Jessica Williams: One Parent’s Advice for the Juvenile Justice System

Sharon Smith’s daughter Angela died in 1998 of a heroin overdose. She was 18 years old. For four years before her death, Angie was in and out of 11 treatment centers, stood before a half dozen judges, and lived at one juvenile detention center.

Sharon  formed MOMSTELL in 2000 to advocate for more effective, accessible drug treatment and greater family involvement across the continuum of care and in the policy-making process. “Because no family should have to face the disease of addiction alone,” MOMSTELL is committed to identifying and removing barriers to treatment, many of which Sharon encountered when trying to find help for her daughter.

Sharon was one of the organizers of the "national dialogue" sponsored in 2009 by SAMHSA for Families of Youth with Substance Use Disorders. Here, she illustrates some of those barriers specific to juvenile justice.

When Angie started to use drugs, were there adults in her life who tried to help her?

I was happy for any adults that tried to get involved. Angie stayed away a lot and ran away a lot. Honestly, I wish I knew what she was seeking. There were parents of friends who tried to intervene, to come alongside of her and try to help her see things. But because of her addiction, without long term treatment, it wasn’t happening.

Who did you turn to for help navigating the juvenile justice system?

It would be interesting to compare my experience with Angie in the 1990s with a parent’s experience now. I can only speak of Angie and my son Shawn, who has co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. Shawn had some problems as a teenager, but has mostly interacted with the adult system.

With Angie, no one seemed interested in having the family be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. I was very ignorant of the system at the time and didn’t know what to expect or what to do. And I never found anyone within the system that was willing to sit down with me and look at our family dynamics and teach me about addiction and how the juvenile justice system works. So I felt isolated all of the time, literally outside of the walls of the system.

My experience with  Shawn was different. He had a probation officer who stayed in touch with me, he explained things to me, he took the time to invest in Shawn and us. When I saw things were going downhill for Shawn, I’d just call the PO and he’d bring him in and test him and put him in jail sometimes, but in my mind, that PO saved his life.

What do you remember about the time Angie spent in juvenile detention center?

She was there over a month. I don’t remember the sort of treatment she received, but it was minimal. They sent her to wilderness camp for a while. They made her hike. Angie was stubborn: if you told her to do something and she wasn’t in the mind to, she would not. The boots that they gave her didn’t fit and she was forced to walk until she had bleeding blisters and then she just sat down and wouldn’t go any further, which was considered noncompliance.

No one called me, no one told me anything about it. And then the next time I saw her at visitation day I was stunned that she was in a wheel chair. What in the world? She went to this camp that was supposed to help her submit to authority and now she’s physically injured? No one explained to me what happened. It was very, very difficult to see her that way.

There are a lot of moments and memories that are made from a system that wasn’t really trying to help me. I can remember one time she was brought to court. I was told that I could go in and talk to her before she went before the judge and no one said to me, “She’s going to be all chained up,” to prepare me for it, to explain to me why. I was not ready to see her with a big leather belt and chains on her legs and arms. I just kept telling myself, “I have to keep it together, I have to take my mind away from what this situation is.” I sometimes cope with things with humor, so I found myself thinking, “You know, Angie, I was really expecting dance recitals. I was really picturing ballet slippers and not leg irons for you.”

How did you try to make your voice heard while Angie was in the juvenile justice system?

One time, Angie stole a truck and ended up going before a judge. I wrote a 12-page letter begging the judge to deal with her, to hold her accountable for her actions. He made the choice to let her go and I always wonder if he hadn’t, if that would have made a difference. I knew she needed both treatment and accountability because once she turned 18, they weren’t going to say, “Oh, let’s give her another chance.” I didn’t want her to have the idea that that’s how the system works, that you can just do whatever you want and smile and look innocent and get away with it.

Part of me looked forward to her 18th birthday and part of me dreaded it. As a parent, you’re totally responsible for your child’s actions. If she takes a car, ultimately, it’s our responsibility. If she needs to go to treatment and there’s no insurance to pay for it, it falls to us. When she turns 18, we are freed from that responsibility, but we also lose our ability to really get her the help she needs. I think it’s important to focus on earlier interventions during the teen years; we’ve paid too little attention to that.

What lessons have you taken from your experiences with your children and the juvenile justice system?

At the time, for Angie, my take on the juvenile justice system was that you have to go through it, but don’t expect any help. Don’t expect anyone to see you as a parent who’s desperately seeking answers to help your child. It was just another system, another system that I had to dance with, but we weren’t actually partners.

The education I got trying to help Angie was incredible. And then, after her death, with the way that things were handled in the justice system, I felt like there was no justice whatsoever, that the sentence for the perpetrator in her death was not at all adequate.

Those experiences spurred me to do what I’m doing now. At the time, I was trying to strengthen the sentencing for heroin dealers. Now it’s turned to policy and trying to change attitudes about addiction. The really big part for me is that families be involved every step of the way.

What are three things that the juvenile justice system could have done differently to make things better for you?

First, talk to me as well as educate me about the system.  Don’t leave me in the dark.  It’s scary enough  having your child in the system and fighting for their life without being shut out by the system as well.

Second, listen to me.  I know my child and have lots of insight that may help.

And third, include me.  Don’t look at me as just part of the problem, help me to be part of the solution. Include me in the treatment program. Recovery is not only an individual process, but a family process, as well.

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

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