I work with children who have parents in prison and with parents who are serving time. Much of my work focuses on effective parenting and child abuse prevention. When we reduce the occurrences of child abuse, we also help prevent violence by these same children later in life.
I do this through my job with PB&J Family Services, a New Mexico nonprofit organization. My main responsibility is to manage a home visit parenting program for families with young children. In the evenings and on weekends, I work in a new program that provides children with developmentally appropriate activities and their parents with resources while they are waiting to visit someone who is incarcerated.
I’m passionate about these issues because I grew up behind bars. I entered the juvenile justice system when I was just 13 after I was accused of participating in the murder of another girl my age in my hometown of Clovis, N.M. Despite the difficulties of that experience, I grew from a child, acting out impulsively as a result of my own unresolved trauma, into a responsible, working mother active in my community. I was released at 18 and have never looked back.
As we observe the third anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which found it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a crime committed by a person younger than 18, it is a good time to think about how we hold accountable children who are accused of serious crimes. This accountability should be age-appropriate and trauma-informed.
When I was growing up, my family was extremely poor. My parents were alcoholics and had separated by the time I was 5 due to domestic violence stemming from daily intoxication. When something went wrong in my family, we did not talk about our frustrations or hurt.
My parents only knew how to parent the way they were parented in the 1960s and that was through hitting. I saw the same thing in my neighborhood and thought the only way was to fight for what you wanted and sometimes just to keep what belonged to you.
I was first expelled from Head Start when I became aggressive when a little boy was on a swing I wanted to use. I had been taught to hit, not use my words and say I wanted to use that swing.
By the time I was 12, I had been kicked out of two schools because of my violent outbursts. No one ever tried to find out why I was violent. No one wanted to know what trauma I had experienced. I was never properly treated for my mental health issues. No one took the time to help my family learn the skills we needed to take a different approach. I was expected to behave in school, but I didn’t know how. I knew only violence and aggression.
In August 1998, a few days before I was to begin eighth grade, the unthinkable occurred. My sister had been attacked a few days earlier by a group of girls. We decided we would get them back, so we rounded up a group of our cousins and friends. We thought we would beat them up, then brag about it when we went back to school.
But during the confrontation, a family member my age who had experienced severe abuse pulled out a kitchen knife and stabbed one of the girls to death. We were all children who did not have the intention of taking the life of any human being. I was confused, angry and scared about what I had witnessed and thinking about going to prison for the rest of my life.
I wanted to have a trial because I didn’t agree with the charges and did not think I should have to say that I was an accessory to murder: I had no idea that a life would be taken.
I was held in a juvenile facility awaiting trial. After three years, I was released on house arrest as I continued to await the trial. While home, I began a relationship with my first boyfriend and became pregnant.
Because he had ordered me to have no contact outside my family, the judge said I had violated the terms of my release and had me reinstitutionalized. I decided to plead guilty to aggravated battery, accessory to aggravated battery, conspiracy and harboring a felon so that I could end the ordeal as soon as possible.
The judge sent me more than 200 miles away to a facility in Albuquerque, N.M. While there, I began to grow up. I was six months pregnant and knew that I wanted more for my child and myself. Staff from PB&J introduced themselves and began meeting with me. It was hard for me to trust initially, but the staff was trained in addressing trauma and gave me the space I needed to start learning. They taught me parenting skills and helped me develop a relationship with my child, who went to live with my mother after I gave birth while locked up.
I was 18 when I was released. PB&J helped me get my first job as a cashier at Kmart. During my four years there, I rose through the ranks and became a manager for several departments. I was encouraged to go to college. Despite my reluctance, I enrolled at Central New Mexico Community College, where I earned an associate’s degree in early childhood development.
Nearly 10 years ago, PB&J offered me a job with them. I now work as the home visiting manager, running programs for all three PB&J sites in New Mexico. I am just a few classes away from earning my bachelor’s degree.
I am proof that we do not need extreme sentences to hold children accountable. I was adjudicated in the juvenile system, which was set up specifically to address the needs of children. I was given a second chance to live in free society, unlike the thousands of young people charged as adults and sentenced to die in prison.
More than 2,500 people have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as youth. Approximately one-quarter of them are like me in that they did not actually commit a murder and may not have known that it was going to take place. And regardless of the role that they played, no child should be sentenced to die in prison. Everyone deserves an opportunity to prove that they have changed and are ready to be reintegrated into society.
My goal now is to help families. I also want to make sure that we diagnose and address trauma in children. The reality is that most children who are charged with these crimes come from poor neighborhoods and have experienced violence and other traumas.
We can do better. Since the Miller decision, 13 states have eliminated life without parole as a sentencing option for children, and a bill in Connecticut awaits the governor’s signature. Together, we can replace these draconian sentences with accountability measures that make sense and work.
Francesca Duran-Lopez is home visiting manager at PB&J Family Services, a New Mexico nonprofit helping at-risk youth grow to their full potential in nurturing families within a supportive community.