“Get ready, this girl will talk your ear off” said my co-worker sarcastically as he introduced me to a new kid I was getting on my caseload. My co-worked had assumed that this girl was low-risk and shy after working with her for a few months. Sheila (name changed for obvious reasons) went unnoticed and brushed off as an easy kid on the caseload.
Multiple weeks later, and I have discovered that Sheila is neither shy nor low-risk. Testing positive for marijuana, sneaking out in the middle of the night to be with her drug-addicted boyfriend, ditching school, and dressing provocatively; Sheila actually told me “I’ve gotten away with so much while on probation” when I questioned how long she has been maintaining this behavior. And she decided to trust me.
I was driving Sheila home about one month into being her Probation Officer. As we walked to the car, I noticed she looked quite sad. After some digging, she tearfully revealed disappointment in herself, and the burden of “measuring up” that her mother makes her feel she must do. “I am just a mess-up” she said, as she wiped tears off her face. Pressing in, I discovered that Sheila lives her life under constant comparison to others while in her home, fear of being alone, and a proclivity to self-destruction.
Asking why Sheila continues to turn to drugs, she said “I like drugs. They make me be able to not think for awhile.” Insightful, Sheila identified that she is with her boyfriend because she is not certain who is was by herself. “He’s just like a drug- he makes me stop feeling and I use him to self-destruct.” When questioned about her future, she replied, “I don’t really care honestly, we are all going to die anyways so we might as well just chill.”
Sheila loves to rap. She loves animals. She’s good at science. Sometimes she writes poetry and lyrics. She plays Fortnite. She’s great at cooking. She loves her siblings. There’s a lot of work to go with this girl, and I cannot wait to continue to peel back the layers of her thoughts with her as she allows me to ask serious questions, lets me praise and encourage her, and listens when I push her to think differently and more critically than she allows herself to think.
Here’s to conversations that push one another to not just accept the status quo for ourselves, and to being willing to get a little uncomfortable for the sake of another.
The last six years of my life include school, one year of work experience (outside of random college jobs where I came home smelling like various foods with residue of cranky customers), and then I was promoted to Juvenile Probation Officer. Let me tell you, there was an abrupt transformation in the way people handle themselves around me.
The strangest thing about this instantaneous authority is the default that people have to automatically lie to me. Arresting people is really hard, actually, as a probation officer. We do not have the authority to just slap handcuffs on a person solely because they are being a dick. We also do not have authority to arrest anyone that is not on probation. It’s even against policy for us to detain as a first response- it is required to try “detention alternatives” first. They hand me a badge and then, all of a sudden, I am seen as a threat to people and they fortify invisible walls all around themselves.
I can understand this, to an extent. I report to the judge, and even people who have never even tickled the court system with acts of rebellion want judges to approve of them, generally. There seems to be a sad reality of masks and deceit that initially shape the relationships that are created between my probationers, their families and myself. Not exactly a platform for reformation and restoration.
I am fighting against this stigma of “Officers are out to get you”. When addressing a kid, I try to fill our conversation with empowerment. The kids I work with are smart, often times hilarious, loving, loyal, living life to [their idea of] the fullest, and are dreamers. Regularly I encounter kids who are unaware of any of these facts about themselves. Their parents or guardians are just as much a part of my mission. They have been fighting this fight longer than I have, and usually have fought the battle in their own lives, too. Parents are usually the support that breeds success, and sometimes the tools that destroy. I get to intervene and converse with the entire family tree to identify gaps that are essential for these kids to discover and then meet their goals. I wanted to say dreams, but the sad reality of the typical probation demographic is that they need to know they are capable of reaching a goal before they can conceptualize dreaming for their future.
Sobriety and change cannot happen without honesty. Honesty requires trust. This is the epitome of “easier said than done”, and I will continue to fight against the systematic current of “us and them” to foster change and hope within the criminal justice system.