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Three perspectives on incarceration, criminal justice, and the impact on society

In The Guardian this week, an article was published noting that there had been 994 mass shootings in 1004 days. The rhetoric spinning out from the tragedy has focused on mental health, residual commentary on gun violence, and security (with some going so far as to suggest that arming more people is a step toward preventing such a shooting from reoccurring). Below are three links — two documentary and one media commentary — that tangentially or directly address issues of gun violence, incarceration, criminal justice, and mental health in our country. There are more, and we’ll share them here as part of our ongoing efforts to inform ourselves and each other as we engage in debates about justice in the lives of youth. We encourage you to share additional pieces that you’d like to include in subsequent posts.

HBO’s VICE Special Report: Fixing the System
President Barack Obama sits down with Vice and prison inmates at the El Reno correctional facility to discuss a growing human rights crisis in the Vice on HBO Special Report: Fixing the System.

Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s Children
Presented by entrepreneur, music mogul and activist Russell Simmons and narrated by “Empire” actress Gabourey Sidibe, this hourlong documentary investigation, “Prison Kids,” is the result of Fusion’s work. It is a story about how to take children and ostracize them, derange them, outlaw them. It is the story of America’s crimes against children.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Mental Health
John Oliver explains how our national system of treating mental health works, or more often than not, how it doesn’t.

A Reflection on: “Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital” — “Tanisha”

While looking for some reading to pass the time over Thanksgiving Break, I came across the novel, Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital a non-fiction account of twelve patients encountered by Dr. Eric Manheimer during his time as the medical director at Bellevue.  Though I wasn’t aware when I picked it up, the second chapter entitled “Tanisha” is the story of a young girl in the foster care system who found her way to Bellevue.

Though I could spend this entire blog simply summarizing the chapter, I will instead encourage you to read it, and will devote this space to a reflection on Tanisha’s story.  Though I had no idea this story was hidden in this book, and it was only a small portion of the entire book, its memory lingers with me.

Tanisha had spent sixteen of the seventeen years of her life in foster care, with the exception of one home, that of Abuela, the only loving and supportive home that Tanisha ever had, only to be removed after Abuela’s death. Tanisha was then placed in an abusive home followed by neglectful home in a cyclical pattern that was without end.  Though Tanisha’s stories of abuse, neglect, and horror haunt me still, there are so many positive, yet cautionary lessons that are to be taken away.

First and foremost, Tanisha was a fighter.  She advocated for herself.  She did not give up on herself.  She was strong willed, intelligent and even when placed in vapid surrounds, kept herself sharp and alert.  It is what allowed her the ingenuity and wherewithal to walk herself from Flatbush to Manhattan and to ACS in order to avoid either being killed or killing someone in self-protection.  I say this only to say that there are some positive results to this story, but not all of the children put into foster care who experienced these same misfortunes would necessarily find the same conclusions.  To do so takes a uncrushable spirit like that of Tanisha.

Secondly, “Dr. Eric” as he is so lovingly called, went far above and beyond what is expected? required? of doctors.  Tanisha wasn’t his patient, but he went out of his way to learn about her story, to not give up on her, to find a way to extend her stay in Bellevue in order to afford her a safe place to stay, to buy her notebooks and both model and encourage her to write down the thoughts and feelings, but also to follow through on that act…reading what she wrote, taking it seriously.  I want to call his actions heroic in some sense, but instead, perhaps they could be more appropriately labeled as “aware” or “available.”  He never gave up on finding Abuela’s daughter and talking to her, telling her about Tanisha, taking the one in a million chance that perhaps they would be willing to take her back into the family.  His actions, if nothing else were most certainly out of the ordinary.  I wonder, and am glad I won’t have to know, what would have happened to Tanisha had it not been for the hospital staff and most notably, Dr. Eric.

Because it is impossible to avoid this revelation, Dr. Eric goes out of his way to find Abuela’s daughter who had held the family together, and to offer Tanisha’s story to her, and ask her to consider being a foster family to Tanisha.  They found ways to keep Tanisha in Bellevue in order to avoid her being put back into the system before a decision could be made.  They never gave up on a happy ending for her, and in the end she did get her happy ending.  And the reader walks away feeling as if justice has prevailed.

But I think more critically now.  Tanisha is one girl.  And granted not every child in foster care has this traumatic experience.  But for those who do, what about the many children who cannot get themselves to Bellevue?  Who cannot find their way to a Dr. Eric to be listened to, protected, and advocated for in a way that they were unable to do for themselves.  Where are they now?  How many are there?  How do we reach them? What outlets do they have now to reach out to people who can provide them the support and help they need?  I hope others will have a chance to read this chapter and reflect upon these same questions as they pertain to court-involved youth, in particular those involved in the foster care system.

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