do it. It just has to be done.
In September 2013, the New York Probation Office published “Free Verse,” the first issue of a poetry journal that emerged from the thoughts of those waiting in the probation office at the Bronx Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON), a collaborative of community organizations, government agencies, local businesses, and community residents focused on connecting probation clients who live in the neighborhood with opportunities, resources and services.
As described in its opening pages,
Free Verse is a journal of poetry, prose, and song that promotes turning waiting time into creative time. Headquartered in the heart of the waiting room of the new South Bronx NeOn – where probation clients check-in with their probation officers – FreeVerse solicits new writing created while people wait.
As described in Gwen McClure’s article on the Juvenile Justice Exchange, “Free Verse” was the brainchild of Loni Tanner, Chief Change Officer for the NYC Department of Design and Construction and Executive Director of See ChangeNYC, as well as Dave Johnson, the Poet-in-Residence at South Bronx NeOn. Tanner informally named the program, in its existence since April 2013, “Not School”—an acknowledgment that learning for young people does not need to only be confined within classroom walls. Instead, learning opportunities exist in the most unexpected places. For Johnson, the program was a movement with a larger purpose than literacy and learning. As he explains,
This is a lot more than poetry; this is an opportunity to be welcomed back into society.
Thankfully, this innovative program has continued, recently releasing its Winter 2014 edition . Below are a few of my favorites from the collection:
in justice for all,
though no one opens a door.
though the best ones don’t reach me.
in freedom, in equality,
but mostly I believe
The Good Fight
One day I will not have to fight you,
the partner I was given in this lottery of life
that looked so promising until the drawing
as each number was pulled, it was clear, it was not a winner,
just another one to go with the other ones
in a pile of must forget yesterdays.
One day I will not have to fight the voices in my head
of people’s words placed wrongly in my spirit,
the words that should have rolled off my back,
but somehow, were deposited in my future.
One day I will not have to fight the urge to write about the sorrows
that have been my tomorrows, before tomorrow has even gotten here.
One day I will fight the good fight of keeping
the roaring laughter from my belly, fighting to make it out like a raging lion.
One day I will fight to open the cocoon, to let the butterflies I protected, go free.
You’ll never know the pressure I endured, to be cut, into the diamond you see.
I’m a life.
I’m not just passing by.
Earlier in the academic year, I was asked to ponder the following question as part of my coursework for the Youth Media and Educational Justice seminar:
What do educators need to consider when court-involved youth – reentry, on probation, in foster care — are in their classrooms and schools (and programs)?
In response, I offered the following:
In thinking about this question, I was reminded of Virginia Shabatay’s (1991) piece “The Stranger’s Story” Who Calls and Who Answers?” in which she poignantly asks, “How do those of us in the helping professions discover the strangers among us? How can we develop sensitive caring relationships with those who feel set apart?” (p. 137). In her eloquent treatise, she posits, “We bring certain attitudes to those whom we don’t know: suspicion, mistrust, caution, and bias, or trust, openness, and welcome” (p. 137). Accordingly, she urges readers to use stories as ways to discover what strangers have to teach. She explains, “Stories allow us to break through barriers and to share in another’s experience; they warm us. Like a rap on the window, they call us to attention” (p. 137). Shabatay’s insights resonate with me as ways in which entering into dialogue and exchanging stories can combat strangehood in our classrooms, schools, programs, and research.
Since the time of this assignment, I have had the opportunity to begin volunteering work every Thursday as a mentor at an alternative to detention site in New York City. During each visit, I have the privilege of witnessing and participating in the embodiment of Shabatay’s words— the sharing of stories that allow space for possible connection between participants, staff, and volunteers. Around the small conference table, youth who because of their current situation often feel “set apart,” are approached not with “suspicion, mistrust, caution, or bias” but with “trust, openness, and welcome.” Through dialogue and narrative, a community is formed that is mindful of and active in recognizing and then disabling the human tendency to judge, to categorize, and to stereotype. Through human exchange, we no longer are strangers. We are companions. It truly is a remarkable place and each visit pushes me to consider ways in which more spaces and places can be created for court-involved youth and others to “break through the barriers and to share in another’s experience.”
The Fresh Eyes Photography Project is a unique New Mexico-based organization that seeks to engage youth at three incarceration facilities with arts-making. In particular, the focus of Fresh Eyes is photography with project teachers and staff leading two, 10-week workshops in each facility during the course of the year. Guided by the mantra, “You have the ability to change the outcome,” the project’s mission is to provide court-involved youth with the tools and support to see the world anew. It is their belief that engaging in digital photography will help the young people with whom they work successfully re-enter society with the confidence that they have a real place in their community.
