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Childhood Mental Illness - Morgan's Story

Friday, 12 August 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Alyson Showalter - This story was originally published here.

Morgan Geyser ( affectionately nicknamed Mogo while in utero) was just 12 years old when her life changed forever due to the consequences of mental illness and the justice system. Before her mental illness took it's toll on her, her mother Angie is quoted as saying "Morgan loved animals and was always gentle and kind. She enjoyed reading, writing, drawing, anime, and playing with her American Girl dolls. She was an excellent student and her teachers always loved having her in class. She used to stay after school to help her English teacher clean up the classroom. She was always a quirky kid who marched to the beat of her own drum. She was intensely creative and had a silly sense of humor. She was a loving and affectionate member of our family." 

Morgan is diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia or psychosis, she did not tell her parents she was experiencing symptoms . She was diagnosed in December 2014.Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders are medical illnesses that result in strange or bizarre thinking, perceptions (sight, sound), behaviors, and emotions. Psychosis is a brain-based condition that is made better or worse by environmental factors - like drug use and stress. Children and youth who experience psychosis often say "something is not quite right" or can't tell if something is real or not real. It is an uncommon psychiatric illness in young children and is hard to recognize in its early phases.

The appearance of symptoms of psychosis before age 12 is rare (less than one-sixtieth as common as the adult-onset type), but studying these cases is important for understanding this disorder. For those who might develop psychotic disorders or schizophrenia as adults (adult-onset), it is not uncommon for them to start experiencing early warning signs during puberty or adolescence. The period of time when an adolescent experiences the early warning signs of psychosis is called prodrome. During this time, youth recognize that their experiences (hearing or seeing things that are not there) are strange or concerning. They may not easily admit these problems unless asked. Being aware of the early warning signs and offering support is crucial.
Childhood-onset - Most children with schizophrenia show delays in language and other functions long before their psychotic symptoms (hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking) appear. In the first years of life, about 30% of these children have transient symptoms of pervasive developmental disorder, such as rocking, posturing, and arm flapping. Childhood-onset of psychosis may present with poor motor development, such as unusual crawling, and children may be more anxious and disruptive compared to those with later onset. 

Feeling like their brain is not working
Feeling like their mind or eyes are playing tricks on them
Seeing things and hearing voices that are not real
Hearing knocking, tapping, clicking or their named being called
Confused thoughts
Vivid and bizarre thoughts and ideas
Sudden and bizarre changes in emotions
Peculiar behavior that seem unusual
Increased sensitivity to light, sounds, smells or touch
Concept that people are “out to get them”
Fearfulness or suspicion that isn't warranted
Withdrawal from others
Severe problems in making and keeping friends
Difficulty speaking, writing, focusing or managing simple tasks 

Treatments- Early diagnosis and medical treatment are important. It is especially important that children and youth with the problems and symptoms listed above receive a complete evaluation. These children may need individual treatment plans involving other professionals. A combination of medication and individual therapy, family therapy, and specialized programs (wraparound services, early psychosis treatment) is often necessary. Changes in life style (keeping stress low, taking fish oils), additional supports (therapy and school support) and psychiatric medication can be helpful for many of the symptoms and problems identified.
Making the choice about whether or not to use medications can be difficult. Second-generation (atypical) antipsychotic drugs are usually tried first because they may cause fewer side effects than standard drugs. Serious side effects of second-generation antispychotic drugs can include weight gain, diabetes and high cholesterol. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration approves the use of two second-generation drugs in children ages 13-17, Risperidone (Risperdal) and Aripiprazole (Abilify). Source; mental health America

An expert witness revealed that Geyser's father had suffered from a similar mental illness as an adolescent and was hospitalized at least four times when he was 14. Matthew Geyser later went on disability because of his schizophrenia, said Deborah Collins, a forensic psychologist, who said she interviewed him and reviewed his medical records as part of her work for the defense."There is a genetic component in psychiatric disorders," Collins said. "If a parent has a history, there can be a higher rate of incidence among offspring." (Source; JSOnline)

