How a Missouri mother turned her family’s tragedy into a national reform movement and changed her state’s juvenile justice system.
Jonathan’s love of learning was what Tracy McClard liked most about her son. “He was always trying to know things,” she said of her youngest child. Like his older brother and sister, he had a fondness for fantasy epics. “He read a lot,” McClard said. Series like “Harry Potter,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “A Wrinkle in Time” were among his favorites.
“He wanted to be a psychiatrist,“ McClard said, because he was fascinated by how the mind worked.”
By the time he turned 14, however, McClard said her son started dabbling in drugs. He got arrested for fighting in school, and he spent a weekend at the local juvenile detention center. The experience, Jonathan told his mom, “changed how his mind works.”
That May, the 41-year-old special education teacher was called up for army reserve training. The year prior, she had signed up with her daughter for part-time military service.
Preparing for his junior year in high school, Jonathan told his mom that he was ready to start scouting for scholarships. “It was time to get serious about his grades and getting into college,” she said. “That’s how I left him … looking forward to the future.”
A Fateful Afternoon
That summer, McClard left her residence in Jackson, Mo. for training in Fort Jackson, S.C. Every night, she said she called home to check up on Jonathan. One night, he told her he had broken up with Tina, a girl he had been dating for about a year.
She soon started getting phone calls from her son, who said his ex-girlfriend had told him she was being raped by Jeremy, her new boyfriend. McClard didn’t believe it, but her son was fully convinced his ex was being hurt.
On July 10, Tina allegedly called Jonathan. According to Jonathan, she had told him she was pregnant, and was being forced to abort her unborn child by her boyfriend.
“Somehow, he ended up making these arrangements with Jeremy to meet him in town,” McClard said. “And that’s when he shot him.”
Using a .22 rifle McClard bought her husband the previous Christmas, Jonathan shot Jeremy three times. Although seriously injured, the 17-year-old shot by McClard’s son survived the incident. That afternoon, McClard received a call from her daughter. “It sounded like she was trying to say ‘Jonathan shot somebody in the stomach,‘ but I couldn’t really understand what she was saying because she was crying so hard.” Immediately after the shooting, Jonathan turned himself in to police. He would later plead guilty in court.
On Nov. 13, 2007, Jonathan was given the state’s maximum sentence — 30 years in an adult jail.
Into the System
Two hours after his arrest, he had been transported to a St. Louis psychiatric facility. There, he spent two weeks under heavy monitoring.
“I don’t know what medicines he was on at that time,” she said, “but he was on strong doses of antipsychotic, depression-type medicines that helped him sleep.”
Jonathan was soon transferred to a local juvenile detention center, where he remained until his certification hearing that September.
“While he was at that detention center, he was on so much medication,” McClard said. He began having recurring nightmares and hallucinations. He saw blood running down the walls of his cell, his mother recalled, and torrents of blood pouring out of the sky.
“We knew he was going to be certified as an adult, it wasn’t an option not to be,” McClard said. “He went from the courthouse right across the street to the adult county jail.”
There, McClard said her son’s antipsychotic treatments were suspended and he began displaying severe withdrawal symptoms. Jonathan was then sent to another county jail, about an hour away from the McClard home. He stayed there until his sentencing hearing in November.
“He got beaten up down there,” she said. “He just saw all kinds of beatings and all kinds of horrible things going on.” When he arrived, another inmate gave him a teardrop tattoo. It was the only way he’d be able to survive, he told his mother.
A Parent’s Worst Nightmare
A few days before Jonathan was sentenced, he was interviewed by the Department of Youth Services (DYS). There was a possibility that he could have been enrolled in Missouri’s Dual Jurisdiction Program, a blended-sentence model that would have allowed Jonathan to serve four years at a secured juvenile facility in Montgomery City, Mo. At 21, he would have received another hearing, with a judge having the option to place him on probation or to continue his sentence in the adult system.
A DYS representative was present at Jonathan’s hearing. He testified in support of allowing Jonathan to enroll in the Dual Jurisdiction Program. “The judge wouldn’t listen to anything he said,” McClard recalled.
After he was sentenced, the family waited four hours to see Jonathan again. “One of the hardest things to do when you have a child that young, in that kind of struggle, is trying to keep them hopeful, but at the same time, not lie to them about what their future holds,” McClard said. “It’s such a tightrope walk, because they are in a really bad place mentally. You don’t want to make it worse, but you can’t say, ‘yeah, I think you’re going to be able to come home.’”
