Like many foster kids, he lost his property somewhere along the way. The blanket that smelled like mom, the sneakers that his brother gave him, the piece of pottery where he kept his coins. Although he begged, his caseworker couldn’t find the time to drive back to placement number four simply to get his childish things that were easily replaced at number five. And so, a petrified six-year-old bounced around the system less a few items he once cherished, items that connected him to where he wanted to be.
The boy grew older and moved around the state from group home to mental health facility. He developed a close relationship with other boys in one home and became involved in a gang. That involvement led to an armed robbery at fourteen, and that armed robbery resulted in a twenty-year prison sentence.
I met him more than a year ago, well past the point of challenging his conviction and sentence. Since then, we have communicated frequently. The primary goal of my representation is to make sure the awful things that happened to him in the first five years of prison happen far less frequently or not at all in the remaining twelve.
Our visits generally involved him telling me about what has happened since we last met. This day, he was perturbed that his suicide blanket, as he called it (actually an anti-suicide blanket), wouldn’t cover his feet. He enthusiastically ranted, explaining that along with the mattress, his jumpsuit, and his slippers, this blanket was the only thing that was his. As always, he never took his eyes off mine.
I prepare myself for his eyes before each meeting. But without fail, each time, like this time, their deep sorrow staggers me. They’re the attendees’ eyes at the funeral of a child. Or more accurately, at the funeral of most children. (There would have been no one with eyes like that had he died as a child, if he didn’t actually die then.) You cannot look into them without feeling what has been taken.
He continued on about his suicide blanket, describing how he had to curl beneath one of four things in the world he has dominion over, and I thought about the six-year-old version’s blanket. I wondered if the caseworker would have driven back to the house the boy had just left and gotten him the blanket had she known that this would be the ending point.
It sounds silly, irrelevant even. But, it’s just that nearly two decades later he hasn’t found a replacement.
Steve Reba is an attorney at Emory Law School’s Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic where he directs an Equal Justice Works project called Appeal for Youth. The project, sponsored by Ford & Harrison LLP, provides holistic appellate representation to youthful offenders in Georgia’s juvenile and criminal justice systems. This blog follows the clients Appeal for Youth represents, hoping to present a genuine look into a system that is largely unknown or misunderstood by the public