Both Morgan and Anissa were twelve years old at the time of the stabbing, as was the victim. All three were classmates, enrolled in the same middle school and had been at a sleepover at Morgan's home the night before. Morgan and Anissa had discovered Slender Man on the Creepypasta Wiki, a website that hosts creepypasta, or Internet horror stories. Morgan and Anissa at the time believed that Slender Man was real, and that they wanted to become his "proxies", or followers, to prove their loyalty to him, prove his existence and to prevent him from harming their families. Morgan and Anissa believed that the only way they could become Slender Man's proxies was to sacrifice someone.After they carried out the assault, Morgan and Anissa believed they would become servants of Slender Man and be allowed to live in his mansion, which they believed was in Nicolet National Forest. (source;wikipedia)

Morgan and Anissa planned to carry out the attack Saturday morning in a bathroom at a local park. However, they actually carried out the attack in a nearby forest while playing a game of hide-and-seek. The victim was stabbed nineteen times. The girls then fled. Law enforcement conducted a mass search for Morgan and Anissa. Morgan and Anissa were found walking by a Waukesha County Sheriff's Deputy.(source;wikipedia)

Morgan and Anissa have been charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide in adult court. Children's brains don't develop fully until their 20's. Longitudinal neuroimaging studies demonstrate that the adolescent brain continues to mature well into the 20s. Current studies demonstrate that brain structures and processes change throughout adolescence and, indeed, across the life course. These findings have been facilitated by imaging technologies such as structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (sMRI and fMRI, respectively). Much of the popular discussion about adolescent brain development has focused on the comparatively late maturation of the frontal lobes, although recent work has broadened to the increasing “connectivity” of the brain.
Throughout childhood and into adolescence, the cortical areas of the brain continue to thicken as neural connections proliferate. In the frontal cortex, gray matter volumes peak at approximately 11 years of age in girls and 12 years of age in boys, reflecting dendritic overproduction . Subsequently, rarely used connections are selectively pruned  making the brain more efficient by allowing it to change structurally in response to the demands of the environment. Pruning also results in increased specialization of brain regions; however, the loss of gray matter that accompanies pruning may not be apparent in some parts of the brain until young adulthood. In general, loss of gray matter progresses from the back to the front of the brain with the frontal lobes among the last to show these structural changes.
Neural connections that survive the pruning process become more adept at transmitting information through myelination. Myelin, a sheath of fatty cell material wrapped around neuronal axons, acts as “insulation” for neural connections. This allows nerve impulses to travel throughout the brain more quickly and efficiently and facilitates increased integration of brain activity. Although myelin cannot be measured directly, it is inferred from volumes of cerebral white matter . Evidence suggests that, in the prefrontal cortex, this does not occur until the early 20s or later.
The prefrontal cortex coordinates higher-order cognitive processes and executive functioning. Executive functions are a set of supervisory cognitive skills needed for goal-directed behavior, including planning, response inhibition, working memory, and attention. These skills allow an individual to pause long enough to take stock of a situation, assess his or her options, plan a course of action, and execute it. Poor executive functioning leads to difficulty with planning, attention, using feedback, and mental inflexibility, all of which could undermine judgment and decision making.
Synaptic overproduction, pruning and myelination—the basic steps of neuromaturation—improve the brain’s ability to transfer information between different regions efficiently. This information integration undergirds the development of skills such as impulse control . Although young children can demonstrate impulse control skills, with age and neuro-maturation (e.g., pruning and myelination), comes the ability to consistently use these skills. (source; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

In August 2014, Morgan was ruled incompetent to stand trial.Morgan had been diagnosed by state psychiatrists with Childhood Onset schizophrenia, and was remanded to the Winnebego Mental Helath Institute. In December 2014, both girls were ruled competent to stand trial.They have been set to be tried as adults because Wisconsin law states, "all murder and attempted-murder charges for children older than 10 start in adult court." A conviction on first-degree charges in adult court could result in a sentence of up to 45 years in state prison, whereas a conviction in juvenile court could lead to three years incarceration, better mental health treatment and then supervision until the age of 18. Bail was set at $500,000 each. Morgan's parents have appealed the decision to remain in adult court several times and lost the appeal. 