Bokeh, the visual arts blog of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange recently profiled the work of Fresh Eyes artists in a piece entitled “Capturing Captivity From the Inside.” Along with providing a curated compilation of photographs from the Fresh Eyes gallery, Katy McCarthy writes,
The images are startlingly anonymous — no faces, no full names or details like family photos and no books. And yet, even the simplicity of two hands in mittens clasped together is somehow painful. Is it a naïve attempt at symbolizing affection or a moment of insight into the kid’s yearning for touch and intimacy?
An unnaturally indigo sky is streaked by a jet stream framed by the intersection of two imposing rooflines. A pink-veined sphere is caught in mid-air, in the background two big trees with outstretched limbs distract the eye only briefly from a tiny bit of fencing in the bottom right corner. The photos are compositionally dynamic, with great consideration paid to color. Still, the architecture of incarceration permeates.
McCarthy’s phrase “the architecture of incarceration” is haunting, reminding readers and viewers of the setting and context that frames the work and lives of these young people, yet it is important to note that sterility and impersonality do not define these artists. In the complete Fresh Eyes gallery from which McCarthy draws her collection, there are also images of hope and humanity, of beauty and movement— evocative gestures to a brighter future. Individually and collectively, the work of Fresh Eyes artists invite viewers into aspects of the life-world that these young people find meaningful. I know that I am thankful for their offering and hope that others are also moved by their vision.
For More Information:
NPR’s “All Things Considered” recently ran a feature story entitled “Strained Foster Care System: A ‘Meter of Our Social Programs.’” By interweaving the stories and commentaries of Claudia Felder, a 21-year-old young woman who spent over 10 years in the foster care system, Claudia’s adoptive parent and social worker Kim Felder, Chris Beam, author of The End of June, and Alex Morales, CEO of the Children’s Bureau of Southern California, Arun Rath creates a complex picture of a foster care system struggling to support the 400,000 kids in its care. That is equivalent, Beam reminds us, to the total number of students in all Chicago public schools—elementary, junior high, and high school combined.
While it is important to recognize that there are foster care stories with happy endings, as in the case of Claudia Felder who found a social worker who would listen and in her a mother to trust, Morales reminds us that others whose lives are mediated by the courts are not so lucky. In the LA foster care system, for example, there are only around 3,000 homes, a fifty percent decrease from five years ago. As Morales describes, “The children have no place to go when they come into the care of the government or courts,” so young people are shuttled to group homes, institutions often characterized by bleak conditions and overcrowding. Beam adds that for many older kids who don’t end up with families by the time that they are 12 or 13, adoption no longer seems like a viable or even appealing option. Instead, many decide to run out the clock and age-out of the system. But that, Beam argues and Claudia confirms, is a dangerous solution. Independence without family support is a challenging endeavor. “You need to have somebody in your life,” Claudia explains.
So what do we do? How do we repair a broken system representative of a broken society? While there is neither a silver bullet, nor single answer, Beam identifies the need for more outreach influenced by a redefinition of family.
“ …what we really need to be finding for them are families. And by family, I mean one person to say, you know what? I’m going to stick by you. I’m going to care about you. I’m going to love you for a long time”
Beam’s definition of family may seem simple, yet its essence is complex and compelling. Family need not be traditional. Family need not be biological. Family is connection, care, and consistency. All youth need a family.
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According to research from Casey Family Programs, a national charitable foundation working to improve the lives of children in foster care, estimates suggest that only about 7 to 13 percent of youth from foster care enroll in higher education. Out of those who matriculate to postsecondary institutions, only 2 percent of young people from foster care obtain bachelor’s degrees, in comparison to 24 percent of adults in the general population. Such sobering statistics reflect the critical need for policymakers, child welfare agencies, government officials, higher education systems, and educators at the secondary and postsecondary levels to address this issue facing approximately 20,000 youth age 16 and older who transition or “age” out of foster care each year.
