Thursday, April 19, 2007

What Might Have Been

My life could have turned out much differently.

I had an interesting childhood. There was some abuse there that I don't speak of but it still haunts my life. I also often thought my parents would be much happier if they just got a divorce and got it over with. Life wasn't easy, and I would certainly not go back and relive my early years.

However, I like to think that struggles are what make a person. I know what I will look for in a husband, and what personality traits I cannot let near me or my children. I know now that violence and fear are not a part of everyone's childhood, though it took me until my college years to realize the extent of my damage. I'm a stronger person because of what I've lived through, and despite everything, I like to think I've turned out to be a relatively normal, functional adult. I have close friends, a stable job, a steady income, I manage time and money well, and I don't have any serious habits or addictions. (Unless you count my caffeine habit, and I don't.) And I do know that my childhood was a cakewalk compared to countless others, and I have many, many things to be grateful for.

That said, things could have turned out very differently for me.

Last night, I got a look at the other side of what could be. I saw children locked behind cell doors, literally screaming for attention. I saw children, some as young as 9, wearing jumpsuits and living in small rooms awaiting trial for charges ranging from possession to murder. Children whose lives are structured down to the very minute. My guide told me some of their stories, but I didn't need to hear them. These are the children my textbooks told me about, the faces behind the cautionary tales.

I walked down hallways of an abandoned wing of the facility. It was cold and dark. Those walls were talking, because I damn sure could hear them. This wing was used not too long ago, certainly during my lifetime, during a time when the juvenile courts were overflowing with young offenders adjudicated of crimes, (children are not "convicted", they are "adjudicated"), there were not enough corrections officers, and the system didn't know what to do with them all.
You can imagine the horror stories I heard from my guide; stories of what happens when you take four angry youth and leave them unsupervised, however momentarily.
The juvenile justice system in America is undergoing many important reforms. Conditions are much better for children in the justice system, tremendously better than they were 10-15 years ago. Programs and follow-ups are becoming much more important as we realize that not all of these children are lost causes. We're making progress with the ways we approach crimes committed by children, the structure and benefits of confinement, and the ways in which we can prepare them for straight life on the outside.

They may have committed very grown up crimes, but they are still children. Their stories are not that different than many of ours. They weren't born "bad"; their lives were influenced by sources like family and environment. Somewhere along the way, a line was crossed and life became very different for these kids.

There, but for the grace of whatever higher power you believe in, go many of us. What changed? What was different? Where was that turn made and how did I somehow choose the "right" fork in the road? Why them? Why not me?

These questions are haunting me today, and will for a long time to come.

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