Morgan is held in the state hospital currently and is allowed contact visits daily. She had no windows in her room and no access to the outdoors at the juvenile detention center, she was only allowed contact visits twice a month and non-contact visits twice a month. Morgan's parents are allowed to visit daily at the hospital. Morgan was sexually assaulted while in custody by her roommate and her roommate was simply moved to another room. Morgan did not receive treatment for her schizophrenia for 19 months. Morgan's family and medical team have seen a steady decline in her mental state since returning to Juvenile Detention.

The impact of being detained instead of rehabilitated will forever make its mark on Morgan and her family.
Families that lose a loved one to the justice system and mental illness can also be traumatized. The loss of a loved one has been said to feel like death in the family. It can cause major depression, PTSD, financial problems, personal attacks by society and much more. Angie Geyser states "It feels like a death. The sense of loss is impossible to describe. I had the highest of hopes for Morgan, and now I just hope to bring her home."

After thoughts: I chose to write this article because I could be Morgan's mother, anyone could be Morgan's mother. The mass incarceration of mentally ill youth in America has ballooned. We are no longer focusing on rehabilitation, our society would rather lock them up and throw away the key. We are charging children as adults now and it has a major impact on our society. With the right treatment and therapy those with serious mental illness CAN be rehabilitated and I will touch on this later in my series on the mass incarceration of our mentally ill youth. I am deeply touched by Morgan's story due to my own struggles with mental illness and my children's struggles with mental illness. It can happen to anyone and until we wake up and begin to treat it as a illness our prisons will continue to have overcrowding and mental illness will progressively get worse. I am blown away by Angie Geysers strength to continue to fight for Morgan and to provide her with the support and unconditional love she needs despite everything and everyone that is against her, Angie is attacked daily as is her family. But then when I put myself in her shoes I know I would do the same for my child. We don't have to support crime but we can choose to change the cycle and give those in need of help the help they deserve. We are our children's biggest advocates, no matter the crime a child deserves the love and guidance of their parents, after all that is our responsibility as a parent so why are we giving up on the most vulnerable people in America? 

If you would like to support Morgan and her family please check out: 


2016 Summer Institute: Session 5 – Mentoring Incarcerated Youth

Monday, 08 August 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Francesca Sands, Juvenile Justice Fellow

Last week, the CFYJ interns wrapped up the 2016 Summer Institute series with one last discussion led by Penelope Spain, CEO of Open City Advocates, an organization that trains law students to be mentor-advocates for youth who have been sentenced in the juvenile system both during and after incarceration. With an air of genuine passion for her work, Penelope shed light on the most important components of mentorship.

2016 Summer Institute: Session 3 – Solitary Confinement of Youth

Nils Franco Thursday, 21 July 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By CFYJ Law & Policy Fellow Nils Franco

No evidence exists to support the use of solitary confinement on youth, according to Jenny Lutz of the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, and better alternatives would adapt to what evidence finds effective in correcting young people’s behavior. This realization, Lutz said, has offered a powerful rallying point for practitioners, advocates, and academics alike.

Lutz, a staff attorney at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP), spoke to interns and fellows working with juvenile justice–related organizations at CFYJ’s offices Tuesday.

The lunch-hour discussion detailed the effects of solitary confinement on youth health, as well as the promising solutions proposed to address the widespread problem of isolating youth. These solutions most obviously hold promise because of the sound psychological and social-science research backing up alternative tools for behavior corrections.

But also, in an environment of gridlock and partisanship, Stop Solitary for Kids’ solutions inspire hopefulness because we can expect to see the solutions implemented relative swiftly, having found support from associations of probation officers and corrections leaders. This is no easy accomplishment.

