Most of us are preparing to gather with friends and family and give thanks for each other and the feast before us. I also give thanks that I was never caught up in the juvenile justice system. Admittedly, I was a pretty straight arrow as a kid, a church-going, soccer-playing, volunteering honor student. And yes, on some level I chose to be those things. But the circumstances of my life made the choices easier, and that is nothing short of a blessing. Actually, a long list of blessings:
1. My brain works the way schools want it to
I’m an enthusiastic reader and even enjoy listening to a good lecture. So I was successful in school, a fact that’s helped me be successful in life. Nationally, we know that 30 percent of youth in custody have diagnosed learning disabilities — more than seven times the rate we see in the general population. My friends who teach in juvenile facilities would argue that far more kids come in with undiagnosed learning disabilities.
Children with special education needs are at high risk of suspension, expulsion, and even arrest at school. One educator told about following a kid around who wandered the hallways and left the building most days because he couldn’t understand the lessons. “He was voting with his feet,” she said. Rather than reporting him as truant, she got him a special education evaluation. (I’m extremely thankful for her.)
2. There was always a responsible adult available to care for me
That’s not a slam against parents whose children become involved in the system. I know how many of them are working two or more jobs, trying to navigate a poorly functioning public transportation system and struggling with barely affordable and hardly adequate childcare.
I, on the other hand, had two parents with steady jobs. Though there was a lot of coupon clipping, there was never fear that we wouldn’t have food on the table. We had two cars and a telephone. A parent would always be at the ready if I had a problem. I never had to turn to a less benevolent “authority figure.”
3. I never witnessed violence
My parents wouldn’t let me watch Road Runner cartoons. Too many anvils dropped on too many heads. So any television involving violence between real people was obviously out of the question.
While I was shielded even from imaginary brutality, real violence is a part of many American childhoods. In a national survey of youth in custody, 70 percent said that “something very bad or terrifying” had happened to them; 67 percent had seen someone injured or killed; and 32 percent said they had bad thoughts or dreams about a bad or scary event that had happened to them.
4. People expected the best of me
That has a lot to do with accidents of birth, like being female, white, and suburban.
Reviewing data for the state’s juvenile justice system, we’re always struck by how much harsher punishments are in some court districts than others and how student arrest rates vary widely by town. Where a child lives has an enormous bearing on whether he or she will get involved with the justice system.
National surveys tell us time and again that young people of all races engage in strikingly similar behaviors. Yet our juvenile justice system is disproportionally filled with children of color, especially at it’s deepest end — incarceration. In other words, we judge some kids more harshly than others, simply because of race.
I have been the beneficiary of a lot of biases, biases that research tells us even the best-intentioned people hold at some level. The Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, along with the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee and Connecticut Public Television, is involved in a project aimed at helping people combat those biases. Find out more at www.ctjja.org/colorofjustice.
So I’d submit that the path I’ve taken in life is a matter of hard work, (mostly) good choices, and a whole lot of circumstances over which I had no control. I’m thankful that I caught the breaks. But I’d be more thankful if there weren’t breaks to catch, if every child had an equal chance of thriving. That’s simply not the case now. We often punish children not just because of what they did — but because of who they are.
It’s always been that way. But that doesn’t mean that it has to be. If a critical mass of people come together and decide that we need to start supporting kids — all kids — rather than criminalizing them, far more of our young people will find themselves on the road to success.
That’s something we could all be thankful for.
Abby Anderson is executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.