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Juvenile Justice One Kid at a Time: A Success Story, Interrupted

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The statistics are grim, but the reality behind those numbers is even grimmer for the many young people locked up in US adult prisons. Since publishing I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, about my years teaching in a New York county jail, I spend a lot of time writing, talking and hearing from families, professionals, and the young people themselves about the failures of our child welfare and criminal justice systems.

Depressing, discouraging stuff. That's why I need to tell you about Andrew. Andrew is a young African American in his late 20s. He's got a home, an education, and a profession. Andrew is a success.

But it wasn't always that way. As a very young child his schizophrenic mother was placed in long term care and Andrew was shuffled around to various family members until eventually he ended up in the foster care system. There he was moved from home to home to home. Then at 16 he was placed in an overcrowded and understaffed foster care facility where kids like him were warehoused. But he supposed it was better than being homeless. At least he had food and shelter. He even learned some things, mostly how to get into trouble, serious trouble.

Andrew would be the first to admit that he did stupid stuff. You might say that the first time he got arrested, the time he hopped a cab with a buddy who then pulled a knife and robbed the cabbie, really wasn't his fault. But he wouldn't agree. Wrong place, wrong time, still makes a crime. And there was no way to excuse the other felonies he committed after that, felonies that landed him in state prison.

Andrew was just another young, black male fulfilling the destiny society defined for him: broken-down family, raised in the 'hood, poor, uneducated, unemployed and unemployable. America has a place for kids like him -- jail or the grave.

But somewhere along the way he realized he didn't want either fate. During one of his county bids he enrolled in school and got himself into counseling with our school social worker. He studied for his GED and achieved it. With that first taste of success Andrew peeked over the top of the box society had put him in and glimpsed a different way to live. He began to recognize in himself the young man the social worker kept hinting at to him: someone who had survived a mentally ill mom, a neglectful family, a broken foster care system, and a punishing criminal justice system; someone who was ripe to make changes. Through his own efforts and the social worker's encouragement both while he was in jail and after he was released, Andrew began to do what he had to do to change.

And change he did. He enrolled in community college and excelled even while working 2 or 3 part-time jobs at a time to support himself. For awhile he slept in the back of the pizzeria where he worked or in a rented room he shared with a couple of other homeless young guys. After finishing his associate's degree he earned a scholarship to a Bronx college where he received his BA in social work, again while holding down multiple jobs.

Andrew didn't stop there. He got another scholarship, this time to Fordham University's Graduate School of Social Work. In 2008 he earned his MSW as well as the recognition of the New York State Social Work Educators Association as the "Social Work Student of the Year." He now works at a county Youth Bureau helping at-risk kids navigate the minefield of the streets.

Andrew is a success by anybody's standards. By the standards of our penal system he's a damn miracle. But we're an unforgiving and shortsighted nation, and so our tenacious stereotypes of ex-offenders, reinforced by CORI laws which give employers the right to deny felons jobs, has limited Andrew's possibilities in state social service agencies and academia. While interviewers acknowledge his personal, academic and professional accomplishments, that's as far as it goes. In America, once a felon always a felon.

Andrew got where he is because of his resolve and hard work and because someone had faith in him and acted on that faith. Unfortunately our criminal justice system doesn't provide that kind of support even though it is in the best interest of the society it is committed to protect.

But just because the prison system doesn't -- or won't do it -- that doesn't let the rest of us off the hook. Teachers, social workers, youth advocates, clergy and their congregations, community activists, family members, neighbors, employers, concerned citizens, we all need to push to have these exclusionary laws changed; to challenge our own and society's attitudes about ex-offenders; and to take a chance in whatever way we can on some kid once locked-up now locked-out of the world. One kid by one kid: It's a slow, chancy process. Maybe it's even futile. But then again, there's always Andrew.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside