The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Crimes and Punishments
What worked and didn’t work to set me straight

My first juvenile charge was grand larceny, when I was 14. I was arrested again at 15, and again at 16. Each time I had a different type of punishment. Some of the programs I was sentenced to helped me grow from an impulsive, angry juvenile to an adult who can delay gratification. Some did not.

Standing on the subway platform when I was 14, I saw a younger boy with a white Play Station portable. My mother had died three years earlier; my father and I didn’t get along. Christmas was two weeks away, and I was not getting any presents. My head felt light; my chest suddenly filled with anger and envy. As the A train arrived, I made my way toward the young man, and snatched his game system. For a split second, I felt good.

Then a badge flashed. An undercover detective had seen the whole thing and arrested me. Remorse and guilt and fear seeped into my mind.

When I reached the precinct my arresting officer said, “You’re only 14, so you have to call a parent.” As I dialed my home number, I felt angry and disappointed in myself. The only thing I remember my father saying was, “I hope you learned your lesson.”

He came down to see me, and talked to the detectives. They told him, and he told me, that I was considered a juvenile delinquent, (under 16, first offense) rather than an adolescent (16 –18). That meant I’d go to family court, not criminal court, and the detectives said the judge would probably let me go.

My father went home, and I spent the night in the precinct’s holding area. It was a small, cold office full of chairs with metal rails next to their arms. The guard cuffed me to my chair’s rail, making it impossible to lie down. After four hours, I asked, “C.O., can I get my jacket? Yo, it’s freezing in here.”

He came into the confinement area looking very mad. “Keep talking and I’m going to get my tase gun.”

I shouted, “Forget you punk, where’s my arresting officer?”

I sat there chained to the chair until morning. The cold did not alleviate the room’s smell of feet and corn chips. Spending one night in the precinct made me want to avoid future incarceration.

However, in the morning, my arresting officer asked me “Do you like McDonald’s?”

I answered hungrily, “YES!”

She said she’d bring me food from there. At age 14, I thought, “If I can get free McDonald’s, I think I’m going to like being here.” The McDonald’s, along with hearing that I was going to go home, made me forget the miserable night I had just spent in the precinct. My advice to policymakers is not to give young detainees exactly what they want—consider taking away the McDonald’s.

After lunch, my arresting officer escorted me to see the judge; she drove me to the courthouse in a police car, handcuffed. The family court judge spoke directly to me. He said, “I am glad to see your father here with you. You are a smart young man. I do not see the need to penalize you fully. I am going to send you to a program known for aiding kids who are doing well in school.”

Off the Streets

The judge sent me to an outpatient program named Community Collaboration Advantage (CCA) that keeps juveniles off the streets. I would go straight there after school every day, and then had to be home at 7 p.m. to make a call to a hotline. The hotline remembers your voice and your home phone number, so you could not call from a cell phone or other number. Although the program left me with no after-school leisure time, I had fun there.

Both boys and girls attended, including two of my good friends. We played board and video games and they gave us snacks and dinner every night before we went home.

Group discussions were every Friday. About 12 kids sat in a circle, and we each went around and spoke about how our day went, how we felt now, and how we hoped our day would end. The first time I participated, I spoke with aggression and force. I wanted new people to feel my presence.

The group leader said, “Hello. How was your day?”

I said, “Alright. I had a fight today.”

The group looked at me as if I did not belong there. A kid said sarcastically, “You must want to be back in jail, Mike Tyson.” At that moment, I felt that the group did not accept or encourage me. If I were to run a program for young teens, I would make a rule that everyone must respect what everyone else says, because sarcasm just makes people mad and shuts them out.

CCA offered therapy and social workers. Looking back, I would say it does offer youth a place to relax and enjoy their time off the streets. However, at that time, I was not ready to take advantage of the program. I was still angry, and focused on wanting more money.

Why I Stole

My childhood revolved around disappointment. Disappointed that my mother was dead, and that anytime I asked my father for anything the answer was, “I don’t have it”—not even a subway card. It seemed like whatever I needed I could not have. I stole because I wanted things, but also because I was angry.

image by YC-Art Dept

I also fought, because fighting lets out the anger inside me. Once I get mad, whether the situation is huge or small, it adds on to all the other anger I have been holding in. I black out and react in a barbaric manner. Sometimes I wanted people to know I am the wrong person to play with. Once I punched someone, I felt better.

