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54 JULY 2003
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youth at risk

From bedtime stories to jail cells: A tale of a lost childhood

Larry Branswell blends a narrative account, of one Child and Youth Care worker’s experience working with a youth in care who grew up and killed someone, with a critical analysis of the judicial process as it affects delinquent youth. It examines the shared experience between the writer and the youth and chronicles their very different ten-year journeys within the group care field.

The newspaper headline seemed like most other front-page stories in these violent times: tragic but disturbingly more accepted by us all. A man killed in his own home by a prowler. The details identified him as a husband and father. Two or three paragraphs down the page, the thief/assassin's name was noted. Suddenly the story became more personal. The 23-year-old man who had been interrupted in his theft and had become a killer was once a child. When he was 12 and I was 23, we had known each other. I had worked with him in a residential centre for youth.

Although the story went on for several columns, pointing out the obvious tragedy of the crime and addressing elements of the family’s loss, my thoughts were with this boy/man. The other, and I’m certain less popular, side of this event involved an individual who in the early morning hours took a human life.

I do not condone crime nor should anything I write be interpreted as being accepting of it. But the days of good guys wearing white hats and bad guys wearing black faded with my childhood. After working with youth for approximately a dozen years, I’ve seen many of these “victims of society" grow into adult perpetrators. It amazes me how intolerant we are of these former children, these former abuse victims. At some point our collective capacity for sympathy, understanding, and tolerance is lost. I suspect that point occurs when we or our loved ones become threatened. Rather than examine the nature of these feelings, we retreat to a simplistic world that resembles the old western movies.

Lately there have been more and more calls for harsher prison terms to address just about every aspect of criminal behaviour. Several years ago a junior high school student in my community lost his life when another youth knifed him on school grounds. This horrible tragedy resulted in a short-term mobilization of parents within the community. Many saw harsher Young Offender conditions as the best response to increased violence among youth. By getting tougher, by modelling more intolerance with violence, by punishing the violence out of our youth, we were going to put an end to these crimes which offend and frighten us all.

The death of this youngster was covered widely by the local media. His grieving father attempted to deal with his pain by rallying support and community action around improvements (read in" tougher regulations") to the Young Offender Act. What seemed to go unquestioned among all the coverage was an obvious query. What was the youth doing with a knife? Why would a 13- or 14-year-old feel the need to carry a weapon to grade eight?

These are the issues I wonder about and am saddened to see so little media attention given to. Of course if you raise the question, you are perceived as being soft, a bleeding heart, or God forbid, a liberal! But it gets back to the white and black hat analogy. We are a society that craves quick fixes. Let’s get that deficit (which took 30 years to create) out of the way; let’s this; let’s that; let’s prevent any other youth from dying such a senseless death by locking the criminals up for life.

It strikes me that we keep missing the point. The true tragedy of it all is that these horrible crimes will keep occurring because we keep looking for simple solutions and easy-to-recognize villains. (Where have all the black hats gone?)

Take the case of the young man who I worked with a dozen years ago. Let’s call him Jason. He was 13 when the Young Offender Act came into practice. The product of a broken home, Jason grew up in institutions. I encountered him when he was 12. He came to our centre because his mother (a single parent) couldn’t keep him under control. School truancy, petty thefts of candy or toys, and frequent fights with neighbourhood kids and schoolmates were immediate concerns identified for the child care staff and psychologists working with Jason and his mother.

When this “killer" was 12 he was filled with mischievous behaviour. He kept us on our toes! The blare of the Home’s fire alarm would typically signal his latest tantrum. Although he was the youngest of 12 residents (by two years), we frequently felt the need to intervene upon brewing conflicts he had provoked with his peers. With much bravado this small pudgy youth would then call out to his adversary (of the moment) that he would have got him if it hadn’t been for the staff.

He would sneak down to the kitchen, swipe a bowl of chocolate ice cream and be astounded that we adults could be so clever in our detective efforts. Jason would quiz us for hours off and on, “But just tell me, how did you know?" Of course we were never so foolish as to offer him any self-improvement tips. The clues, as any parent would know, were usually not too difficult to decipher. It could have been the bowl beside his bed that someone had picked up after bedtime, or the tell-tale mustache of chocolate he would occasionally greet us with in the morning. We were professionals, you must remember.

