By Jeannette Bocanegra, for the National Council on Crime & Delinquency
Never in a million years would I have imagined myself involved in the juvenile justice system or the criminal justice system. Living in the Bronx, New York, I was busy raising six children in a home where my husband and I worked hard to provide for all their needs, including a safe and loving home.
For years I worked for an amazing organization serving families with children attending New York City public schools. My duties consisted of facilitating workshops, strengthening and organizing families to advocate for their children. I provided professional development for the first 1,300 parent coordinators hired to work with families in the public school system. I trained parents to become effective members of every NYC School leadership team. The focus of each team, made up of 50% staff and 50% parents, was to develop the school’s comprehensive educational plan and align it to the school’s budget. I also assisted parent leaders in their roles and responsibilities.
My introduction to the court system began with my youngest child when he was 14. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I wanted my son to take responsibility for his action. Instead, I had to wonder, “Can a two-dollar incident be reason enough to call the cops and have a child taken to the police station?” Probation? Mandates? Corporation counsel? A court-appointed lawyer and a judge? Really? I started to think, “Wow, slow down. I’m not a horrible parent. My child just made a two-dollar mistake.”
Eventually I learned that it costs a lot more to lock up a youth for year—$275,000—than to educate a youth for a year ($18,000). I started to understand that my son became part of the school-to-prison pipeline. He was impacted by a nightmare of a dysfunctional system, and we became one family of thousands perceived to be the worst kind—a family with a horrible child. We were lost in the system.
As I looked at the kids wearing prison uniforms in these facilities, I knew I had to do something. Families were lost and not understanding the language—and I mean the English language, never mind the criminal justice language.
“Don’t worry, he will be fine. We will take care of your child,” they said. Not educating our children, medicating them, using excessive force seemed to be okay. My child was in their custody, but he was still my child and I started to demand change.
As I began to better understand the system, I visualized myself supporting families going through the same nightmare. I wanted to engage families and bring a voice to the pain and suffering of a mother’s cry. I attended the first annual juvenile justice conference organized by the Society for Ethical Culture. There, I met Nanay Gonzalez and the Rev. Rubén Austria from Community Connections for Youth (CCFY). This alternative-to-incarceration organization provides grassroots organizations with trainings and technical assistance on how to create and implement alternative programs in our communities for youth impacted by the juvenile justice system. A new passion for advocacy awakened my spirit. I wanted to be involved in reforming a broken system, and I wanted to make a difference in my community and be a voice.
I was introduced to Zachary Norris, co-founder of Justice for Families, and was asked to participate in preparatory data-driven research with families that had experienced and have been impacted by the justice system. We organized two focus groups and surveyed more than 100 families impacted by the system.
Our report’s findings brought national awareness to how difficult and inhumane the juvenile justice system can be for our youth, their families, and our communities—especially those of color. We discovered mental and physical abuse, lack of education and safety, and children sent hundreds of miles away from their families. We found that a large percentage of these impacted families were hard-working, church-going individuals who feared sharing their pain. Family members lost their jobs for taking time off for court dates. Listening to the cries of the families pushed me to work harder and to give families an outlet to connect with others experiencing the same pain of losing a loved one to the system.
I started working for CCFY, advocating for families and youth impacted by the criminal justice system. I invited families to monthly support groups. I went out into the community and shared information on how we can organize and find ways to support each other. I used every opportunity to inform and awaken the community about this injustice, looking for ways to work toward helping our youth and their families.
As our work progresses, we know there is so much more that has to be done. I have participated in many initiatives and juvenile justice committees; spoken to several groups of system folks, politicians, and funders; and served as a guest panelist, speaking about my experience. I was recently selected to be a member of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services Juvenile Justice Oversight Board. I was honored to take part in forming a peer-parent coach initiative for New York City’s Department of Probation. These peer-parent coaches work in family court and with probation to support families having a difficult time with the system; they advocate for them and impart the tools families need to navigate this broken system.