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I remember there was a time when kids could be kids. We played outside in the street with neighborhood friends in relative safety. We might even sneak off to those forbidden places most adults tell them not to go near that most kids eventually discover. I know I not only took a bite from the forbidden apple, I ate the whole thing. We were able fall and hurt ourselves and nobody got sued or get into a fist fight in the street and nobody got arrested. We could get away with minor mischief and even major mayhem on occasion. Kid mayhem that is. Kids were allowed to make mistakes. We played outside well past dark or until a parent or other adult stepped out onto the front steps and screamed your name until you ducked out and ran home. Some kids got to stay out later than others, it usually dependent upon the quality of life at home, but when you’re a kid who thinks in terms of quality? We were just trying to get by without getting beat up or picked on by the older kids. Those of us who did get to stay out later just knew we were cooler than the rest. It always amazed me that I could be blocks and blocks away and still here my mother hollering out our name to come home. Whenever I was a little further away than I should be her voice would resonate throughout the neighborhood passed on from neighbor to neighbor until someone spotted me in a pile of kids and passed the message to get my ass home. That was back in the days when I was still had fear of getting smacked if I didn’t get home. The neighbors would automatically ‘pay it forward’ back then, we didn’t have to be asked to. You look out for mine, I look out for yours. The neighborhood raised your kids.
Sure, even back then a kid had to be careful but we were fundamentally safer because everybody knew each other or at least knew someone who knew you and your family. People just looked out for one and other. Officer friendly was a real person and cops were looked up to, not eyed with suspicion and fear. They were too busy being real cops to try making a kid feel intimidated. Like I said, kids were allowed to make mistakes. Kids were allowed to be kids.
Back in those days even I trusted authority. I know, I know, some of you may find that difficult to believe but yes, it is true. I wasn’t always this jaded and cynical. Admittedly even I had a smidgen trust in the legal system, but I saw where that got me. You see, like many of you, I grew up with the belief that if you do right to others they in turn would do right by you. We had faith in the system and held belief that police and the court system was put into place to serve and protect and help guide you down the right path in life. A smile and a kind word got a kid a lot further than hand cuffs and nightsticks. Our role models were once authority figures.
I grew up with what I refer to as the Father Flanagan Syndrome, that “there is no such thing as a bad boy.” For those of you who know and those of you who don’t, the good Father Edward Flanagan founded Boys Town in Omaha Nebraska as a safe haven for wayward and homeless boys, he would later open the doors to young females too. He was immortalized when portrayed by actor Spencer Tracy in his life story of the same name. ‘Boys Town’ was one of my all-time favorite movies. It told the story of an incorrigible young boy Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney) and Father Flanagan’s mission to save Whitey and other kids like him from the negative forces around him. Father Flanagan firmly believed “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” In short he was saying responsible parties need to step up and lead the way, not cause more havoc in many already troubled kids lives.
Each kid with the proper guidance, mentoring and decent role models stood a chance at staying on the straight and narrow and not get lost if they made good choices. For the boy or girl that did stray there was the youth home that provided them with a chance to get straightened out and have a decent shot at life. Instead officer friendly and our justice system now offer kids a lifetime opportunity of a criminal conviction before they can comprehend what it is they did. Our court system has abandoned any notion of child welfare in favor of intimidation tactics on kids, criminal convictions and revenue collection by way of punishing and fining kids for being, well, for being kids.
The Audy Home (a Chicago term for the youth home) was for the juvenile that needed extra help and was a form of deterrent not punishment. According to The Encyclopedia of Chicago, “In 1899, the women of Chicago’s Hull House and the men of the Chicago Bar Association succeeded in passing legislation to remove children from adult jails and adult poorhouses by establishing the world’s first juvenile court. The separate court was part of a sustained campaign to transform the maltreatment of children by abolishing child labor, establishing compulsory education, creating public playgrounds, and strengthening immigrant family life.” For the most extreme cases of the most incorrigible kid punishment was more severe once they became an adult and still couldn’t do the right thing. These things were understood and officer friendly was put on the front lines to help a troubled kid. That all changed and the front line hero became a government salaried strong arm man and revenue collector concerned more with enriching the courts coffers than serving and protecting. Suddenly, America went horribly wrong.