My strongest memory of this man, this “killer", is of tucking him into bed and reading him bedtime stories. Such was his childhood neglect and deprivation, that a bedtime story even at the age of 12, or perhaps especially at this age, was magical. As he had missed so much school time over his young but unsuccessful career as a student, there was little personal enjoyment to be derived from reading. But being read to was another entirely different matter. The nurturance associated with this act, the sense of safety it left this isolated boy with, was truly magical.

If you can, imagine the effort, the calories, Jason expended by simply being Jason. By bedtime he and those who had kept up with him (two shifts' worth) were ready for a good night’s rest. Consider the energy that a youth like Jason would expend in the run of a day. Things that most healthy adults take for granted would have required considerable mental and physical exertion for youth like Jason (and yes, there are many like him.., more than our Young Offender facilities will ever hold). His first trip to the Home’s bathroom each morning would be a social event requiring either a choice to continue last night’s conflict with a particular youth, or be responsible for his hygienic needs, or be mischievous and wet his hair and attempt to deceive those “ice cream police" into believing he had showered. Eating breakfast with the other youth and staff members would make the trip to the bathroom seem like a cakewalk.

It wasn’t that there were always bad times or that he would always choose the troublesome path. He was a mischievous 12-year-old who had bounced around the foster care system for several years before coming to our treatment centre. His mother cared for him but was incapable of parenting him effectively. In her frustration and a climate of limited support as a single parent, she couldn’t meet her challenging son's needs. These conditions, coupled with her own childhood abuses, brought Jason's mom to the seemingly inevitable point of being physically and emotionally abusive and neglectful. This child never bonded with any one. His world was as unpredictable as the weather. What would any sane person do under such unstable conditions, with the benefit of only 10-12 years of life experience to draw from? Jason's logical response was to create for himself a world that was as orderly and predictable as possible. In his misbehaviour he could count on certain responses from his school teachers, city police, Home staff, or his mother. The fact that these predictable responses usually focused around negative attention or punishment was secondary to the primary need they were filling.

So the bedtime stories were magical. They had predictability. We had recognized the need for this troubled youth to end the day on a positive note regardless of how deep a hole he had dug himself (with our predictable assistance). So down I would go at 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. to tuck Jason in (when I could find him) and read him a story. Initially, his playful eyes would sparkle at the magic being told with accompanying pictures, and then they would fight back the ensuing sleep and eventually give in to the night. His peaceful sleep seemed to be his reward for the day’s underlying anguish or challenges. His regular breathing didn’t betray the insecurities that this unattached youth held. And then a new day would dawn.

This killer was among the first graduates of the Young Offender system. He was 12 or 13 when the Act was instituted, and he was among the first group of youth to move through the system into the adult judicial system. Jason's brushes with the community escalated from thefts of candy and toys to breaking and entering and property destruction. Not the acts of a sociopath but a variation on his mischievousness. The adventure that boys centuries back would have sought in the woods or on sailing ships, Jason found among the thrill of breaking into people’s homes. The act of sneaking and not the theft of any article was the original motivator. Although I’m sure this changed over the years, I believe its roots were motivated less by deviance than adventure. Jason became a courtroom regular throughout his ensuing adolescence. The most typical conclusion for these visits before youth court judges was yet another closed custody sentence.

One of our most basic needs as human beings is the need to belong, to feel loved and appreciated by those around us. Children who grow up among chaos and violence have this need as well and often at an understandably heightened level. When a youth’s family becomes too incapable or inconsistent to meet this need, adolescents begin to seek out others who will. This pattern is seen in decisions for teens to turn to prostitution, gang violence, youth theft, property damage; in their own way, all of the aforementioned involve social acts. Seldom do youth offend by themselves. In the case of teen prostitution, the social factor may be the youth’s relationship with a pimp, certainly with parents, with a poor self-image fuelling the self-destructive fires. But for some youth the routine becomes comfortable, or at least less uncomfortable than its absence.