Jonathan was then moved to a correctional center in Bowling Green, Mo. He resided in the facility’s juvenile wing for approximately three weeks. A DYS instructor held GED classes, and in mid-December, Jonathan passed his high school equivalency exam. The next time McClard saw her son was Dec. 30, 2007. It was two days before his 17th birthday.
“He was behind the Plexiglas, and he barely had enough room on his side to sit,” she said. “We had a really hard time hearing him and he had to shout to talk to us.”
On Jan. 4, 2008, McClard came home from a doctor’s visit. Her daughter, extremely distraught, was waiting for her. “She said, ‘mom, the prison has called … but they won’t tell me what’s wrong.’”
She called prison officials, and was transferred several more times.
“Then somebody got on and I was told, ‘sorry ma’am, your son is gone,’” McClard recalled. “He had figured out when the shift change was, and he hung himself.”
From Grief to Action
“It was intense pain, but it was relief at the same time,” McClard said. “He just had too many dreams … to be able to handle that.”
Three weeks before, her husband attempted suicide. Shortly thereafter, Charles, her surviving son, made several attempts on his own life. Her daughter, who was set to deploy in Afghanistan, was hospitalized after experiencing severe panic attacks following Jonathan’s death.
While the rest of her family was “falling apart with depression and anxiety,” McClard said she was filled with anger. “It did not have to be this way,” she said. “There was no reason that this had to happen to Jonathan.”
Her husband lost his job, and her parents came to stay with her. At school, Tina was being bullied and blamed for Jonathan’s death. Even Jeremy, the boy McClard’s son shot, was shook by his suicide. “Charles befriended him after Jon’s death,” she said, “and he can’t talk about Jonathan without crying.”
She recalled writing journal entries during Jonathan’s detention stays. “I remember in my journals, I say whatever happens, just give me the strength to do and bear what happens,” she said. “And show me what you want me to do.”
Within a month of her son’s death, she began researching juvenile justice reform groups.
Jessica Sandoval, vice president of the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), recalled speaking with McClard for the first time in 2008. “We spoke about her son and what her family had gone through,” she said. “She certainly wanted to do a lot of advocacy in her state, and with us at the national level.”
McClard, she said, stood out from most juvenile justice professionals because of how closely the system policies had impacted her own life.
“The thing that makes her different is that she has been personally affected,” Sandoval said. “She told me that she did not want Jonathan’s death to be in vain, and so if she could work for reform, his death would mean something.”
The CFYJ, Sandoval said, has been a longtime partner for McClard since she formed her own advocacy group, Families and Friends Organizing for Reform of Juvenile Justice (FORJ-MO.) “I talk with her at least once a week,” Sandoval said. “If not more.”
On and off that summer, McClard said she thought about holding a 5K run to bring attention to juvenile justice issues. “Every time I talked about Jonathan, people just didn’t get what happened,” McClard said. “People were really surprised, they were shocked, that we did this to kids.”
That October, McClard organized a race, which was designed to educate Missourians on the state’s juvenile justice policies. The 5K was such a success that she held a follow-up event in 2009. The CFYJ, inspired by McClard’s efforts in Missouri, deemed October to be National Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM). “Tracy had always had a dream of making what she was doing in Missouri kind of nationwide,” Sandoval said. “We took Tracy’s desire to bring awareness nationwide and some of the campaign stuff we do so well together, and YJAM became its own entity.”
In 2011, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) submitted a proposal to the 112th Congress, supporting the “goals and ideals” of YJAM. That year, groups in more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia held events, seeking to draw attention to the practice of placing juvenile offenders in adult facilities. A year later, National Youth Justice Awareness Month was formally recognized by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP.)
This year, McClard will be holding a “virtual run” to raise funding for her advocacy work. She’s also mapping out plans for a marathon to benefit DYS facilities in southeast Missouri at the end of December.
More than two dozens YJAM events are scheduled across 13 states this month. “We strongly believe in family and youth engagement,“ Sandoval said. “She’s really been the face of helping people to see what that means.”
Rebecca Woelfel, a Communications Director for Missouri’s Department of Social Services, also praised McClard’s statewide efforts.
