As a former parole officer in inner-city Atlanta, a prosecutor of child abuse and neglect cases, and now a juvenile court judge, I have witnessed the multitude of symptoms emanating from living at or below the poverty level — the most profound being trauma.
Less affluent kids are up to three years behind their more affluent peers entering kindergarten. It’s not because they are stupid, intellectually deficient or suffer some organic brain dysfunction deserving of a mental illness diagnosis. It’s called delayed development.
It’s difficult to learn when you live every day at the bottom rung of Maslow's hierarchy of needs wondering if, or hoping that, you will get three squares that day. And for many, what they do put in their mouths, the rest of us would complain that it’s not enough or unsatisfactory to our palates.
They say education is the great equalizer.
Bah humbug! Poor children start school behind the eight ball and never catch up. These children come to school each day carrying emotional baggage, worried about what lies ahead at home and in the hood — insecurity about food, clothes, shelter; domestic violence, gunshots, drugs and more.
A child can’t be responsive to a teacher’s instruction with a head full of anxiety, stress, fear and pain. In their desire to survive, they fight, freeze or take flight — the “dumbed-down” description of trauma symptoms.
Yet many still label them “bad seeds” and respond with punishments. They treat the symptom, but never the cause.
At a recent legislative dinner hosted by my school superintendent, I was asked to give the nuts and bolts of the juvenile justice reforms enacted this year. No matter how much the reforms are supported by empirical studies, they elicit inflammatory comments because they look “soft.”
I was interrupted by an elected official with the following descriptive tirade: "We have kids cold-cocking principals … One kid committed a theft and said he would be out in 15 minutes … These kids only get just a slap on the wrist." The fact that adults get out on bail and are back on the streets is disregarded, but that truth wouldn't serve the speaker’s objective.
Here is the rub — a principal approached me afterwards and said "Judge, those of us working with these kids know what you’re trying to do and we appreciate it." Another principal described a litany of pain and suffering endured by many of her students that turn into anger from the toxic stress of poverty.
I take it in stride, blaming it on some people’s ignorance. Others use anecdotes to skew reality to garner votes, the self-serving “politics of fear.”
My training as a lawyer and judge serves me well in these awkward moments: Be attentive, respectful and do not respond to their anecdotal stories. I subscribe to the Joe Friday doctrine — “Just the facts, ma’am.”
And so, I shared the following outcomes of our school justice initiative started in 2003:
- School arrests have declined 83%.
- Detention rates have declined 80%.
- Commitment rates have declined 72%.
- Graduation rates have increased 25%, and
- Juvenile filings have declined 62%.
There was silence!
Ah ha! A teaching moment seized with the simple truism — “Don’t let appearances fool you!”
Anecdotes are only as good as the empirical evidence to support them. Speaking of anecdotes, here’s one for my politician friend.
Will was a lieutenant in a gang, robbing people by force and breaking into homes. He was a thug!
His family was poor absent a father, with several siblings. What to eat and wear was a daily stressor. Eviction was always looming month to month.
Will had no time for school — he was too busy dealing with the stressors of poverty in his own resilient way.
The prosecutor recommended three years in a youth prison — but despite his crimes, Will’s social study revealed he had great intellectual capacity stunted by the trauma of poverty. I took a chance and placed him in the Second Chance Program for deep-end youth. That was three years ago.
So as I was walking into the event, Will sent me a picture on my phone. His first-semester college grades — all As.
The unsupported anecdotes screaming to “get tough” and “lock ‘em up!” is a mantra lacking foresight, never taking into consideration that they always return — and worse off.
I replied to Will with pride. Will replied, "Thank you for a second chance — for being tough on me.”
What is tough? Taking the time to help a kid do right or making it easy on us by getting rid of the problem?
This is how we turn poverty and crime around — one child at a time. The math is simple. Like a pyramid scheme, it multiplies quickly!
Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.