Monday, November 24, 2008

A Visit To Juvenile Court

It is a church-like setting with rows of pews on each side of a carpeted isle. The front is finished with beautiful hardwood. Families and friends squeeze into empty spaces. There is a pseudo hush in the air as everyone keeps whispering private conversations. A strangely serious-but-jovial, older gentleman dressed in a robe presides over the gathering. But there the similarities end. The older man is a judge. Over his head is mounted the seal of the state of Tennessee. Around him scurries a bevy of officers of the court: a court recorder sits on his right, a couple of assistants are on his left, a policeman stands stage right but often moves around to whisper instructions to those standing before the bench (hats off, hands out of your pockets, etc.), representatives of the local school systems, officers of the Department of Human Services and some representatives of private family agencies shuffle around moving in and out of the room.

Every few minutes another name is called and a uniformed officer escorts another prisoner before the judge. Each, dressed in a prisoner orange jump suit, is shackled hands and feet with the hands linked to a large leather belt around the waist. A few come forward from the audience having been summonsed but not arrested. Each is a youth between the ages of twelve and seventeen. They are charged with a host of minor crimes: temper tantrums mostly, fighting at school, one actually hit a teacher who tried to break up a fight, one cursed out and threatened to beat up a teacher for insisting he turn off a video game, one pounded his fist into the wall and kicked a water fountain, a first-timer had broke into the school concession stand and stole a soft drink, one (a petite fifteen-year-old girl) broke into a neighborhood home and stole a few things, and several failed drug tests – one young woman pleaded guilty of actually going drunk to a court-ordered substance abuse program. Most of the accused were “frequent flyers” as the judge called them. One angelic looking thirteen year old was there for the seventh time.

I have been through this scene multiple times with families associated with our church. Typically, the immediate family I’m there to support does not attend church anywhere. It’s a grandparent or aunt or uncle, or neighbor who attends New Covenant. On this occassion it was a beautiful fifteen year old who’s crime was that she got into an argument that got physical with her single father. She use to attend our church and one of our young couples has offered to let her live with them. Her mother was present, but due to past problems she is not considered an acceptable guardian. The biggest crime in all of this is that the young woman has spent nine days in jail for something no one present except her father believes she should have been arrested. I grieve the injustice of our justice system. I grieve the power of sin to destroy lives and families. I grieve for the children victimized by the broken covenants of their parents.

I left with a couple of lingering observations. First, of the dozen or so youth appearing before the judge on that day, not one of them had both parents standing with them. In the case for which I had gone both were present, but one stood as accuser (I am not here judging his desires for his daughter, just stating the facts of the situation) and the other sat in the audience, afraid of creating a disturbance I suspect. Mostly, it was mothers who stood with their children. One father was there with a daughter, but it was the absent mother who had legal custody. All of them seemed lost, uncertain of where they had failed.

Second, the public systems created to educate and guide these young people are overwhelmed with troubled, smart looking, publically polite, kids who are failing their classes and wrecking havoc with the systems. The educators and social workers present appeared professional and compassionate; they were ready to go the second mile to help these kids. It seems to me the problem is a breakdown in our basic social structures more than a failure of those systems (schools, human resources, etc.) we created as backups for the family. Our problem is the disintegration of the family and the dissolution of natural social systems needed to support families, the church being the most important. Each of the teens I observed lacked a stable home environment which in turn lacked stable and extended support systems.

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