The abuse factor

Child-abuseAll too often when a young person commits a violent crime he or she has some history of being abused. Granted, many people who have experienced different kinds of abuse grow into nonviolent adults. However, the simple fact remains that more often than not abuse is a factor when children or teens commit crimes.

While I acknowledge the existence of people who do not continue the cycle of abuse, I want to discuss the undeniable influence abuse has on a person’s tendency to commit acts of violence on others either as a child or later on as an adult. The way I see it, we as a society may either continue to deny this increasingly apparent common denominator, or we may opt to accept that more often than not, abuse is among the root causes.

Most people have sympathy for a person who has suffered abuse, but far fewer have compassion for a person who has experienced abuse and goes on to commit a violent act in its wake. For this reason I feel it is important to focus on the causal relationship between child abuse and violence. If we are to solve the problem of crime among juveniles we must understand exactly what it is that causes it to happen.

To illustrate this point I have decided to break down abuse by type. Child abuse comes in many forms, ranging from ongoing neglect to serious physical injury. While one might think that physical violence has the greatest influence on a person’s propensity for violence, recent studies show that psychological abuse is as damaging as some types of physical abuse.

In her fictional debut novel, Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn tackles an intriguing form of child abuse and its devastating consequences

In her fictional debut novel, Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn tackles a unique form of child abuse and its devastating consequences. Copyrighted, all rights reserved and compliant with Fair Use for educational/research purposes

Psychological Abuse

The main forms of psychological abuse include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. A study published in July of 2012 by the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, “Psychological or emotional maltreatment of children may be the most challenging and prevalent form of child abuse and neglect.” The authors of the study went on to note that this form of abuse has been linked with “disorders of attachment, developmental and educational problems, socialization problems, disruptive behavior, and later psychopathology.”

The problem with this type of abuse is that while it is the most prevalent, it is the hardest to recognize. Serious physical abuse involving obvious bodily harm or admittance to a hospital is hard to overlook, but how do people identify clear cases of psychological abuse in those they encounter?

When you stop and think about the people you know well, how many have described experiencing some form of psychological abuse at the hands of a parent, a caregiver, a family member, or even a peer? More importantly, how many people experience this kind of abuse and refrain from ever talking about it?

In my last write up I described the case of Robert Richardson. According to multiple news reports including interviews with neighbors and peers, Robert was at a minimum psychologically abused. More than one person described hearing fights that transpired in the Richardson household prior to the shooting death of Robert’s father.

A neighbor man and his wife told the media they called the police on two occasions to report verbal abuse. The neighbor stated that one of the times he called because the father threatened to kill his son. A completely different neighbor told the media she had observed the family dynamics for years. She said that his father “was always yelling and shouting at the boy.”

Lee Hirsch's The Bully Project fought the MPAA's R-rating to ensure delivery of its powerful message to a wider audience

The filmmakers behind The Bully Project’s fought the MPAA’s R-rating to ensure delivery of its powerful message to a wider audience. Copyrighted and all rights reserved. Compliant with Fair Use for educational/research purposes.

Some may dismiss these reports of negligence and psychological abuse, saying these stories are a dime a dozen or have been embellished, but you have to stop and really wonder what might have been happening in that home. Does abuse or neglect in a home warrant the death of the offending person? No. Should it encourage all of us to pay a little more attention to the children in our lives and what might be happening with them? Absolutely.

Criminology professor at the University of South Florida, Kathleen Heide, wrote a book about the role child abuse plays in cases where kids murder their parents. In addition to detailing the ways in which abuse perpetuates violence, Heide goes one step further and provides interventions for treating children who suffer abuse at the hands of parents or caregivers.

In addition to having written about the devastating effects of abuse on children, Heide has evaluated juveniles facing serious criminal charges, such as murder, at the request of attorneys. For example, she evaluated a 17-year-old girl who shot her father as he slept in his bed in 1987. She made the determination the teen had post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a combination of psychological and physical abuse – a common finding among children and teenagers exposed to abuse.