Recently, several colleges and universities across the country have answered the call for action by creating programs that help foster care youth to fund and complete their college education. One such initiative, the Seita Scholars Program at Western Michigan University, has received accolades for its work supporting the educational attainment and life outcomes of youth and young adults (12-25 years old) who have lived some or all of their years in foster care. The program, now in its fifth year, provides tuition assistance and extensive student support services including mental health counseling, life skills training, and career planning to foster youth who have lived in foster care on or after their 14th birthday. Seita Scholars experience on-on-one coaching to help them navigate both the challenges of college life as well as those of the adult world more broadly, including filing tax returns, applying for Medicaid, and budgeting their weekly expenses. Given that many students from foster care do not have a permanent residence, the program ensures that a WMU dormitory is kept open through school recesses and summer breaks and organizes community meals and activities on holidays. Academic tutoring is available to all scholarship recipients as well as career advising and assistance with locating internships and employment opportunities in the Kalamazoo, Michigan community.
The Seita Scholars Program is an example of a comprehensive approach to assisting youth and young adults who age out of foster care. Its success can be attributed, in part, to its focus on the future rather than the past. While acknowledging and not diminishing the fact that many of its students have experienced trauma and harrowing life experiences, the program’s emphasis is on moving forward and equipping youth with the tools to manage difficulties, access resources, and succeed in college and beyond.
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Paint Me Like I Am
By Shirkey Warthen
Why don’t you paint me
Like I am?
Paint me light brown caramel
Five foot ten
Paint me with a different brush.
Paint me zooming, going fast
‘Cause I’m in a rush
And my ashy knuckles
Are all worn out
Paint me everlasting.
Paint me the real deal,
Not drawn out.
Paint me in my real authentic self
Somewhere in southwest
Somewhere on 54th Street
With all the fellas, all the chicks
Chillin’ & partying in the streets
Where we need 2 decrease
The violence and increase the peace.
Paint me without my shout out ways.
That were supposed to be left behind
In my shout out days.
Paint me so my Mom notices me
And the haters don’t.
Paint me with nice colors,
But most of all
Paint me Black
Because I love being colored.
If you drive by 5550 Chester Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, you will see a newly installed mural—a mosaic of colors that frame a black figure. On September 17, 2013, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program held a dedication for “Paint Me Like I Am,” its most recent mural dedicated to Shirkey Warthen, a passionate and dedicated Youth Advocate at the Juvenile Law Center who was shot and killed on April 17, 2012.
Shirkey joined the Juveniles for Justice Program after spending two years in placement at a youth criminal facility when he was 14. According to the Juvenile Law Center’s executive director Robert Schwartz, “Shirkey saw his juvenile justice system involvement as an opportunity to change not only his life, but the lives of other young people who faced similar circumstances.”
During his time at Juveniles for Justice, Shirkey worked with his peers to create a legislative campaign to ensure staff in detention facilities were not harming youth. He travelled to Washington, D.C to meet with Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill to advocate for this important cause, urging them to pass the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that was then up for reauthorization. Back at the Justice Law Center, Shirkey recruited new Juveniles for Justice members, led community meetings, and advocated for change to members of the Philadelphia School Board, city government, Philadelphia Police, and Department of Human Services. According to Juvenile Law Center’s Staff Attorney Riya Shah, “He (Shirkey) knew he was speaking on behalf of the thousands of youth in the juvenile justice system and he made sure that his voice was heard.”
Shirkey was a role model for his fellow youth advocates and for those in his community. As Shah explains, “He watched as many people in his life were pulled back into the juvenile or criminal justice system. But he was determined to stay on track and complete his goals.” Prior to his tragic passing, Shirkey had recently completed his GED, gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend, and found a job at the Logan steel plant. “With each advancement he made, he was always reaching back to pull the next person forward,” offers Shah.
Shirkey’s tragic passing left behind his mother, daughter, fiancée, nine brothers and sisters, and 14 nephews and nieces. Reflecting on his legacy at Shirkey’s memorial service in 2012, Shah poignantly explained,
“His resilience and passion for making a difference influenced not only his peers but also me and the rest of our staff. In our work, we constantly see young people who are defeated by broken systems. But Shirkey wasn’t defeated. He was inspired by the broken system – inspired to make it better. He didn’t just want to change his own life; he wanted to change the lives of others. He didn’t just want to better himself; he wanted to better his community.”
Perhaps Shirkey’s greatest legacy is captured in the third stanza of his poem “Paint Me Like I Am,” now immortalized in the mural watching over his old neighborhood, “Paint me in my real authentic self/Somewhere in the southwest/Somewhere on 54th Street/With all the fellas, all the chicks/Chillin’ & partying in the streets/Where we need 2 decrease/The violence and increase the peace.”
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