OP-ED: Imagining a Real Journey Through Detention For No Crime

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Imagine you’re a parent of a 15-year-old girl. You held her in your arms, taught her to walk, kissed her “boo-boos,” read her fairy tales. Then suddenly, without warning, she becomes defiant.

Imagine beginning each day praying you don’t get another call from the school asking her whereabouts, or that she will come home after school and that she will make it home in time for dinner.

Another day, another prayer, and into the evening your thoughts wrestle over calling the police or playing another game of “wait.” The wrestling match plays in your head until you hear the front door — she is safe, though maybe not sound.

You ask to speak to her, but she nonchalantly tells you she is tired, “not tonight.”

Your shock turns to hurt, then anger. Now your mind is tussling with a different set of emotions — from fear, worry and indecision — and you are asking yourself, “What do I do?”

It’s difficult to manage emotions when you’re a frightened parent.

Imagine you’re startled by a crashing sound outside the house and you find your daughter in your car, its front end crushed.  There are reasons unlicensed teenagers shouldn’t drive — they confuse the “R” and “D.”

You have no choice — insurance companies require a police report.

One question leads to another, and the officer hands you a copy of a juvenile complaint for unruly child, saying, “Someone needs to get her attention!”

Imagine you’re standing before the judge with your daughter by your side. The judge wants the story and you share the sordid details ending with: “I don’t know what to do?”

The judge threatens detention — to get her attention. You’re thinking, “They know what they’re doing.”

She is handcuffed, shackled with leg restraints and taken from you.

Your feelings are ambivalent — you’re scared for her, but desperate for change. You stop by her bedroom door before turning in and stare at her empty bed. You cry a whispering prayer — for tonight you know she is safe.

Or so you imagine …

Your daughter is one of 100 kids in a 60-bed facility. There is no neon sign hanging outside the jail flashing “NO VACANCY.”

Some sleep on cots, others on the floor. Kids are fighting over beds and cots — the weakest volunteered to sleep on the floor.

Every night your daughter pretends to sleep, hoping not to hear the “clank” of the door unlocking — a visitor entering not to help, but to hurt.

Every night she hears the “clanking” sounds of cell doors. Guards contriving with kids, sometimes to fight and other times for a sexual tryst, some not so consenting.

When the “clank” came to her door she prayed for it to pass, and it did — to her cellmate.

She learned to look the other way, pretending she didn’t see the girl giving fellatio to the male guard.

Now imagine you’re back in court with your daughter. Her expression is different now. It is contrite. The judge notices it too and asks, “Did we get your attention young lady?”

Your daughter replies, “I never want to go back there again.”

Now imagine today, 15 years later, and after several years of undergraduate and law school studies, she returns to work in that court, before the judges who taught her a lesson.

Many changes have occurred in this court since she was here, but none of them more surprising to her than the fact that, here at least, there is no jail for kids who simply make adults mad.

In a moment between hearings, a cup of coffee in hand and some casual conversation, she asks the judge, “Why did you stop jailing so many kids?”

The answer was just as obvious in the yester years as it is this year: “It’s just wrong.” Kids who haven’t committed crimes shouldn’t be locked up with kids who do!

And now the revelation — she tells me her story of when she was a teenage unruly girl 15 years ago, when she came through our court to be “taught a lesson.”

What we’re asked to imagine happened to her.

She tells me about her friends who went to jail with her — some still in prison, others not so well — their fate sealed when we ordered them to jail.

She is an anomaly.

We make assumptions that detention facilities are a safe place and ask why no one said a word about their abuse. Why would they. We wanted to “teach them a lesson” by sending them to a horrible place. To them, we were part of that “system.” Whistleblowers don’t whistle to the bad guys.

I am glad she survived, but the trauma will always haunt her.

So who’s teaching who today?


Now it’s my turn — I am haunted by the images of her pain, now multiplied by the many more kids to whom I tried to teach a lesson. Who I am today will never change what I did to kids then.

Now imagine our juvenile justice system if every judge stopped using detention to teach a lesson?


3 thoughts on “OP-ED: Imagining a Real Journey Through Detention For No Crime

  1. “. . . suddenly, without warning [?]” I don’t think so. As the Judge explained, there was a lot of warning before she went before the judge, but nothing was done. There were lots of warnings, and they didn’t begin when she was 15. They began much earlier, without notice. Then is when the battle begins, and it intensifies until it is over, and the child enters . . . “The System.”

  2. Getting compliance from a recalcitrant teen has been a problem faced by adults for millenia. Many people not in the juvenile justice biz simply assume, as I once did, that when a juvenile court judge makes an order then there would be enforcement power behind it. This is frequently not the case, especially in status offense cases. In many (if not most) cases before a judge, he or she simply is not allowed to use incarceration as a compliance option (Note: state laws do differ regarding the use of detention). This is probably how it should be, thinking in terms of the constitutional rights of all citizens, annoying and self-destructive teens included.
    Yet we have cases like this one from Judge Teske, in which a teen is no longer in the control of his/her parents and might be blithely putting themselves in danger. These scenarios happen all the time, and we juvenile court counselors are begged to do something about it. That “something” being requested includes the use of physical force or domination over the teen to gain compliance. But we are not legally allowed to do that (much to the shock and chagrin of unempowered parents and frustrated law enforcement types). So, what then? Sometimes the threat of explaining their actions to a judge helps but just as frequently it does not. So, what then? Referral to mental health treatment. What if the juvenile refuses? And so on. Suffice it to say, there is no easy answer and no one-size-fits-all solution. And many court involved kids will continue to defy well-meaning orders in the absence of effective enforcement. Doesn’t take Adolescent Psychology 101 to figure that out. No wonder detention, one of the very few deterrent options SOMETIMES available for adjudicated youth, is used.
    Clearly the use of detention has problems, not least of which is unsupervised staff to those facilities guilty of it. But dig deeper and understand why detention is sometimes resorted to, and that it is a blunt hatchet for a job that needs many different tools in order to get the job properly done. We not only need detention reform, we need other effective options.

  3. I was one of those parents standing before a judge like Judge Steven Teske, throwing my hands up in despair, not knowing what to do with my two acting out sons. My husband had just passed away from an unsuccessful bout with kidney cancer and our family was in turmoil. Neither of them had committed any crimes but they were experimenting with drugs and alcohol and hanging out with unsavory individuals. They were becoming abusive and disregarded curfews and rules. I can still remember the look on my youngest son’s face as he left the courtroom in handcuffs to be brought to a group home where he was exposed to boys with criminal records and behavior, smuggled in drugs and was intimidated. I was as naive as Judge Teske. Now, twenty years later, I am working with young men in a jail and hopefully, addressing the emotional and social problems that precede most of their criminal behavior and trying to assist them in returning to educational programs which support them and help mainstream them into productive lives. My son was lucky. He did have a supportive family and therapy and education and he is a successful businessman and husband today. But I don’t think either of us will ever forget that day in court.