BOSTON — One of Judge Mark A. Ingram’s proudest memories in a long and storied career occurred a few years ago when a couple in his rural Idaho town invited a teen to their backyard barbecue, the same teen who had broken into their home and was sent to a residential treatment facility by the judge.
The couple, who Ingram referred to as Darrin and Sam, did not want the teen there for his company. Darrin had admitted to feeling emasculated by the burglary.
But, Darrin said, his two young children had imagined the teen as a monster while he was in the facility and he wanted to show them that he was just a punk.
The reluctant cookout was the result of a “restorative conference” Ingram had arranged earlier between the teen — who had suffered from substance abuse — his mother and the couple.
Only six months later, that same teen would become Darrin and Sam’s babysitter.
Ingram recounted the story here after delivering remarks on leadership and system reform at a symposium on probation reform last week hosted by the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps.
Speaking before a crowd of more than 200 probation officers, administrators and juvenile justice experts at the Probation System Reform Symposium, he offered advice on how to spark meaningful change in the menagerie of offices and agencies that make up the juvenile justice system in their communities.
A magistrate court judge for the 5th Judicial District for the state of Idaho, Ingram has some experience working to persuade people skeptical about data-driven and evidence-based reform. He works in a rural county in what he described as “the reddest of red states” run by a one-party system. So, he said, when he began the process of working with the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center to do the probation work and spread reform across the state, he needed to go to the statehouse.
“I had to explain to some of our legislators that RFK really stood for Real Fine Kids,” he said dryly to a roar of laughter from attendees.
Ingram talked about changing systems. He described the nearly incoherent bureaucratic spread of disparate agencies and authorities, state and county, “shared employees” and local-level liaisons, siloed agencies for child welfare and mental health, law enforcement and school districts, each with its own draconian ideas of what discipline should be for the children in its care.
“We are, each of us, only part of a larger system of institutions and individuals over which we exercise little or no authority or control,” he said. “It seems to me that the first job of leadership in this kind of environment is to come to grips with that fact. The corollary of this fact is that system improvement can only come by consent,” he said. “Change can’t be ordered, it has to be agreed to.”
After the speech, however, he talked about changing lives. The Idaho teen had been brought before his court to face serious charges. He had broken into Darrin and Sam’s house and stolen more than $10,000 in valuables. He had also taken a pair of underwear from their young daughter’s drawer. On top of that, while the same young man was awaiting sentencing, Ingram said, he broke into a Wal-Mart.
“Grim stuff,” Ingram said. “Pretty grim stuff.”
He had felt he had no choice but to send the boy to a secure residential treatment facility. His planned return home was causing apprehension and anxiety in the neighborhood. He was moving back in across the street from the couple whose home he had broken into. There had already been tension between the two families, bordering on violence, while the teenager was away.
Ingram managed to organize the restorative conference with the teenager, his mother and Darrin and Sam.
“They were pretty sure he was a complete creep,” Ingram recalled.
“We sat him down, he apologized for what he did and took responsibility for it. The teenager explained that he had used their young daughter’s underwear only to wipe off his fingerprints.”
Ingram said he was taken by surprise when Darrin said he had done hard time himself.
Darrin then made the teenager an offer: You and your mom are going to come over to our house and have a barbecue.
About six months later, Ingram invited the teenager to his office to see how things were going. He was first struck by how the teenager was now on a first-name basis with his neighbors. He told Ingram Sam had needed a babysitter and he accepted the job. Eventually Darrin took the teenager out to the oil fields of North Dakota to work.
“I couldn’t believe that that had happened, that they had worked it out,” Ingram said. “The kid went with Darrin and he comes back every couple of weeks to pay off the restitution. So the victims became his mentors and his friends and they gave him a shot.”
The most sincere and well-intentioned efforts by reformers like those gathered in the ballroom, Ingram told the audience, could make the system worse off if they didn’t approach change with care.
“All of us are engaged in efforts to bring improvements to our own systems. If we’re honest we have to acknowledge that making those changes we believe in that are ultimately in the best interests of the children in our communities [is] an extremely difficult process,” he said. “And if we’re even more honest, we have to acknowledge that we are both the products of and the creators of the current system.”
At the end of his speech, Ingram encouraged people returning to their own communities to abandon what he described as the “Follow Me” model of sparking institutional change.
“Similar to our kids,” he said. “I believe the system has the plasticity and the capacity to change but it needs to do that through a sustained and intentional effort.”
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