Christmas is synonymous with redemption to me. Christmas a few years ago expanded that belief to a higher level. My 16-year-old son would not be joining us for Christmas for the second year in a row. He would be serving time in a federal juvenile correctional facility instead.
In September of that year, he was charged with stealing a gun from a local pawn shop. He was questioned for hours. He made the police mad, so he was arrested.
My son did not act alone and law enforcement knew it. However, he is of a strong and stubborn determination and would not give information they wanted. He instead would hide emotions behind attempts at what he thought was intelligent wit. Instead this came off as immature sarcasm and could anger even the most patient adults.
In a detention center 90 miles away, he sat day after day in his cell staring at the walls. He learned to stuff socks down the toilet and flood his cell for excitement; Typical behavior of kids in a cage with no treatment, inadequate educational structure and surrounded by anti-social peers.
On one visit I witnessed a young boy sitting in a chair in the detention center, shaking and waiting for “his tour.” I asked my son why the boy was there. He told me the staff prepped the kids in detention encouraging them to bang on the doors and scare the “tourists” under the guise of a failed scared straight program. My son couldn’t do it. I was proud of him.
In November, my son was told he was being released. Puzzled, he was led out of the front door in street clothes and was immediately handcuffed and placed under arrest by federal agents. He was transported downtown to the adult jail. The feds don’t have to follow laws regarding site and sound separation of adults and juveniles or any other state regulations. The reasoning for taking his case federal escapes me to this day.
In the middle of the night, my son was taken to federal detention center 180 miles away. He was allowed to attend classes for school. He quickly moved up the point system to earn privileges. I visited often and we would try to piece together a future that did not include prison, and it was so hard to watch my son lose hope in the future. He had no thoughts, plans, or dreams beyond surviving his punishment. He felt constant anxiety waiting for his day in court.
Without warning, three months later, they moved him back to the original county detention center, again in the middle of the night. When I called and found that he had been moved, the detention officer commented, “I don’t know why your son is in here. He doesn’t belong here. I really wish him the best.”
After six months in detention, my son pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year and a half in a federal juvenile correctional facility in a neighboring state. We received no phone call asking input for his rehabilitation . He served his time and we visited faithfully, but there was no family counseling. He was a skeleton of his former self in form. But he progressed in his schooling graduating nearly a year early. He took the ASVAB test and the ACT test; he scored exceptionally well on both.
The following January, nearly a year and a half after he was charged, he was released. We received no communication regarding a transition plan, living arrangements, treatment recommendations, or progress made while incarcerated.
In February, my son, now 17, wanted to attend college. He didn’t return to his home town. He didn’t want to see his “old friends.” We helped him get an apartment. A week later, he had a job and was registered for school. He accomplished this without a car and in 20-below weather.
On his 18th birthday, he had a transition hearing where the state was to decide whether to transfer him to adult probation. He showed up with a restitution check in hand and not a mark on either his state or federal probation records. They grudgingly released him from state probation after implying that his check was probably not good.
The military wanted to recruit him – remember those outstanding ASVAB scores -- but he was on federal probation. He didn’t quit. He applied for early release despite the prohibition against releases before one year. With help from his probation officer, the judge let him off for 90 days to enlist. After dogged attempts and nothing but praise about him from his recruiter, my son was not granted a contract. He returned to probation. He was crushed.
As he was trying to get into the military, he continued to search for better jobs. He decided he wanted to work for a veterinary clinic. He wanted to work with animals and it would fit his class schedule perfectly. I encouraged him to look up every veterinary clinic in town and put in an application. A week later, he had a job as an assistant at an animal clinic. Six months later, he found another job that paid even better.
My son has accomplished all of this despite the fact that he has suffered from relentless bouts of strep throat since his release, which I attribute to poor nutrition and stress that wreaked havoc on his immune system. He was extremely underweight carrying 148 lbs on a 6’1” frame.
Ironically, I work in a juvenile court where I have helped secure services for a Second Chance Court. Boys who have committed violent crimes that make my son look saintly are offered intensive treatment instead of incarceration.
I secured Thinking for a Change, a 22-week evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy program, to help change thinking errors that delinquent youth often possess. These youth receive family therapy, individual therapy, and attend court every Tuesday. I watch over countless weeks as their facial expressions soften, they start to smile, they hold their heads up, they speak out about successes, they start to speak of a future and their parents talk about the positive changes they are witnessing. I watch them graduate after a year or more and go on with their lives, no strings attached. My son even served as a guest speaker at Second Chance Court this summer and spoke about the strength from within that it takes to make positive changes in life.
This year, my son is coming home for Christmas, and we are on a new chapter. We will figure it out together. I wonder how tough it must have been for him to speak to the Second Chance Court participants and watch them being given the grace of redemption that he was never afforded.
My prayer this Christmas is redemption for my son and a change in the juvenile justice system-with a focus on restorative justice -- not punishment. I remember my son’s first words to me when I saw him after his release. He said, “Mom, it is so strange. I walk up to doors and just stand there. I still assume they are locked.”
I cry now at those words, because in many ways doors do remain locked for him as he is haunted by the scarlet F for felon and the words redemption and juvenile justice remain an oxymoron.