Here is how routine the court proceedings often become for youth:

This pattern became safe and predictable for Jason. He was a child who had known only brief periods of calm in his young life, but who clung to those memories with all the strength and conviction he could muster, for they were at least his own. The arm of our youth services that is intended to be most punishing and least attractive to youth became the one place in the entire youth service network that could finally provide some security and sense of belonging.

As a 12- or 13-year-old, Jason qualified under the Young Offender Act as being mature enough to be held responsible for his illegal actions. The wisdom of this legislation is modelled after our nation's approach to the adult judicial system: a system that is so effective that our jails are filled to capacity across the country; a system that offers a broad range of punishments (short of capital) but hasn’t seemed to stop people from committing illegal acts. This was our nation's choice as a replacement for the old Juvenile Delinquent Act. Why not use our positions as law makers, as custodians of the next generation's trust, and help out those like Jason with an increased incentive to “rehabilitate" themselves?

As in the adult system, youth have their rights under the Act. It seems that the paramount of these rights is the right to legal representation. We created a system in which those who are entrusted to guide youth through this pivotal chapter of their lives are individuals with no training in developmental principles. Once youth enter the judicial process, they enter the world of lawyers and abstract concepts of right and wrong (abstract at least for the intellectual capacity of most teens). Typically these youth have received some instruction about what is right or wrong; discussions of socially acceptable and unacceptable behaviours have occurred either within their homes or schools.

The most common response I have witnessed among first-time offenders has been one of confusion. Their previously simple world of right or wrong has given away to “They don’t have enough evidence to convict you," or “I can get you off," or “Did they read you your rights?"

My point is not one of denying civil liberties to youth. I believe that, in its design, the Young Offender Act fails to address vital aspects of the needs of youth. The Act is built upon the principle of holding young offenders responsible for their actions. Who would argue with this? It is the nature of this focus on responsibility and the manner in which it is implemented that I believe becomes nothing short of institutionalized abuse. One of the things we know about punishment is that it is most effective when it is delivered in a clear and immediate manner. Typically months pass before most young offender cases are resolved before our backlogged courts. Typically the process, including the legal representation received by the youth, is very confusing. Attorneys are placed in the position of representing the young offender against the charges brought forward by the Crown. Their professional mandate is to provide their client with the most effective defense they can muster. This by exclusion does not include counselling the youth to take responsibility for his/her behaviour. On the contrary, the client/attorney relationship functions on clients not admitting guilt to their representatives. Imagine the confusion for a 13-year-old who upon greeting his or her lawyer is informed not to share the fact that he or she did commit the illegal act.

On a broad level, the Act entrusts the critical role of promoting moral and social responsibility among offenders into the hands of lawyers. Those predisposed to focusing on developmental needs of youth could undoubtedly be subject to discipline for not acting in their clients” best “legal" interests. The black hats are not easy to find. Lawyers are following the rules, judges are following the rules, and youth learn that there are new rules to the game. “Right" and “wrong" are replaced by less clear concepts of “reasonable doubt" and “insufficient evidence."

When I took Jason down for his first day in court to meet with his legal aid representative, a look of confusion and then elation came across his face. The phrase “I can get you off" kept coming up. Jason's initial confusion came from never once being asked by his lawyer if he had committed the break and enter. In fact, he was directed not share this information. This was a boy who had some idea of right and wrong. Such a lovely social education for a 13-year-old. His elation came from the fact that his newfound friend and advocate promised to wave a magic legal wand and make the fruits of his misbehaviour go away. (Of course the legal magic wore off after several more brushes with the courts. More on that later.)