Reflecting so many other successful areas of criminal justice reform in the past year, Stop Solitary for Kids is a coalition of strange bedfellows pushing for the same goals. This coalition – the CCLP, Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, the Justice Policy Institute, and the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators – respectfully works together to find wise solutions.

Switching to safer and demonstrably effective practices to correct the behavior of inmates, after all, improves safety in the correctional facility and would reduce challenges faced by correctional officers and other staff. The successes of states that reduced the general use of solitary confinement support this finding as well.

With these mutual interests, and with reform advocates acknowledging the struggles faced by on-the-ground staff who have spent their careers serving youthful detainees, the groups came together to build smarter policy and offer help to juvenile corrections leaders.

Of course, changing the behavior and tools of corrections staff requires a change of mindset among the staff – something no legislation could accomplish. So, without that respect and teamwork, policy change would not only be more difficult, according to Lutz: without working with practitioners, any policy change enacted would fail expectations.

Data collection must still improve to better understand how different states and facilities practice solitary confinement of youth. Systems improvement still requires courageous action by leaders in state legislatures nationwide.

But, in the meantime, the campaign has built a sturdy foundation of legislative goals and of credible publications rooted in sound technical advice and research since launching in April, winning experts’ support at a federal and state level through an inclusive and evidence-based approach.

2016 Summer Institute Session 2: Sexual Violence in the Juvenile Justice System

Friday, 08 July 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Francesca Sands, Juvenile Justice Fellow

On Wednesday, the CFYJ interns hosted the second session of the 2016 Summer Institute speaker series. We welcomed Tara Graham, senior program specialist at NCCD’s National PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) Resource Center, to 1220 L to speak on PREA and sexual violence among youth in detention. In a lively and informative presentation, Tara explained about PREA’s conceptions and applications, and how sexual violence is still a pervasive occurrence, especially among youth, in correctional facilities. Her extensive knowledge of the subject allowed for a deeply constructive discussion.

2016 Summer Institute: Session 1 – Girls in the Juvenile Justice System

Friday, 01 July 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Anne-Lise Vray, Juvenile Justice Fellow

Every year since 2008, the Campaign for Youth Justice has organized the Summer Institute, a series of brown bag luncheons where we invite summer fellows and interns working in juvenile justice to listen to leaders and experts from the field for a time of lecture and discussion. To kick off the 2016 edition of CFYJ Summer Institute, we welcomed Maheen Kaleem, Staff Attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow at Right4Girls, a human rights organization focused on gender-based violence against vulnerable young women and girls in the U.S.

Maheen gave us a powerful presentation on the specific needs of girls in the juvenile justice system, and shared with the packed room several of her personal experiences and encounters with young girls who got involved in the justice system after being abused their whole life. She emphasized that despite the displayed narratives of girls being increasingly violent (which is supposedly why the number of girls in prison is increasing), the 3 biggest reasons for girls to become involved with the justice system are truancy (skipping school), prostitution (which, as Maheen stressed it out, is not a thing according to federal law, and is actually child trafficking) and running away. Girls are NOT becoming increasingly violent, she repeated. The overall problem is that girls are victimized, and instead of receiving helped, they receive punishment as a response.

Maheen also mentioned dramatic data, such a 2009 study conducted in South Carolina showing that 81% of girls involved in the juvenile justice system reported experiencing sexual abuse at least once in their lives. Additionally, girls are twice as likely as boys to report 5 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES, i.e emotional, physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, household substance abuse etc), and four times more likely to be victims of childhood sexual abuse than boys.

Maheen ended her presentation by highlighting a need of implementing the JJDPA and for a “trauma-informed juvenile justice system,” that is, a system that does not send to prison girls who are running away from abusive homes or communities.

We are excited to announce that our second session is already scheduled to take place next week, and we will be talking about sexual violence in the justice system.

LGBT youths especially vulnerable in adult jails

Tuesday, 28 June 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Rick Mula

The visitation room at the Alabama county jail was tiny. The beige cinderblock walls pressed in on the public defender and me as we waited for the guards to escort our 17-year-old client into the room.

J.W. had already spent four months confined to an adult jail cell. He hadn’t even been tried for a crime yet. But in Alabama, as well as other states, children as young as 16 can be automatically tried as an adult for certain crimes. They can also be held in adult jails as they await trial.

And that’s why J.W. was now sitting in this tiny room.

He’d been swept up in the adult criminal justice system, like so many other kids. An estimated 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year across the U.S. What’s more, LGBT youths are vastly overrepresented. Despite making up no more than 7 percent of the overall youth population, they make up about 20 percent of the youths in the juvenile justice system. Most of these young people, like J.W., are children of color.

J.W. tells me that he used to identify as bisexual. He says that after he disclosed his sexual orientation, a corrections officer assumed he was promiscuous and called him a “ho.” The message was loud and clear: Bisexual individuals would be singled out. J.W. says he now identifies as straight. As someone who works to educate LGBT youths about their legal rights, I can’t help but wonder if he is avoiding identifying as bisexual to protect himself from more mistreatment.

What is certain, and worth remembering during Pride month, is that there are many LGBT youths in adult jails across this country. High rates of family rejection, hostile teachers and classmates at school as well as inappropriate foster care placements take their toll on LGBT youths. They may run away from home, skip school or abuse substances to cope – all activities that increase their chances of a brush with the law. LGBT youths are also more likely to be prosecuted for age-appropriate consensual sexual activity than their peers.

Once in adult jails, there’s little opportunity for rehabilitation or education that can get a young person’s life back on track, whether they are LGBT or not. I learned, for example, that J.W. attended a GED class sporadically for a couple months, but the class ended without warning or explanation.

Of course, one of the greatest concerns about placing a child in an adult jail is the threat of physical and sexual abuse. The problem is particularly acute for LGBT youths. Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that 6.3 percent of LGBT youths reported sexual victimization compared to 1.7 percent of heterosexual youths.

Authorities may point out that federal law requires facilities to maintain “sight and sound separation” between young people and adults, but solitary confinement is often the only way to accomplish this goal. Confining a child or teen to a small four-walled cell for hours on end raises a host of other dangers – depression, anxiety and psychosis, for example – particularly for kids because of their developmental vulnerability.

It’s clear that jail is no place for young people, such as J.W.

The statistics and stories may be grim, but the situation is not hopeless. There are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the number of juveniles in the criminal justice system and help youths in adult facilities. Consider the following possibilities:

  • Promote family acceptance interventions, which can help a youth avoid rejection that can put him or her on a path into the criminal justice system.
  • Urge your senators and representatives to support reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
  • Promote the development of LGBT-inclusive policies and procedures throughout your community to prevent LGBT youths from feeling isolated.
  • Learn more about campaigns to raise the age a juvenile can be tried as an adult – an important step toward preventing children from ending up in adult facilities.

As I think back to my visit with J.W., I remember how he beamed. He was so happy to have a visitor. Despite his situation, he eagerly chatted about Ariana Grande’s greatest hits and talked about his favorite movies and TV shows. J.W. may be behind bars, but he’s not that different from other kids his age. He’s just doing his best to survive an environment that was never meant for any child.

We need to do our best to keep kids like J.W. out of adult jails.

Rick Mula is an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center where he is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Mansfield Family Foundation.

Want to maximize your impact? Partner with the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

By Kara Aanenson

For the past five years the Just Kids Campaign partnered with Campaign for Youth Justice to end the automatic prosecution of youth as adult in the state of Maryland.  During those 5 years we:

  • Stopped the construction of a youth jail in Baltimore,
  • Passed five pieces of legislation,
  • Built our statewide membership to over 5,000 members, and
  • Created a statewide coalition.

None of this would have been possible without technical assistance from the Campaign. They were with us every step of the way from organizing to legislative sessions. We adopted their theory of change, including working with youth who were charged as adults and their families. Working together with youth and their families multiplied our output and provided credibility to our work.

