CYC-Online 88 MAY 2006
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Heavy mettle: Stories of transition for delinquent youth

Eileen Mayer Yellin, Mary Magee Quinn, and Catherine Corinne Hoffinan

Four interviews with delinquent youth in the process of real-life transitions reveal that predicting resilience or recidivism is not always as simple as quantifying research-identified “risk” or “protective” factors.

Much research has been conducted to date on the causes of recidivism. While this information is important and useful, the reasons some kids stay out of trouble are just as crucial. How do some young people triumph over failure and successfully transition from institutional settings back into their communities despite the odds against them? What gives some young people the “heavy mettle” required to continue to fight the tough battles and never give up hope for success? How can we foster such courage and fortitude in all youth? Instead of focusing on what is wrong with our youth, we need to start asking ourselves how we can help improve their chances of “making it” back at home.

I searched for answers to these questions through two years of tracking 100 youth who had broken the law frequently or seriously enough to be incarcerated in facilities run by the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections (ADJC). I collected demographic information on their home lives, ethnicity, educational status, drug use, gang activity, and crime data. Surprisingly, my examination of these data revealed that youth who were successful in their transitions into the community were often not perceptibly different from those who returned to the juvenile corrections system due to new offenses or parole violations. Youth from both groups – the resilient and the recidivist – came from similar backgrounds, family situations, and cultures, and had been equally involved in gangs, drugs, and criminal activity.

What, then, made the difference? What allowed 21 of the tracked youth to stay clear of the law for at least six months following their releases and complete parole officer-mandated goals such as counseling, enrollment in educational programming, and “clean” drug tests? I sought answers to the question directly from the “horses' mouths.” Four forthright young people granted me the privilege of interviewing them. What follows are excerpts from those candid conversations. While reading their accounts, try to predict which of these youth were among the 21 who experienced successful transitions back into their communities, and which were not. The results may surprise you.

* * *

Alfred is soft-spoken and languorous. He has a light complexion with a sprinkling of freckles and wears his short, brown hair parted on one side. When I arrive at his home, he invites me to meet his mother and his brother, who is playing a video game in the living room where we eventually sit. At 6–2” and 160 pounds, Alfred shuffles from room to room with the gait of someone who has just completed a strenuous day’s work. He wears a “Peter Piper Pizza” T-shirt and jeans. His shoulders slump visibly, and his animated younger brother and mother often complete his thoughts for him. This appears to be standard operating procedure. More than once, Alfred asks for clarification of why I am there and what I want to ask him. He does not relax until I allow him to actually view the questionnaire.

Although he has seven siblings, when asked about them, he talks of some but not of others. He mentions one sister who “was always in trouble,” but refuses to elaborate. Alfred's first contact with the law was at the age of nine, the first time he did something illicit. He shoplifted and, soon after, violated curfew. About being caught, he says, “I knew I was going home. I was more scared of my parents than I was of the police.” He says older friends encouraged him to break the law because “they knew I could get away with it. They did it, too. That’s what got me in trouble.”

Asked about religion, Alfred says, “I guess I just believe in bein' a good person.” Asked if he considers himself a survivor or a victim of abuse and neglect, he replies, “No, I don’t think I was abused. Maybe I’m just lookin' at it wrong.... I always felt kinda lonely – cause my parents were kinda busy.”

So you didn’t get a lot of attention?

“Well, I don’t know.” He looks around and crosses his arms. He volunteers no more on the subject, and I suspect he is intimidated by our lack of privacy.

Speaking of his experience with ADJC, he says, “When I turned 18, they sent me a letter that I wasn’t on it [parole] no more. They wouldn’t let me go to the counseling group anymore; and I got my GED before I turned 18, like they said, but they wouldn’t let me go to counseling no more.”

You wanted to go?

"I wanted to 'cause I didn’t have anything better to do. And my parents wouldn’t let me go to college till I turned 18, 'cause we weren’t agreeing at the time. So I found some of my old friends. They were all doing the same thing. I guess I knew better than to hang out, but I just hung out anyway. I only did that for awhile.

"I wanted to go into the Air Force, but I’m going through a technical college right now. It’s a computer electronics college that the federal government is paying for,” he proudly says. Alfred also says that he learned self-respect while he was incarcerated. He advises younger people to “listen to your elders. It takes longer than five minutes to learn. Ya gotta sit down and listen.” I leave Alfred, and I wonder if his tenuous support system is enough to keep him afloat.

