Last month, we featured the organization Justice 4 Families on the blog. This week, Grace Bauer, Co-Director of Justice 4 Families, brings us deeper into some of her personal experiences that catalyzed the creation of the organization:
“Beginning in 1998, with my son’s first arrest at the age of 12, I embarked on a journey that I was ill equipped to handle. When I gave birth to my children I had high hopes and dreams for them, this arrest and the succeeding problems that lay ahead for my son were never a part of those hopes and dreams. I, as most families that find themselves involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, was incredibly naive and made decisions based on what system professionals told me, never considering that they didn’t have my son’s best interests at heart.
Those with knowledge and understanding will know that those decisions set a predictable course for my son that would leave him emotionally and physically scarred for the rest of his life. I made those decisions without an understanding of what they meant for him or a conception of what it meant to have a “system involved” child. For the next three years, I walked this path alone in confusion and isolation.
I sat quietly …
· In meetings where professionals talked about my son and didn’t say anything because they presented themselves as the experts and seldom asked me anything.
· In court rooms in front of a judge without an attorney or advocate because I was told an attorney would only slow down my son getting the help he needed and I believed this lie to be the truth.
· Outside the courthouse, on the day my son was adjudicated delinquent and sent to a far-off facility because my legs would not carry me away from my baby and still I believed I had done what was right.
· By the phone for days awaiting a call from the facility to inform me of where my son would be placed and when I would be able to visit.
· For 2 1/2 hour drives and then 5 1/2 hour drives to visit and sometimes be turned away upon arrival because he was in the infirmary or isolation.
· In the car on the long drives back home with tears running down my cheeks and my heart in misery, the images of my son’s battered body swirling through my mind, feeling sickened by my powerlessness and stupidity.
· Through a visit with an attorney, nearly 3 months into what I believed would be a 90 day stay in an excellent program, only to be told by the attorney that my son would not be coming home until his 18th birthday and that when he left that prison, I should buy him a ticket to Angola State Penitentiary because that is where most of these kids ended up.
· On the phone with one of the first teachers permitted inside the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth in Northeast Louisiana while she explained she had assessed my son and found him in isolation where he appeared to be on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
· As I heard my son diagnosed with severe depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
But, a new day would come when I no longer sat quietly. I found my voice with the help of an organization founded by the families of the nearly 2,000 children being warehoused in Louisiana’s brutal, ineffective and astronomically expensive facilities. I learned about the system, the court processes, and the way to achieve change and to bring reform to our long broken juvenile justice system. I also learned to be an advocate for my son and later became an outspoken advocate for hundreds of our children, working closely with their families to empower them to seek change and to protect their own children.
In my time with Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) I helped to transform one of the worst juvenile justice systems in our country through one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation on juvenile justice reform at that time. The bill, known as the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003, reduced the number of kids in secure care from nearly 2000 to less than 500, provided for the creation of evidence based community services and, along with many other sweeping reforms, closed the Tallulah facility to all children.
In this struggle and work, I was also transformed and underwent dramatic shifts in my philosophy and attitude about the juvenile and criminal justice systems, racism and disparities in the systems related to class and race. In time, under the tutelage of fine attorneys, amazing youth advocates and the finest community organizers in the country, I grew into what I am today: an advocate for children and families, a teacher of families and allies, and a leader in my community on juvenile and criminal justice issues and racial and ethnic disparities in all levels of the system. I have also become one of the few national speakers who speaks on these issues from the family perspective. Through every struggle and every learning experience, one thought kept me pushing forward, “I will not sit by and see another parent struggle through this alone.” That thought still guides me in the work I do today.
While reform advocates and some system administrators see pieces of the whole and seek to bring change to the system, only families see the whole. Families seek the kind of change that promises systemic and holistic change, change that can sustain policy reform in the long run and bring long-lasting resolution for our children. It is with this in mind that we come together as families and allies, from all walks of life, to elevate the voices of those most affected by the juvenile justice system and other systems that adversely affect poor children and children of color. In our research and experience, meaningful family engagement and empowerment is the key to sustainable and broadly felt change in juvenile justice systems, benefiting the young people, their families and ultimately, their communities as a whole.”
Grace Bauer is the Co-Director of Justices For Families, a respected leader and a trusted confidant for families seeking justice across the country, and the mother of three children from Sulphur, Louisiana.