Thursday, November 6, 2008

Personal Responsibility

For the last several years, the only criminal work that I have done has involved juvenile defense. Most of my other work involves representing children who are the subjects of child protection cases. I do a few other things when they happen by such as deeds, wills, bankruptcies and from time to time I will represent a parent in a child protection case but most of my work, and the part that gives me the most personal satisfaction, involves representing kids.

The thing that I like about representing kids--especially in Maine where their criminal acts are fairly minor and mostly a cry for help--is that the criminal code is written for the purpose of rehabilitation. The Juvenile Criminal Code clearly lays out it's purpose and the first two items are:

To secure for each juvenile subject to these provisions such care and guidance, preferably in the juvenile's own home, as will best serve the juvenile's welfare and the interests of society; To preserve and strengthen family ties whenever possible, including improvement of home environment.
Personally, those are my purposes in every encounter that I have with a young person so
working with them in the context of the criminal system is an easy extension of my beliefs.

Yesterday, I traveled north to Charleston and the Mountain View Youth Development Center. Despite the euphemism, Mountain View is a kiddie jail. It does have a striking view of the mountains in Baxter State Park and it does look on the outside like a high school but the athletic fields are surrounded by high fencing and the doors are heavy and locked and I had to surrender all of my personal belongings at the front desk before being escorted into the visit room to meet with one of my young people. He shuffled in to see me, head down but anxious--"What are you doing to get me out?" he asked at first boldly and then tearfully, My reply was consistent, "What are you going to do to help me convince a judge to let you out?" For over an hour we had that conversation. I presented him with options that required his cooperation and some acceptance of responsibility. He kept repeating, "I just want to go home." "It wasn't my fault."

There are two parts of the youth development center. The first is for kids who have not yet been adjudicated (my client) or for kids that need a "shock sentence"--a few days or more just to scare the heck out of them--the other is for kids who have been committed until age 18 to the facility by a Judge. My client is tenuously poised on the edge of being committed. For more than two years he has been a regular in the courtroom--never for anything serious but consistently for the same type of behavior--all of which stem from not taking responsibility for his actions.

Yesterday, his part of the conversation contained minor variations of the "it's not my fault" theme repeated ad nauseum and peppered with the clear statement that he did not want to be committed. Finally, I said--"You know, probably most of the kids who have been committed will tell you that the reason they are here is someone else's fault" I told him that everyone that would be in the courtroom for his hearing in two weeks would be looking for a reason to send him home and he could ride home on the bus called personal responsibility. By then, his head was down on the table and he was crying. Once more, I told him, "You cannot control other people's actions but you can control your reaction to other people's actions. You are ultimately responsible for what your hands do, what your mouth does, where your feet take you. So, be a man, suck it up and decide to be in charge of your own life."

He's got two weeks to figure it out before I have to try and persuade a Judge to send him home.


KGMom said...

WOW--tough "love" Beth.
But you are so right!

Anonymous said...

After listening to that session, I got my act together this morning, got out the door and boarded the bus. All kidding aside that is a challenging arena of law to work in and I admire your efforts. I hope the young man gets his act together.

RuthieJ said...

It's disappointing to me that so many people (even the younger ones)don't take personal responsibility for their own actions anymore.
Will you let us know what happens to this young man in a couple weeks? (if you can)

beckie said...

Beth, I so admire your efforts. I think it takes a special person to be able to deal with kids and their problems. I don't know that I would have the strength. Sadly, this boy is representitive of his age group. So many of today's kids don't have to suffer the consequences of theit actions until it's too late. I suppose as parents, we are responsible for not teaching them. Like with my granddaughters-I want to ive them everything and make it all better. I wish you well in your efforts and hope you can through to each one of them.

Beth said...

Kgmom, tough love is right--when I was walking out with his counselor she said "you are the most patient person I have ever seen" and I said "well I assumed you would stop me if I tried to throttle him." She said, "I wouldn't be so sure of that."

Carey, thanks. I hope so to but I wouldn't bet on it.

RuthieJ, I will post an update after court.

Beckie, what you say is true and for some kids it is a hard childhood rather than an easy one--but either way they are the only ones accountable and it's up to we who encounter them to try and help them make a difference.

rach :) said...

We have the same conversations, you and I, except I have them before you, and if I'm lucky, I have them with some kids (and thereby reach them) before they get to you. How to convince these kids that even if "it wasn't my fault", ultimately, it is. If you have a great speech, let me know.

Sharon said...

Once again, Beth, you step up to the plate. You ARE responsible, and have done by being faithful in what you can do and say in your position.

I have a heart for the rebel boys and young men...maybe because I've had a few in my own family that I dearly love.

There is nothing sweeter than to hear a "guilty" or a humble person acknowledging their part. We recently had a local young man (about 18?) handed a long sentence for an auto accident that killed a young nurse. Once he was in custody, and the alcohol was no longer a daily routine, his attitude changed. He still has to face that long number of years incarcerated, and that is where I pray that he will be of use in prison, and not be despairing....

Weather Boy said...

Good stuff, Beth. Kids do two things: 1) what they've learned and 2) what has worked for them.

How we interpret what has "worked" for them is the sticking point. Convincing these particular cases that their lives will be much more enjoyable and fruitful if they give up what they've learned and what has worked for them up to that point is the key. Or, as you say, be a man and own your actions. And most importantly, move on.

Beth said...

Rach, no magic words--but keep working hard to reduce my caseload.

Sharon, thanks for the thoughts. I have a lot of empathy for them too--if I didn't I'd be doing real estate law--but they are a constant moving target to figure out how to get through to them.

Weatherboy, well said. I don't think anyone gets very far in life by blaming the past.

Ruth said...

Beth,I hope you can make a difference in this boy's life. It seems there is a chance as he is not indifferent to his situation. But where are the adults in his life?

Jayne said...

Having kids of your own gives you such a better perspective I am sure. But still, it must be hard Beth. Then again, just one thing you say to these kids might click and stick, and they can then turn their lives around. I can imagine that is really frustrating, but so rewarding at times when they can go home and get a new lease on life. Blessings to you friend.

Mary said...

A scenario so's almost a trend for kids lacking personal responsibility. And I'm glad you are part of the force to care enough to shake them up. It's hard, I know. I remember the years I worked in the Dean of Discipline's office at a high school. Many kids just don't get it.

It's hard, I know, Beth. But you might help him a great deal.


Barb Hartsook said...

Sadly, I hear adults say the same thing, Beth. Your words to this boy could well-serve the public in general, maybe posted on billboards everywhere:
"You cannot control other people's actions but you can control your reaction to other people's actions. You are ultimately responsible for what your hands do, what your mouth does, where your feet take you. So, be a man, suck it up and decide to be in charge of your own life."

Well-said, and I'm cheering -- it's actually unfair to raise kids to think any other way!

I'm also impressed with your practicing this kind of law. We could use a whole slew-ful of attorneys like you. Obviously you care about this boy's future...