* * *

NATAS has an impish smile when I first meet him, and his sandy, shaggy blond hair and big green eyes make him look like the boy next door, until I catch sight of the word “F--K” tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand. Over his slight but muscular frame, he wears a blue T-shirt and ripped blue jeans. He grins as he holds up his fingers, three of which have been cut off below the nails in an accident at work. “I’m on workman's comp!” he brags. “I’m a machinist in my dad's shop.” He shakes my hand heartily.

On his arms and chest, which he bares for display, are several white supremacist tattoos. He wants to be called “NATAS,” which is Satan spelled backward. Before our interview, NATAS and I have gone through (or not gone through, as it were) a series of missed sessions. It turns out that he is uncomfortable speaking with someone whose contacts include the parole department.

NATAS does not live at the address he gave the parole people, but we finally meet at the house of an “adopted” step-mom. NATAS introduces me to her, as well as to his “old lady,” who is seven months pregnant with his child. Their roommate, Shotgun, and his son, Kenny, are also in the house. NATAS lights a cigarette and proceeds candidly and speculatively. He is comfortable relaying his tale for all present to hear.

As he tells it, NATAS has a brother in the Marines and one in Florence, a federal prison. The third, a five-year-old, lives with his father and stepmother. As NATAS describes his family, he says, “See, my whole family’s white. I’m All-American, all right? We kinda keep it in the family.” Having sought extended family, NATAS explains, “I used to be associated with White Pride, 4th Reich. Ever heard of it? It ain’t skinheads, just people that are down for the skin, they like the white skin. Just tired of all them wetbacks taking all our American jobs.” Race is an issue throughout much of the interview. NATAS enjoyed living in North Carolina – because blacks had more respect for the white man. I don’t like this [in Arizona], where everywhere you look, you see a wetback or a nigger or what have you. You know what I mean?

“To tell the truth, I know a couple Mexicans. But those couple Mexicans I know will back me up from here to China. Those are the kind of Mexicans I want to back me up.” They know of his affiliation with White Pride, and they have seen the swastika on his stomach, but “they’re down with it.”

NATAS was prescribed medication for ADHD as a child. “My mom used to make me drink Sprite, chew the fuckin' sugarless gum [laughing], but when I came out here, all that stopped. Yeah, I just didn’t like it, ya know. Plus, once I got out here and found out who I was, nobody could make me take that shit. I wish I’d grown up differently; not better, but I wish I’d grown up biker style, ya know what I mean? I like the danger life. But I’m glad I’m not in jail and stuff like that, but it ain’t illegal unless you get caught, right? But I’ve straightened up my ways a lot; I don’t do things illegal like I used to. I just try to keep myself outta jail. I got a kid on the way and stuff, you know. I care more about that than playin' around.”

When asked about his experience with ADJC and the parole system, he says, “I’ve proved to 'em that I could do it, so they gave me a bit more leash, let me do a little bit more. If you do good, they give you a little bit more; if you screw up, they give you a little less. It’s like ... uhhh ... to be truthful, it’s like a game; ya just gotta play it. But you gotta play by their rules or you’re getting screwed one way or another, 'cause they got you.” With the recorder turned off (at his request), NATAS describes some low-profile illicit activity. He tells me, for example, that he no longer robs houses to support a crack cocaine habit, “but they got me 'till I’m 18 and there ain’t no denyin' it.” NATAS finally tells his friends not to “fuck up” too. Time will tell if he heeds his own advice.

* * *

"87” is sinewy and lean at 5'7” and 140 pounds, with a runner’s physique. He is African-American, with close-shaven hair. After displaying some initial discomfort, his soft brown eyes dance with easy laughter, cloud with questions, or shift uneasily with boredom. His boyish charm and newfound pride are evident throughout our exchange.

87 asked that he be referred to as only a case number. Perhaps he does not want to acknowledge his commitment to something resembling a real identity. He is a handsome, well-built young man, polite, with a very easy-going manner. He leads me into a family room that doubles as an office in a modest house in Central Phoenix. Two younger girls and his mother are watching TV. He introduces us and lies on the floor, where he remains throughout the interview. 87’s mother asks me the purpose of the interview and says that her son did not receive “typical treatment for a minority youth. He was treated very well, they took good care of him; in fact, we’re writing a book about his experiences.”