I can recall Jason getting news from mother on the odd Friday afternoon that his overnight visit to their home was going to be cancelled. Having looked forward to this contact all week, Jason would be shattered. When we could get to him quickly enough after these disappointing calls (those of us among the staff group that he had some semblance of a relationship with), Jason would allow us to talk with him about his feelings. More often than not, Jason would have to show us how he felt. It was at these times he was particularly vulnerable to urges of misbehaviour. No one cared about him; his mom had just confirmed it; we were paid to look after him; he would attack. Why should he care about anyone else? When he could open up, it usually came out among tears. On TV shows and in movies, everywhere he look, the nuclear family laughed back at him. Yet he would tearfully point out that his only memory of his father was that of a drunken figure who would beat him and his mother. The other half of his parenting was so inconsistent in her ability to convey warmth and caring that this perceptive kid already realized that, at 12, he was all alone in this world. And it scared him when he allowed himself to think about it. It was easier and less painful not to think but to act out his anger and disappointment. Our attempts to counsel him would discomfort him, and he would frequently run away rather than engage in this examination of his life. While away he would typically resort to some theft. He knew what he was doing, but his search for security and order was a far less conscious aspect of his motivation.

Bedtime stories came and went; Jason's brushes with the judicial system increased in frequency and severity. He eventually received his first closed-custody sentence: three or four months to be served in the local locked Young Offender facility. And so this child crossed a bridge, one he would never really come back from.

He was returned to his mother’s custody after the incarceration. It didn’t last. He moved in and out of the locked facility over the remaining five years of his childhood. Another resident of our Home once commented on the position Jason had created for himself in the Young Offender Centre. This youth had encountered Jason during a brief lock-up. Apparently Jason had become king of the hill. His pre-adolescent body, with the help of lots of time on his hands, a well-equipped weight room at the Centre, considerable motivation, and a healthy respect for might being right (Isn’t that what Dad had shown?) developed into a very well-built young adult. His newly discovered intimidating presence made up for his earlier deficits in dealing with peers. He would accept free smokes in payment for not hassling the other youth.

Jason's pattern over these next years became one of getting released, living off the fruits of his last theft (which he’d stashed prior to his incarceration), and when this ran out, getting back to “work." Getting caught was as inevitable as I suspect it was comfortable. It offered him the predictability and security that his family and surrogate care givers had never been able to meet. In this youth jail, he was truly safe from himself. He could not run away and treatment was not the focus, so it was far more comfortable than our Home had been. There were no intrusive questions, no requests to consider alternatives or examine the choices he was making in his life.

This is another aspect of the Young Offender Act. It accepts the child's right to say no to the often emotionally painful aspects of becoming more emotionally healthy. Living for the moment, many youth opt for this path of avoidance, unaware of the long-term consequences of denying their pain. We in our wisdom allow this (it’s cheaper: fewer child care staff and psychologists are required), and in our reactionary manner we fail to see the consequences even after another tragedy has occurred.

So if Jason didn’t step out of line, the jail keepers wouldn’t give him too hard a time. Most of them with any sense would have been intimidated by him. I saw him after he had been in the locked facility off and on for three years. It was enough to erase any image of the little boy I used to tickle and tuck into bed. His chest was thick and his boyish grin was harder to pull out of his lengthening features. But he had seemed happy to see me, coming across the room to greet me as I wandered through the facility with a tour group of professionals. I enjoyed the brief contact, for although I had worked with hundreds of youth, there was a twinkle in Jason's eye that had set him and a handful of others apart from the masses. It was sobering to see the fellow growing up “indoors": quite a childhood.

Around this time I found myself struggling with some longitudinal aspects of remaining in the professional field of Child and Youth Care. I had seen this boy grow into a teen's body. The inability of our program to save him from either fate or himself was disappointing. Despite the well-intended efforts of many professionals (and no doubt some less motivated and less honourably intended ones – they’re out there, too), I could see this youth was going “down the tubes" in front of my eyes. Feeling powerless and inadequate, I rationalized to myself that “You can’t save them all," or “He didn’t really want help," or “The System had abused him." While I’m sure there was truth in these views, they appear, upon reflection, to mirror the irresponsibility I accused others of. And so I went on with my work: attempting to the best of my ability to help youth in a respectful and caring manner. But I can still recall feeling guilty for letting go of, or giving up on, Jason. Writing him off, so to speak, was the beginning of my acceptance of my own limitations while working with youth. Stated differently, perhaps it was the beginning of self-imposed and self-fulfilling limitations.