It is interesting to consider that the prosecutor involved in the above case wanted to seek the death penalty against the teenager. This was before the Supreme Court banned capital punishment for those under the age of 18. Her evaluation findings helped the defense to obtain a second-degree murder conviction that required the girl to serve part of a 17- year sentence. Instead of the death penalty.

The bottom line here is this kind of juvenile violence is preventable. This is only one example of many. Abuse ends badly any way you choose to look at it. Some abusers kill those they abuse. Sometime the abused kill their abuser. Minimally, abuse leaves a person feeling broken, incomplete, insignificant, unimportant, and unworthy of anything positive or meaningful. The abuse hampers the person’s ability to bond with others and taints their perception of self-worth.

Physical and Sexual Abuse

Physical and sexual abuse are separate forms of maltreatment, but I am including them under a single category because researchers often include both in studies examining short-term and long-term consequences of abuse.

In November of 2012, David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones released a bulletin summarizing the results of three independent studies pertaining to these issues. For quite some time a number of researchers have claimed, based on the results of studies, that sexual and physical abuse have declined in prevalence. The above authors evaluated some of the existing literature and concluded that “the case there has been a true decline in sexual abuse is stronger than the case about physical abuse.”

On one hand these reported declines are intriguing because of the steadily decreasing rate of crimes committed by juveniles. The Department of Justice indicated that juvenile arrest rates peaked in 1996 and then declined 36% by 2009. This year, the state of California experienced its lowest juvenile crime rate since 1957. The state is not sure what factors have contributed to the decrease in juvenile crime, but believe youth-oriented diversion programs have been influential.

On the other hand, findings regarding the prevalence of physical abuse in particular are not always consistent. Researchers from the Yale School of Medicine examined trends in the reporting of serious injuries resulting from child abuse for over a decade (between 1997 and 2009). The researchers obtained information for the study from the Kids’ Inpatient Database (KID). The researchers defined serious injuries as those including “head injuries, fractures, burns, open wounds, and abdominal injuries”.

The researchers determined that these injuries have increased by about 5% from 1997 to 2009. This study contradicts information from child protective services that alleges child physical abuse has dropped 55% between 1992 and 2009. A journalist for Time Magazine suggested that a possibility for these differences is that “protective services accounts for all physical abuse in their calculations – regardless of severity or age.” The authors of the Yale study focused entirely on serious injuries caused by abuse that required hospitalization.

The Yale study reported that per every 100,000 children under the age of 18, the incidence of serious child abuse has increased 4.9%. However, perhaps even more alarming is the finding that the increase was 10.9% for babies under 1 year of age.

It remains to be seen how the rising number of serious physical injuries to infants will impact the children involved or others in society.

Finally, it is worth remembering that “parents kill their children by abuse or neglect ten times as often as children kill their parents.” How’s that for a sobering reality?

A month before 15-year-old Amanda Todd took her own life she published a video on YouTube

A month before 15-year-old Amanda Todd took her own life she published a video on YouTube

Abuse by Bullying

We all know the violent consequences of bullying. Some children kill themselves to escape the pain of this psychological and sometimes physical form of torment. Others lash out in other ways by inflicting extreme violence on others. Then there are the children who are killed by those who bully them.

While not every single person who has experienced some degree of bullying takes their abuse out on themselves or others, there is no mistaking the effect this kind of abuse has on those who experience it.

For a harrowing look at the dangers of bullying watch this video describing the events that led up to 13-year-old Jared High’s suicide. This video is a must-see for anyone who has children or cares about them in a general sense. Jared’s life story and experiences with bullying are relayed on the site jaredstory.com. The site provides information about bullying and links to resources on the topic.

Amanda's peers abused her publicly on Facebook

Amanda’s peers abused her publicly on Facebook

I could linger on the topic of bullied children and teens who commit violent acts against others because we all know those cases exist. However, I really want to emphasize the increasing incidence of suicide among bullied youth. When a person takes their life because they have experienced this kind of abuse there are always people who say, “how awful”, “if only people had realized the severity of the problem,” and “how can children be so cruel to one another?”

Other people are indifferent. Apathetic. Uninterested.