The Campaign helped us organize by hosting strategy sessions where we hashed out our action plans. They provided insight on what worked in other states and helped us brainstorm how to implement those strategies in Maryland. They created Youth Justice Awareness Month, uniting all states working on adultification of youth, and increased our fundraising efforts. The Campaign provided spokesperson training to enhance our messaging.

During Maryland’s 90 day legislative sessions we checked in weekly and they provided a sounding board for legislative strategy.  If amendments were added to a bill they would help us review them to determine our next steps. If we needed help finding a national expert to be a member of our taskforce or testify at a bill hearing, they would reach out to all their contacts to help make sure we got someone there.

The Campaign can maximize state impacts because they practice what they preach. They have run their own campaigns in D.C. and have assisted so many other states. They understand when you are frustrated because your coalition is fracturing, they know what it’s like to have a bill fail in committee, and they know what it feels like to get a victory. This work is rewarding, but it is also exhausting. Some days you feel like you are on top of the world and others days it feels like you are pushing a huge boulder up a hill in the rain, and on those days the Campaign is there standing beside you and helping you push. That is what makes them the best partner.    

Kara Aanenson is the Director of Family Engagement at the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services since April 2016. Before that, she was the Director of the Just Kid Campaign for 5 years. 

This post is part of the CFYJ #IMPACT Blog Series, a project celebrating CFYJ's 10 years of commitment to juvenile justice reform.

The Story of Kalief Browder

Friday, 10 June 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

In memory of Kalief Browder, whose life was uprooted at Rikers Island, and whose death we remember this month.

By Francesca Sands, Juvenile Justice Fellow

Based on excerpts from interviews of Kalief Browder conducted by Jennifer Gonnerman.

In 2010, sixteen year-old Kalief Browder of the Bronx was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was charged with robbery and assault, but he said he didn’t commit the crime. Still, he was imprisoned at Rikers Island to await his trial…for three years. Kalief sat and waited while his life went by. Most of this time was spent in solitary confinement. He used a vent in the cell to communicate with other inmates through the walls, which offered some solace, expect for the frequent times he heard head banging, wall kicking, or distressed screaming from his neighbors at any hour of the day or night.

The only education offered to teens like Kalief in solitary is Cell Study, which is when an officer slips a worksheet under the cell door for completion, and then picks it up a few days later. Despite playing around in the hallways with friends, flirting with girls by their lockers, and doing what other young teens do, Kalief had always taken school seriously. But whatever scholastic promise he held before Rikers was disregarded within the prison’s confines, and Kalief missed out on his junior and senior years of high school.

Kalief endured violence from guards and other inmates, but he felt that the psychological and emotional trauma caused by his circumstances was worse. He was hungry all the time. The guards would sometimes skip over his cell when delivering meals, let alone ever give him the few pieces of leftover bread they always had. He was constantly stressed out. If he ever needed to communicate with the guards, the only way to get their attention was to quickly stick his arm through the slot in the door when it opened briefly for passing in meal trays. If he didn’t “hold his slot,” as they call it, he was subjected to various forms of mistreatment and disrespect such as no showers or no food. He was entirely helpless.

Still just a boy, Kalief was naturally accustomed to and dependent on asking his mother for help when he found himself in tough situations. But all his mother could do in this situation was cry on the phone. He attempted suicide after about two years at Rikers. Every so often, Kalief would get called to stand before a judge to hear whether he would get his trial. During one such meeting, Kalief was offered release only if he pleaded guilty. Despite wanting more than anything to go home, he turned down the deal, guided by his moral grit that prevented him from admitting to a crime he didn’t commit. And he was well aware that if he ever got the trial he was hoping for, he could face up to 15 years in state prison if he lost.

In the spring of 2013, the judge dropped all the charges against Kalief and he finally went home. He enrolled in a GED class, and passed his GED exam about a year later. He then enrolled at Bronx Community College, where he did well, but his mental health problems resulting from his time at Rikers formed insurmountable obstacles. After more suicide attempts and visits to hospital psychiatric wards, Kalief ended his life in June of 2015 at the age of 22.