What might have calmed that anger in a program is a caring worker who treated me like a son and not just another student. I liked to feel special, and I lost that feeling after my mother passed. I didn’t connect to any of the workers at CCA. Later, I would find a caring worker in a different program.

Everything was cool at CCA for about six weeks, but then I began to get into school trouble. I began to cut school and I often missed my hotline phone curfew because I did not want to sit in a house all night with my father. My father is spiteful and would do things like turn on the lights when I was trying to sleep.

My case went back to family court. My court date was in December. I was only 15, still juvenile, not yet adolescent. My lawyer looked ashamed of me. Every question I asked him, he answered with, “Why didn’t you comply with CCA policies?” I looked him straight in the eyes, and I could not give him my honest answer, which was “I hated following rules.” Therefore, I stayed silent.

The judge looked at me with disappointment. He said, “Due to your failure to comply with the mandated program I hereby sentence you to 12 months at the RTC Graham Windham.” I had never spent more than a month away from home, and I felt mixed emotions. I was relieved to be away from all the arguing and bickering. However, I was sad to be away from my younger brother. He looks to me as a role model and I did not want him to see me away for so long. I also did not want to follow orders in an institution.

Graham turned out to be a beautiful campus up in the woods and I actually liked their program. Everyone on campus attended the high school down the hill. After school, we had GGI, group guided interactions, which usually lasted about an hour. GGI sessions were like the group discussions at CCA, except that there were stricter rules, like “one mic,” confidentiality, and respect. Those were the things I wished the CCA group discussions had had.

I also loved the work programs. Every Wednesday afternoon students did four hours of work for the school, which usually paid $40. My job was sanitation; my group of 11 kids helped clean the park areas and all around the campus. Juvenile detention programs should give participants opportunities to work for small amounts of money.

After work came supper, chores, and showers, then night snacks and bedtime. The combination of school, exposure to a work life, and mingling with females gave me a sense of maturity. It helped me envision the future I wanted, which is graduating college with a business degree and starting my own family.

The majority of my school opportunities came through Ms. Fox, the school’s guidance counselor. Ms. Fox got me into Advanced Placement courses and to college fairs. All her nurturing and pushing made her a mother figure, which I cherished. Because I felt like she truly cared about me, her lectures inspired me to rise above the mischief and bad influences.

Graham discharged me in December back to my father’s house. Since I was about to graduate, they allowed me to return to the school as a day student. I took the train to school two hours each way, five days a week.

Back Home

It felt good to finally be home. I was glad for freedom and to not live by a program anymore. I could go to the park whenever I wanted and I did not have to follow a curfew.

But my father and I still had our difficulties. If he came home from work in a bad mood, he took his anger out on me. Back in the chaotic home with my father and younger brother, I had no quiet, peaceful place to relax. I often found myself right back in the streets just to escape my father’s yelling and complaining.

A week after Graham discharged me I was angry because I wanted to go out on a date with a girlfriend and I could not afford it. My father made me feel worse by saying, “You always looking to me for money; go get a job.”

I stormed out of the house and walked the streets. It began to rain and I had no umbrella, and I got angrier. The life lessons about focusing on school and staying away from negative energy flew out the window. I started to feel sorry for myself, and angry with my father for not providing a better life for me. I began to focus on all the bad things I was going through and the things I wanted instead of the delayed gratification I was starting to learn.

Then I stole something and again got arrested.

Adult Jail

At this point, I was 16 years old, an adolescent, not a juvenile, in the eyes of the court. Since I was a repeat offender, the judge sent me to Riker’s Island jail, for adults, soon after my arrest.

While in jail, I was flooded with feelings of regret and anger. I had been heading for high school graduation and filling out college applications, and now here I was in jail studying for a GED test. My remorse plus the knowledge that I was wasting my potential made me think differently. I began to study and practice for the state tests to graduate high school. I was released after four months and was able to graduate.

At Graham, I had tasted success, and that made me want to keep chasing it. I recommend that, along with paying jobs, juvenile detention programs keep kids focused on school.

Graham does a great job communicating that success comes from finishing school. And, through all my detentions, stable support from someone helped me stay positive and focused on my future. What makes the difference in people’s lives could simply be that someone cares about them. The most important thing a program can have is workers who are committed to their work. People like Ms. Fox really care for their students and that is a strong inspiration. Many of the students Ms. Fox has helped have stories similar to mine.

I stuck with the goal of graduating college; and now I’m in my second year. The punishments that offered me responsibility helped show me that only living in an ethical and legal manner would ensure a comfortable life.

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