The people who seem to get involved most frequently in advocating for change appear to be the survivors of this particularly cruel traumatic loss. I see so many people blaming the parents of the children who commit suicide, but this issue runs so much deeper. In Lee Hirsch’s The Bully Project (also known simply as Bully) the grieving father of a child named Tyler Long, who committed suicide after having been bullied, stated to following:

We knew why Tyler did what he did. There was no doubt in our minds. When you’re in the shower and your clothes are taken, and you have no way of getting out of the gym other than walking out naked…when you’re standing in the bathroom and you’re urinating and kids come up and push you from behind up against the stall and against the wall and you urinate on your pants…when you’re sitting in the classroom and somebody comes by and grabs your books and throws them on the floor and tells you to pick them up bitch…those are things that happened to Tyler. Did he ever come home with blood running down his face? No. It was the mental abuse and the not-so-physical abuse that Tyler endured.

Then, after describing the abuse his son experienced at the hands of his peers – in the one place parents hope is a safe environment for their children – he said this:

We can control what goes on inside those walls – inside of school – and the atmosphere has to be set completely by the administration. They all are part of the school system that’s there to protect the kids. And if they don’t…then this is what happens.

The above statement raises important questions about who is to blame in these situations. Perhaps all of us must take responsibility when the youth in our communities feel their best, and perhaps only option for escaping abuse, is to end their life permanently.

This is unacceptable. You know it, I know it, and school administrators surely know it. However, this is going to continue and escalate until we refuse to accept the status quo. I cannot emphasize enough that this has to change. Standing by and hoping someone else will fix the problem only helps to perpetuate it.

Following her suicide, a spokeswoman for Amanda's school district told the media the school knew about the video and had "support in place".

Following her suicide, a spokeswoman for Amanda’s school district told the media the school knew about the video and had “support in place”.

Some might ask: what can we really do about it? The answer is simple. Our ability to help others in need is limited only by our willingness to imagine each and every possible way we can and should help. Try to envisionhow different this world might be if each person touched by these acts of violence took it upon themselves to do something – anything – to bring about change.

Some people get it though, including children and teenagers. In Hudson, New Hampshire a group of students decided to take the matter of bullying seriously and started an anti-bullying program at school. Some of the students involved have observed the abuse that takes place in their school and find this kind of program a way to take action on behalf of others.

The above program, named the Hudson Memorial School’s Ambassadors of Hope, was a winner of the 2012 Stand Up awards. The fact is, student-driven programs such as this have the potential to save more lives than people could ever fully realize.

We can stand by and watch abuse happen or we can take action to stop it. The choice is ours.

We can stand by and watch abuse happen or we can take action to stop it. The choice is ours.

These kids are inspiring. The message they are sending to other students and to the world is powerful. And these are children doing it. What if more people followed their lead? What if you did?

If you have not seen Hirsch’s film, I recommend it. It is heartbreaking and it is shocking, but perhaps that is what it will take to get everyone’s attention and put a stop to this.

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Leading the way

Robert "Bob" Richardson

Robert “Bob” Richardson

I have a story to tell you, but before I begin I feel compelled to tell you that this one is disturbing. This is a story that once read, will long be remembered. It is a story of abuse, neglect, murder, compassion, redemption, and love. I only hope I can do this one justice because the people this tale revolves around deserve that.

Before

Before January of 2012, Robert Richardson was a freshman at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, Maryland. The small town, located in Harford County, claims a population  of about 10,680. Many students of the high school knew Robert – known to many as “Bob” – because they had seen him come to school in the same worn and dirty clothes day after day.

The teen and his father resided on Moores Mill Road. He lived alone with his father following the death of his mother six years prior. Robert’s mother succumbed to a battle with cancer. Father and son struggled to survive on a very limited income that placed the family’s income level below the poverty threshold.

The family’s money problems were apparent to those who knew Robert. The quality and lack of clothing caught many people’s eye – students and neighbors alike. However, the family’s troubles went much deeper than those reflected in the teen’s tattered clothing. Robert’s friends saw bruises on the teen as well. Ashle Jones, a 16-year-old student who attended the same school, stated that she remembered Robert confiding in her that his father was physically abusive toward him.