So the next thing I know, Jason's a killer. And in a sad and perverse way, he has succeeded in arranging an emotionally safe and orderly existence for himself. He will never know the strong pull of love that may young adults encounter as they begin to seek out their eventual mates. He will only have his fantasies of happy childhood memories. He will undoubtedly be released at some point, probably around the time he’s 40 or so. Unless something of tremendous significance happens during his jail term, he will re-emerge to society an isolated, unskilled, ex-convict with half a life behind him. He will have missed out on years that for many are the most productive, naive, and loving of their lives. And no doubt he will be questioned about his desire to re-enter society. Will he be ready to accept our rules?

I don’t see Jason wearing a black hat. The loss of any life – in our neighbourhoods, in the school yards, or somewhere across the globe – is a tragedy. I grieve for the family who lost a husband and father as they carry on with life. My heart goes out to the family of the dead junior high school student. Could there be any crueler fate for a parent?

As unpopular as it may be, my heart also goes out to the school boy who stabbed the youth and to Jason. These boys or men are not animals who were born to rob us of our possessions or loved ones. They are someone’s children who more often than not have been abused. Exposed to family violence or severe neglect, they learn – yes, learn – that the world is not a place where one can trust others. With this as their foundation, they attempt to deal with the same pressures that challenge us all. Equipped with less emotional support and fewer intellectual resources (given their lack of academic successes), they often fail to get by when they adopt the mainstream rules. The decision to change the rules isn’t based on an inherent evil lurking since the cradle. It is usually an issue of economics or an inability to socialize in a non-hostile manner. It is difficult to let go of the anger that’s been boiling over since infancy. Their anger has been modelled in their homes, on TV, in sports, in their music, and in youth centres. It’s been modelled by those who propose punishing them harder in an effort to free us good citizens of these horrible deviants.

As I look back and examine my experiences with youth over 10 or 12 years of professional contact, I realize that I have encountered some of the angriest youth in my community. Many have gone on to live reasonably adaptive lives. Some others have gone on to take lives. Thus far the total that I’m aware of is four, and counting. None of these youth saw themselves as future killers. They will have to live with the memory of ending a life. All of them were abused in some form or other. And all the punishment, all the refinements to the legislation, all the lawyers, all the days in court are not going to have any deterrent effect whatsoever.

What will curb the tide of violence is a responsible community coming forward and saying, “No more." Today’s killers are yesterday’s abuse victims. There is absolutely no doubt about it. And yet we choose to ignore it. We choose to be shocked and outraged that a member of our community could commit these crimes against other persons or property. We ignore parents who berate their children in the fast food line-up, choosing not to interrupt the emotional attack of the fatigued parent. We don’t speak out against the school teacher whose critical approach is like acid on the self-esteem of a developing personality. We don’t confront the police officer who is less the responsible role model than another tired aggressive authoritarian. It is everywhere. But still we are surprised when something raises the profile.

The most sensational recent example of youth violence is that of the two Liverpool 10-year-olds who killed an infant and left him on the train tracks behind a mall. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. You carry around on a daily basis this rage or anger that has been modelled at home or on the TV, just about everywhere a 10-year-old would look. For some unknown reason, on the fateful day they push their actions to a new extreme and take a life. Imagine the lesson they learn about acceptable behaviour in our society as they are led into and out of the court house to blood-chilling cries of an angry citizenry, who, given half a chance, would tear these lads limb from limb.

How do 10-year-olds come to do such things? I’m astounded that the answer is so hard for some to see. It’s sad that the solution isn’t worth enough to a society that it is willing to invest in a long-term approach to family violence and effective parenting. Jason deserved a better chance. At 12 he was too young to be a casualty of growing up. I think of him lying in his cell at night and I wonder if he remembers our bedtime stories.

This feature: Branswell, L. (1993). From bedtime stories to jail cells: A tale of a lost childhood. Journal of Child and Youth Care. Vol.8 No.4. pp 29-38

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