As we remember the life and struggle of Kalief Browder this month, the reality of incarceration-induced mental illness continues to affect youth everywhere. In a report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a longitudinal study reveals that nearly 50 percent of male juveniles and nearly 30 percent of female juveniles had at least one psychiatric disorder five years after their initial, baseline interviews for the study, which were conducted while they were awaiting adjudication of their cases. Substance abuse and disruptive behavior disorders were found to be the most common, and with additional long-term gender and race-related effects that put some groups at significant mental and social disadvantages, the need for more age-appropriate criminal justice is apparent.

At no point during or after Kalief Browder’s trial did anyone in power apologize to him or even acknowledge that he lost three years of his life, the rest of his youth, and ultimately his will to live, in solitary confinement at Rikers Island.

JUVENILE JUSTICE REFORM: WHAT'S NEXT? - A Power Lunch with Marcy Mistrett

Monday, 16 May 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices


Join us for a conversation with Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice. She will share the progress her organization has seen over the past 10 years in removing youth from the adult criminal justice system in 30 states and the next steps for advancing juvenile justice reform, including the critical need to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act.

Marcy Mistrett has been the CEO at the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) since 2014. CFYJ was launched just ten years ago to end the practice of prosecuting, sentencing and incarcerating young people in the adult criminal justice system.

Since CFYJ's inception, 30 states have changed 48 laws to make it more difficult to treat children like adults. Yet challenges persist, including the extreme racial and ethnic disparities of those youth sentenced to adult time in adult facilities.  CFYJ is committed to keeping impacted youth and families at the heart of each campaign and of shifting the public dialogue from one of extreme punishment to one focused on child wellness.

Thursday, May 19th 2016
12:00 p.m. - 1:00 p.m.

The Raben Group Offices
1341 G St NW, 5th Floor
Washington D.C. 20005


How Systems Have Failed My Son this Mother’s Day

Jennifer Hoff Thursday, 05 May 2016 Posted in 2016, Voices

IMG 0065 3By Jennifer Hoff

The most difficult part of having our young, mentally-ill, adult son locked up in solitary confident in California State Prison for months at a time is not  the emotional and mental pain his father, little brothers and I experience as a result of him losing, “in person” contact privileges again or other punishments he might be subjected to that are analogous with such a placement. It is not the overwhelming sadness that arises when you realize you can’t remember your child’s smell because you have not been allowed to hug him for almost a year,  nor the missing of his sweet voice during a phone call.  It is not the daily emotional turmoil of having horrific mental images flash by the minds eye as an incessant reminder of his dire situation.  It is not even that he was allowed to suffer mentally for over three years, denied the very psychiatric medications that he was prescribed from age 12 to quell his frenetic thinking and allow him to process his interactions with the world in a safe and more humane manner. 

As a mother, what is most difficult is that his situation is the predictable outcome of our abysmal system of criminalizing those who “act out” despite lacking the cognitive capacity to do otherwise. We saw this coming for over 15 years and there was absolutely nothing we could do to prevent our son from being punished for his disability and being sucked into the revolving door of the criminal justice system once he turned 18. 

We sought out help for Matthew very early (age 5) as his mental health symptoms began interferring with him attending public schools.  We had access to private doctors and therapists, had the resources to pay for treatment and the wherewithal to request special education services from our school district.  We had the stamina to navigate, for years, a broken mental health system. A system in which no one who is “in charge” seems to be held accountable to help these sick children; nor informs you (the parents) that every provider at the case-planning meetings are hiding their ball under the table to effectively and covertly play the game of “pass the buck” shuffle. Ultimately, those “in charge” denied services for my son as long as possible to avoid costs and save the bottom line.…. For years, Matthew’s father and I paid out of pocket to send him to a clinical day program run by a team of doctors at a highly respected university.  The clinical-day program was eventually exchanged for a dozen failed special educational public school placements, which again failed our son.  Ultimately, we were faced with  all roads leading to the need for a intensive (and expensive) locked facility; an incredibly difficult decision had to be made.

