Judge Steve Teske: The Silent Majority

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A young boy is ripped from his family.  As he is placed in the back of a stranger’s car, he looks out the back window and sees his mom crying and his dad in the back of a police car.  He doesn’t understand. He is scared. He can’t stop crying. 

A young teenager is running the streets and getting into trouble.  He is stealing and getting into fights to survive.  He knows he is ready to kill if he has to.

A young man was neglected and sexually abused as a child.  He sees no purpose in life. Death, at times, seems more inviting than life.

These are the faces of just a few I heard from at the recent CHRIStal Ball, an annual event to raise funds for CHRIS Kids.  Now take these three stories and multiply them by at least 933,333 other children and youth in this country that are reported abused and neglected; and this nearly 3 million does not include those not reported. During these recent difficult times in our nation, these numbers are increasing.

Children suffering at the hands of abusing and neglecting caretakers are at high risk of suffering from reactive attachment disorder. Children suffering from this disorder may have an aversion to physical affection, become disobedient, defiant, and argumentative, display manipulative and aggressive behavior, and lack remorse or guilt when they behave badly. As they grow older, into adolescence, they develop either inhibited or disinhibited symptoms of reactive attachment disorder.  Youth with inhibited symptoms are withdrawn and emotionally detached. They push others away, ignore them, and may act out aggressively toward others. Those with disinhibited symptoms prefer strangers over their parents, and often behave immaturely.

For those of us in juvenile justice, working with troubled adolescents, are you getting the picture yet? Consider the connection between these symptoms and the six researched based causes of delinquent youth:

  • Cognition (attitudes and values)
  • Peers (anti-social friends)
  • Family Function (abuse, neglect, lack of supervision and nurturing)
  • School Connectedness
  • Substance Abuse
  • Weak Problem-Solving Skills. 

Thanks to the Zero-to-Three research and the work of Casey Family Programs and the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, we are recognizing this connection between early childhood abuse and neglect and how it manifests into delinquent conduct in adolescent years. We now call this population “cross-over” youth, and they present symptoms most difficult for the average foster parent or adoptive parent.  Consequently, judges and other juvenile justice and child welfare practitioners often confront “cross-over” youth no one wants because they are difficult to handle; because they are hard to get close to; and because they are afraid to get close to others.

 Judges, you know these youth. These are the ones who find their way into your court because they have committed a delinquent act and now DFCS, in many instances, wants them out of their foster care system because they are labeled “disruptive” and they can’t find a placement.  The adoptive parent who wanted that adorable child at age three or four, now calls him a “monster” at thirteen. And many times it is just as well they don’t remain in a foster home that is ill-equipped to handle the distresses of these symptoms.  It requires an organization that specializes in these “cross-over” youth.  Those three youth described above are now adults.  They were residents of CHRIS Kids.  They are high school graduates either in college or serving in the military and returned Saturday evening to share their stories of how CHRIS Kids nurtured them back to emotional well-being to become productive pro-social adults helping others.  In fact, one is now on the board of directors of CHRIS Kids. 

But this would not be possible without the support of the community, from both business and private citizens.  I was impressed and humbled by the community support for these kids.  I could not help but think how those of us on the bureaucratic side of juvenile justice complain about the lack of money in the state budget, when so much is done in the private sector to support homes for these very troubled kids.  Do we truly understand what the cost would be to the taxpayer if DJJ or DFCS had to pay the full cost for housing and caring for - and I mean really caring for these youth - and steering them toward a productive adulthood?  But for the business community and the caring and concerned private citizens, those of us in the courtroom and in the field would have no viable options to save these troubled youth.  They are the silent majority.  They give and seek no recognition.

I sat at my table Saturday night and considered the connection between me, as a judge, and the community.  How can I be effective if I am not aware of what is going on in my community with programs; if I don’t know who is giving to help these kids that I see in my court every day? Furthermore, should I get to know what programs are working, and what I can do to make sure the system is getting those kids to caring and effective programs?  I speak only for myself.  I need to get off the bench from time to time to time visit that silent majority to say thanks, and give as they do.

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The Hon. Steven Teske has been a judge at the Clayton County Juvenile Court for more than 10 years. He represents Georgia on the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. Judge Teske also chairs the Board of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and serves on the Judicial Advisory Council to the Board of the State Department of Juvenile Justice.  He's a leader in the Annie E. Casey Foundation Detention Reform Initiative and a nationally recognized speaker on juvenile justice issues.

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