“McClard and the leaders involved with her organization have been successful in engaging a broad-based coalition of individuals and organizations in working collaboratively to build on Missouri’s strengths, and recommend and implement further improvements in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “Tracy has also been very effective in engaging young people and families and providing their expertise and guiding improvements in the system.”
Passing Jonathan’s Law
In 2012, a bill seeking to change certification requirements for transferring juveniles to courts of general jurisdiction was introduced to the Missouri state House. The legislation was titled “Jonathan’s Law.”
The proposal, McClard said, had backing from the DYS and the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association. “We wanted to do something we were pretty certain would pass, something that would give us some clout,” she said. “So we addressed the Dual Jurisdiction Program.”
The bill sought to grant every juvenile offender in the state that was charged as an adult a DYS evaluation. “The second piece is that if the judge goes against the DYS recommendation, as he did in Jonathan’s case,” she said, “he has to write a written finding in the court document, with the court records, about why he disagrees with DYS and why they’re going to go against that recommendation.”
The proposal also sought to raise the cutoff point for when DYS could file Dual Jurisdiction Program evaluations by six months.
The legislation also had an impact on the juvenile justice system beyond the Dual Jurisdiction Program. “‘Jonathan’s Law’ changed it to where any child that’s been certified as an adult but then found not guilty will not be held under that condition,” McClard said. “So they can go back to juvenile court.”
While the bill faltered in 2012, it was resurrected in 2013. Earlier this year, the legislation passed unanimously in both houses of the state Legislature, and on June 12, Gov. Jay Nixon signed “Jonathan’s Law.”
“We worked on a strong bill, a bipartisan bill, that brought many parties to the table,” said Wayne Wallingford, a state senator representing Missouri‘s 27th District. “It was a compelling story, and I would commit myself to helping her as much as I possibly could.”
Prior to the passing of the law, he said many judges in Missouri had scant knowledge of the state’s Dual Jurisdiction Program. While the legislation doesn’t bar judges from giving adult sentences to the state’s 17-year-olds, he said that “Jonathan’s Law” now requires them to at least consider Dual Jurisdiction Placement before meting out sentences.
Placing juveniles in adult prisons and jails, he said, often leads to young people simply becoming “better” criminals. By investing in the Dual Jurisdiction program, he said the state could not only save money, but possibly prevent young people from becoming adult offenders.
“When youth go into the adult system, studies have shown the recidivism rate is a lot higher than when they don’t,” he said. “That will actually make Missouri safer, because we don’t have the young offenders re-offending.”
Passing “Jonathan’s Law” was an uplifting experience, he said, not only because it was the realization of one of McClard’s dreams, but because it could also help out many families in the future. McClard’s testimony before the state House and Senate in support of the bill, he said, definitely moved his colleagues.
“There’s been a lot of tears as she’s testified,” Wallingford said. “There’s not a person out in the audience or up in the committee that doesn’t realize that this was a situation that should have never happened.”
The Struggle Continues
Reflecting on her accomplishments as a juvenile justice reformist over the last half decade, however, McClard said she still feels deeply pained.
“I have to constantly focus on the worst part of my family’s life instead of being able to dwell on the better times and the happier times,” she said. “It’s really hard, but at the same time, I’ve met some really wonderful people and I’ve become extremely close friends through this work.”
One of those friends is Grace Bauer, a Baltimore-based advocate who, like McClard, watched her son enter the juvenile justice system and “graduate” to adult corrections. “She’s so passionate about this work,” Bauer said. “I just think Tracy immediately saw how wrong things were in the system, especially because her son could have gone into a different program.”
Hearing McClard speak, she said, is a moving experience. “From the moment she opened her mouth, you could just tell and you can see the passion as she’s speaking about these issues,” Bauer said. “She just brings it home to people in a way that is very powerful, and that legislators can actually see themselves in this woman.”
McClard is a major inspiration for families with children in adult systems, Bauer said. “She has this amazing amount of perseverance and determination to not stop until things change,” she continued. “All she needed was one chance to go with it, and that’s what she’s done.”
Being around a group of dedicated and passionate juvenile justice advocates, McClard said, has empowered and motivated her as an activist. She takes pride in her achievements, but she also stresses that much more work needs to be done in the field of juvenile justice reform.
“No matter what side of the issue you are on, if you do the research, you’re going to find that kids don’t belong in adult systems in any way, shape or form,” she concluded. “I did get Jon’s Law passed … it saved some kids, but we still have so many kids in jails and prisons right now.”