Slowly over many years we have thrown any allowance for a kid to be a kid right out the window. State, local and municipal governments and the courts set forth an edict that instructed law enforcement agencies, school teachers and officials to start viewing kid mistakes as an opportunity to invent a revenue source and they happily complied. The asinine politically correct ‘zero tolerance’ experiment took effect. Zero tolerance is essentially saying we’ve surrendered all control and are too lazy to do the job you have entrusted us to do, kids are not our problem. Why not? It took the responsible adult part of the job description out of their hands. It just made life easier, do less for more. A zero tolerance policy created by the responsible adults was placed like a bounty all on the heads of the very kids they were once entrusted to protect. A kid was no longer just a kid but instead a commodity who albeit could not even understand the very word itself had dam well better know how to act in public. If they know what’s good for them they had dam well cease being kids lest they find themselves in cuffs and behind bars amongst the ever growing ranks other ‘kids in the can’. Like adult prisons, kid jails became a burgeoning business worthy of a judge’s greed and our politician’s dirty little secret.
A recent case that comes to mind out of the hundreds of examples I can think of is the Barrington, Illinois Middle School-Station Campus scandal in which school officials contacted Barrington police to start and investigation into ‘sexting’ or sending inappropriate images amongst themselves using their smartphones. A modern version of sneaking behind the back of school and playing ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’. Their reasoning according to Principal Craig Winkelman is that “sexting among students can affect reputations and disrupt the educational environment.” He warned that criminal charges “may also result” from the students’ actions.” This of course is all from the responsible adult.
So let me get this straight, responsible parties (parents) give a kid the means by which to get into trouble by giving their kid the latest, greatest smartphone because everyone has one. Meanwhile the other responsible parties (school officials) allow them to roam the halls of grade school with them tucked neatly in their back pockets and training bra straps. Then, when they do what every kid since the beginning of mankind has done, explore their own sexuality, of which we force feed them an overabundance of a daily basis, the responsible adult, rather than deal with what they are paid to, turn them over to child irresponsible law enforcement agencies who force them into brightly lit, small white rooms to interrogate and intimidate them and accuse the minor children of trafficking in child pornography and charge them with sex crimes? A type of arrest mind you that will stay with a child, on their record, for the rest of their juvenile years and most likely the remainder of their lives. That arrest if turned into a conviction turns an innocent minor child into a registered sex offender for life! Sounds like a classic case of entrapment to me. Sounds rather controlling and much like a conspiracy as well. A well designed one at that.
How screwed up are we in this country is my question? While our society allows full televised nudity, murder and mayhem along with online pornography at every turn we accuse kids of falling short on scruples and self-control? Are you kidding me? Our educators have been stripped of any ability to reach out to kids for fear of their own jobs. Yet we as the responsible adults turn a blind eye to the street corner bus stop bench or rolling public bus advertisements of scantily clad (if you’re lucky) fourteen year old girls and boys who look like heroin junkies in training. Why do we turn a blind eye? Because assholes call it art, greedy corporations sell it and people lap it up and ask for more while our corrupt politicians say everything’s going to be A-Okay. But somehow the kids just can’t control themselves and we continue on creating a generation of throw away kids who are convicted of crimes of invention by those they were supposed to be able to trust.
It only gets scarier from there. ‘Kids for Cash’ was arguably the most infamous child abuse case in American history yet everybody seems to have forgotten about it, that is, except the family of the child who committed suicide as a result of his bogus incarceration and the other kids permanently damaged by it. How did it happen? We allowed it to happen.