87 is at first reluctant to relate his criminal history. Finally, describing his crime, 87 recounts the atypical treatment to which he was exposed. At 14, 87 was charged with his first and only crime. “Accessory to murder. Actually, I got charged with murder, but it got changed to Murder II. Somebody else did it, and I just got charged with it. I don’t like talking about that because I was stupid 'cause I didn’t really even do nothin'. I know what I did was wrong, but I didn’t kill him.”

Did you witness the shooting?

"I was robbin' a store. I wasn’t even in the store. I was out the store already, but my friend shot the clerk.”

Your friend got charged too?

"He’s in Florence. He wasn’t an adult, but he probably is one now, like 17 or 18 or 19.”

Someone in authority (87 was unclear about who) tried to get him transferred to adult court but, instead, he was sent to Adobe Mountain School. When asked why he was not transferred, he says, “'Cause I was 14. And the cop that arrested me thought I was a good kid. I just made a mistake.” 87 agrees with that assessment.

How, did you feel about what happened?

"I knew he got shot, but I didn’t know he was dead. I thought he got shot in the arm or something. I was kind of scared, but at the same time, I wasn’t mad at myself 'cause I didn’t shoot him. You can’t really feel remorse over something you didn’t do. I felt remorse over my friend 'cause he was going to prison for the rest of his life. I felt sorry for that man who lost his life over something stupid.”

When asked if he’s committed any crimes since the murder, 87 vehemently shakes his head “No.”

How were the police toward you?

"Everybody treat me good. I don’t know why. They bought me all kinda sodas and stuff, probably 'cause I was only 14. They were nice to me. They were sad, 'cause they were in there crying, a woman was crying. One of the police officers I was in her car when they were trying to I. D. me. Everyone I met was nice. They wouldn’t let me go, but they was nice. They helped me not get transferred, so they was nice.”

At the time of my interview, 87’s life had had a happy new beginning. He had been living with his father when his estranged natural mother read about him in the paper and contacted some friends who worked for the state of Arizona. They helped her get in touch with 87 while he was at Adobe Mountain. The two established a relationship that resulted in 87 coming to live with her and her family. He now claims his stepfather as his dad, who, he says, is “like any other dad-he just do stuff with me, take me places. He’s also my friend, too. Like my role buddy.” 87 is enrolled at a local high school, where he runs track and is earning credits toward a diploma, even though he acquired a GED through ADJC. His girlfriend, 87 says, is a “positive influence” for him.

* * *

Lonely Girl looks petite, yet strong, at 4' 10” and perhaps 100 pounds. She has pale skin for her Hispanic heritage, and large features. She wears no adornment except for her violet contact lenses and a gold cross hanging from a chain around her neck. I often notice her long, thick eyelashes as she hangs her head, occasionally radiating the most beautiful of smiles. Lonely Girl’s crowning glory is her thick, flowing, black hair, which hangs to her waist and is combed straight back from her low forehead. The khakis and starched white T-shirts she favors are crisply ironed, with creases in the sleeves. Old English lettering spells “Cruisin'” with an image of a black low rider visible on the shirt back.

She is reserved upon our meeting, but opens up quickly with the finesse of someone who has thought about and told her story many times. Bright, articulate, and decisive, she explains that, by the age of 17, she had lost her father and two brothers to a heart attack, an accident, and a shooting by drug dealers in Mexico. She is the youngest of eight children.

Lonely Girl is in a gang and she wants out, as she feels responsible for her nephew, who joined a gang when she was incarcerated previously. She says that if she had been out, she would have been able to “keep him from getting into it. I just hope that he’ll look at me and change. I tell him to kick back 'cause the laws are really getting hard on juveniles and once you’re committed, it’s like you’re always committed – you can’t go backwards – you only move forwards in the system. I just hope he’ll look at me and change.”

During her last confinement, Lonely Girl’s mother drove the six hours to and from the prison to visit her daughter every weekend. Lonely Girl has become devout in her faith as a result of conversations with her mother, who “loved me unconditionally, no matter what crimes I was committing. And she told me that if I turned my life over to God, that He can help me 'cause He’ll never leave me. And even though I didn’t listen to her, she always taught me right from wrong.”

In leaving the gang and starting a new life, Lonely Girl plans to move from Tucson back to Nogales to live with her mother. Lonely Girl has ambitious goals to go to Pima Community.
College and pursue a major in criminal justice. She wants to become a juvenile corrections officer “'cause I’ve lived this side of it, and I want to live the other side of it 'cause I know what the youths are going through and I like others learning from my mistakes and my past experiences.”

Did you learn from others' experiences?
"No. Every time I see someone mess up, l think of better ways of doing it. But I learn from my own mistakes.” Lonely Girl is confident that she now has a viable plan.

* * *

The Predictive Power of “Protective Factors”
Literature suggests that youth who successfully transition from correctional settings back into their home communities have several characteristics in common.

A review of the four interviews reveals that each of these protective factors was present for each of the youth:

Although he intimates otherwise, Alfred appears to have a supportive family. He has received his GED and is attending college. He seems to have learned from his past mistakes, counseling younger people to “listen to [their] elders.” His reasonable goal to obtain a computer electronics degree is reinforced by a winner’s attitude. “I know that I can do anything I want.”

NATAS also has a support system, albeit one composed of friends, a “stepmom,” and a child. Although he has not ceased his illicit activity altogether, his behaviors are “lower-profile.” He feels remorse for what he has done and plans a different future for himself. “I do regret; I do feel sorry for those people I done the crime to, but I can’t change it. But the only thing I can do is just not do it, and maybe tell other people, my friends, just not to do it, and I’ve done that many times.”

87 has rekindled his relationship with his natural mother and his stepfather, who 87 describes as a parent, friend, and role model. 87 is participating in positive educational, sports, and social activities. At the time of this one-year follow-up, he had not engaged in any illicit activities since the crime for which he was originally convicted.

Lonely Girl not only has the advantage of a mother’s love that knows no limits and a strong faith in God, but she also developed a strong rapport with a correctional staff member while incarcerated. Upon follow-up one year later, they were still in contact with each other. She would call him when she felt need of support, and he would call her to check on her progress. In addition to this caring support system, Lonely Girl has a reasonable goal to become a corrections officer and has enrolled in a community college to start on the path of achieving this goal.

Real-Life Outcomes
Which youth were resilient and which were recidivist? Despite 87’s support system and positive activities, I learned from a follow-up call to his mother that he was in jail, awaiting trial for committing another robbery. And despite a mother’s love, the correctional staff member’s support, and reasonable goals, Lonely Girl is currently incarcerated once again for a very serious crime.

Why did Alfred and NATAS triumph over the odds? All four youth appeared to share the elements necessary to make it in their communities, yet 87 and Lonely Girl are currently back in jail. Why? The outcomes of the four stories are almost the opposite of one’s expectations. If we could not predict transition outcomes for these four youth, how can we predict them for the youth with whom we work? More importantly, how can we strengthen their protective factors if we cannot determine definitively what those factors are?

Clearly, we can begin to answer these questions. The web of “risk” and “protective” factors in each youth’s life is complex and affected by many circumstances. A “caring support system,” for example, can be present in varying degrees. And the needed level of support from this system will vary depending on how much competing influence and pressure is applied by the youth’s peer group. Even youth who refrain from “self-defeating behaviors” may find their restraint difficult to continue when they reach age 18 and most, if not all, transition services cease.

Regarding “reasonable goals,” if there is no one in the youth’s life to help him or her rethink a transition plan when roadblocks are encountered, he or she may abandon hope. And even when there is such an individual, such as a parole officer, this supportive function clearly cannot be performed by one person alone. Moreover, parole officers, case workers, and sometimes even transition specialists are notoriously overburdened by heavy caseloads and simply do not have the time necessary to provide these youth with the tremendous amount of support necessary to keep their spirits high as they strive toward their goals.

Even though we have these insights into what affects the power of protective factors, we need to consider that perhaps we are not looking at all the right measures in our attempts to predict and facilitate positive transitions. If the protective factors listed above are valid but not reliable, is there something else, then some additional, internal protective factor-that we have not yet been able to pinpoint? As shocking as NATAS’s current behavior may seem to us, what does he have that allowed him to remain arrest-free?

Research often raises more questions than it provides answers. And sometimes the answers that do emerge in research on transition issues are squashed by the bureaucratic cry of lack of funding. Yet wouldn’t the cost of improved transition services be more than recouped by the savings realized by successfully reintegrating our youth into their communities? These and other questions remain to be answered through further research, while real people try to deal with the hands fate has dealt them.

This feature: Mayer Yellin, E., Quinn, M.M., & Hoffinan, C.C. (1998). Heavy Mettle: Stories of transition for delinquent youth. Reaching Today’s Youth. Vol. 2 (4), pp.4-8

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