As Matthew’s needs increased, the willingness of our county agencies to provide for them diminished.  Eventually, only legal action proved effective in forcing our school district and county behavioral health departments to meet their legal obligations of providing appropriate educational and psychiatric services for our disabled boy.

The worst part of this journey has been the nausea that comes with knowing my son’s experience is the norm; that this outcome is one of many predictable tragic end points for individuals like Matthew who “don’t respond” to the current protocol of medications and talk therapy.   He has found his peer group in prison.  The overwhelming majority of his neighbors are young men who also suffer from debilitating psychosis, paranoia and delusions, and who have lived in their awful set of circumstances from before they were even able to legally drive a car. 

Most of the prisoners Matthew has met have previously been in the foster and/or juvenile “justice” cog from the young age of 10. They have been labeled as “troubled” and “delinquent”, yet denied medications or treatment or even basic therapeutic services before the preventable tragedy occurs that drove them into the criminal justice system.  These young  venerable  young people do not stand a chance once they are “in trouble with the law” because necessary mental health interventions will be withheld and they will inevitably be funneled into youth or adult prisons… many before they even hit puberty. 

If you had asked me when Matthew was younger and still at home, cycling his way through ineffective treatments,  how I was doing, I would have most likely burst into tears; for navigating the pediatric side of this nightmare was an incomprehensible, demoralizing experience that  each year left its marks on my psyche and spirit.  The pain of watching your child be discarded like trash by the very agencies tasked with his care is not easily explained to even the closest friends.  Today when folks ask me the same question my response is less emotional but rarely is it a complete answer….. for even folks who actually might know our story, or who work in the “field of mental health” find it hard to grasp the reality that our system isn’t filled with “cracks” for these young people to fall into.  Rather, to everyone’s surprise and dismay, instead of cracks, there is a looming  cliff that we systematically push young people off of when they age into adulthood. 

Nowadays my response to the “how are you doing” question, yields a filtered mantra of “pretty good considering…” or “well I am still here…” .  I make it a point to share our story with anyone and everyone who will listen; not to be a source of pain for people, but rather to leverage the pain I feel into becoming the motivation they need to jump into action and become part of the solutions. 

This is our modern day human rights crisis…throwing away children into a churning system for the past 15-20 years  has not only been a costly, failed, social experiment of being “tough on crime,” but more egregiously, it has stolen the futures of thousands of young folks, by answering their cries of help with a lock and key. Most “troubled youth” are not born that way…they are generally created out of years of neglect, abuse, misdiagnosis, and failed treatment;  and then severely penalized when they act out with the very behaviors that textbooks outline-- the step by step progression from victim to offender.  We know these facts, yet somehow the past few decades have been marked with an all out war against the treatment of childhood offenders and a refusal to allow for the degree of cognitive functioning the individual possessed to be used as a method of defense aimed at rehabilitation over incarceration. 

We have criminalized behaviors psychiatrists say are “normal” for an immature, traumatized or sick brains…we know that some brains are different and lack capacity to fully function, yet our leaders have allowed generations of children to be swallowed into the pit of the criminal justice system to be forgotten.

I have hope though, and I know we are not alone. I know some families experience this same journey but with an even more tragic outcome.  I am grateful for the work advocates and non-profits are doing both in the mental health reform and juvenile justice fields.  These broken systems will not self-correct and it is up to impacted individuals and families to demand they change for the better.

I have perspective, our story’s tragic ending didn’t create catastrophic collateral damage to our child or to our community. For this, we know were are the lucky ones.

Last Mother’s Day when I went to see my son, he was able to visit me in person for a change.  We really enjoyed each other, holding hands and hugging…being face to face, looking in the same beautiful auburn eyes that peered up at me when he was a baby swaddled in my arms. Now, despite the new homemade tattoos he had someone ink on his beautiful face, (because it seemed like a good idea “at the time”…he says, “sorry mom”) he is still my boy deserving of help. 

Jennifer Hoff is a concrned mom and juvenile justice advocate.

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