In 2008 two judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan who presided over juvenile courts in Wilkes-Barr, Pennsylvania were indicted and eventually convicted of accepting millions of dollars in bribes for kid’s incarceration. Brides paid to them by Robert Mericle the builder of two private, for-profit juvenile detention facilities. The very men we entrusted with our children’s well-being accepted cash and prizes to bogusly sentence kids to jail. They willingly threw many kids lives out the window for what would turn out to be very minor offenses in order increase the facilities detention numbers and profits and they didn’t do it alone. It took many more people to make this happen, many of which I am certain were never indicted in hopes by Luzerne County and state of Pennsylvania government officials that the scandal would just go away. The kids didn’t matter, not even the young man who committed suicide as direct result of Judge Ciavarella’s bogus sentence even though he was considered a first time offender but bad publicity did. Fortunately these kids did matter to Federal Judge Edwin M. Kosik who rejected the criminal’s judges Ciavarella and Conahan plea agreement and ultimately sentenced them to federal prison for twenty-eight and seventeen and a half years respectively. Hopefully they will die there. As for everyone else, they got off pretty light, except that is for those kids whose lives were ruined and faith in authority forever destroyed.
Every time you open a newspaper, turn on the evening news or surf the net you find a story of kids gone bad, kids gone mad and kids arrested for the minor infractions of making the mistakes kids make. Mistakes we all made as kids and were grounded for, yelled at for, suspended from school for and even smacked around for. Now pre-teen kids go straight into hand cuffs or directly to jail for the same offenses you and I once worried we’d catch a beating at home over. We as the supposed responsible adults give them the tools to hang themselves. The lack of morals and life lessons, we offer gratuitous sex and violence in film, TV, music and every aspect of life, after all violence sells. We complain about their lack of motivation and desire for material possessions yet refuse to guide them instead dismantle their future piece by piece. Society demands you have an I-phone, flat screen and latest gym shoe or you’re a loser and not worthy of. They don’t learn this themselves yet no one wants the responsibility of showing young children the way.
Sure there are kids that do terribly things and commit heinous offenses and they should be punished for them and remanded to mental health facilities where they can be helped. But those aren’t the kids we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the discarded kids from all walks of life. An issue once largely limited by racial bias to the less fortunate underclass, those who had few options is now a threat to every kid out there, save the elite 1% of course, regardless of socio-economic status by the simple invention of zero tolerance.
It’s simply not enough America incarcerates more adults that any other country in the entire world in the name of profit. Recognizing the enormous potential for increased profits the powers that be allow corporations to set up private juvenile prisons and cash in on America’s children. As result of our failure as a society to place limitations on those we owe the most to and our unwillingness to lead and flat out denial of our responsibility we are well on our way to creating an entire class of sociopaths in the name of greed. What’s worse is we allow law enforcement agencies and the court system full of intolerance, indifference to perpetrated crimes and injustice against kids. It is our fault and as their protectors we have failed miserably.
I know a little bit about the lack of life lessons, life skills and being ill prepared for the world that leads to a lack direction. A hard life of that causes a kid to have to figure out the road map of life by trial and error, mostly error. I’m not unfamiliar with the feeling of being discarded and left to fend for oneself and I know a little about kids in jail. However, I also know there were those who tried to lead me in a different direction, there were people who cared and there were people who felt responsible. They’re still out there yet there’s just not enough of them left anymore. Our apathy and lack of sympathy in America has led us down a bad road that threatens to sacrifice our greatest natural resource.
As Principal Craig Winkelman so self-assuredly says, “life-altering regrets and damage sexting can imprint on a young person’s future.” God forbid he take the time to do his job and make a positive imprint on their young minds. I remember the days when our kids were our greatest natural resource. Hey, what the hell, we abuse every God given thing and waste every other resource we have, why not our kids too?
I miss Father Flanagan and the lessons he had to teach us, because even if Boys Town was a dramatized version of a great man’s good deeds, it taught us there was something to hope for, something to look forward to. I fear those days are gone. Where is the good Father when we need him?