Neighbors regularly heard verbal fights coming from within the Richardson home. One neighbor, Mark Cullum, Sr., would later say in reference to the teen’s treatment by his father, “I’m not condoning what this kid did, but that man was verbally abusing his son”.

The Richardson home

The Richardson home

A Violent End

On the evening of January 9th of 2012, years of neglect and abuse culminated into an act of murder. Or was it self-defense? Though many details of that night have not been made public, two things are clear: Robert shot his father and it could have been prevented.

After

Prior to the elder Richardson’s death, police had responded to the home over a dozen times due to myriad complaints and other reports. A news outlet obtained documents from the Harford County Sheriff’s department  and reported that none were for “domestic violence”.

The problem is this contradicts what at least one of the family’s neighbors said about he and his wife calling the police on two separate occasions to report the verbal abuse. Collum told the media he heard Robert’s father threaten to kill his son. The screaming and shouting was so loud at times the neighbors could hear it a block away.

Bob's 8th grade picture

Robert’s 8th grade picture

Did the police know there was a pattern of abuse? Did they ignore it? It is difficult to understand how the police could have been completely in the dark about what was transpiring inside of that home.

What would have happened if the police or social services had intervened at an earlier time? The answer seems obvious.

Some of the reports obtained from the sheriff’s department reveal that Robert tried to escape his situation on multiple occasions, running away from the abusive environment only to return once the police located him. Robert expressed his concern about returning home, according to the media, but it fell on deaf ears.

Social services responded to questions about their involvement, or lack of it, with the Richardson family by declining to give any information. The manager for in-home services at the state Department of Social Services, Stephen Berry, told the media that reports about loud arguments might not have been enough to elicit a response from Child Protective Services. What about discussions with neighbors and peers of the teen? Would that have been enough?

Neighbor Geraldine Martin told the media, “It’s seems like everyone is talking about how it is such a terrible thing that happened, but nobody’s talking about the fact that it could have been prevented.”

The prosecutor in Robert’s case is seeking a conviction for first degree murder. This means the teen will be tried and sentenced as an adult. He was 16-years-old when he was arrested and he is 17 now. His attorneys have motioned to have his case returned to juvenile court.

A Ray of Hope

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.” This is a powerful statement when you stop and think about it. It suggests that accountability is a concept that extends far beyond the actions of a single person. It maintains that inaction is as great an error as doing something that a person knows is wrong.

There is no question that more should have been done to help Robert before he shot his father. The community knew that something was wrong, but those in a position of power such as the police and social services, did nothing. I spent several nights reading news articles and watching videos, trying to understand how this child slipped through the cracks so spectacularly. I found no answers.

The cases of abused children haunt me. I spent almost a decade of my childhood living with children from broken homes who were placed in foster care. I know all too well how much abuse children endure before someone finally puts a stop to it. I remember vividly judges ordering children back to parents who were abusive in more ways than one.  I remember the grief I felt at the knowledge the child would return to foster care in a short amount of time, once the abuse became apparent again or the parents grew tired of performing their duties. Sometimes the children returned to my mom’s home, but sometimes I would not even find out they had been returned to foster care until months or years after it happened. This meant the children were bounced from one home to the next, never experiencing the luxury of a stable home environment.

Though it likely shocks many people to hear about the long-term abuse many children suffer, it does not surprise me in the least. What does surprise me, however, is how people react when these situations end in violence.

Hannah Siple

Hannah Siple

There is hope in this appallingly dismal situation, however. Enter the Siples. Hannah is a junior at the school Robert attended before his arrest. She has known him since the eighth grade. On the surface Hannah looks very much like an ordinary teenager. She is pretty, loves animals, and enjoys playing different kinds of music. However, Hannah is different than most teens. She is unusually compassionate and has a streak of independence that distinguishes her from others.

When Hannah first learned Robert murdered his father she was upset with him. She recalled this, telling me, “I was really mad at him…But then I remembered that he’s a friend and he had to have done it for a reason.”

Hannah realizes now there were signs of trouble. She has reflected on all that has happened, realizing “he showed all the classic signs of abuse and I ignored them. I felt horrible after that, and guilty.” She knew she needed to do something and so she approached her mother, Eileen, with her idea of starting a Facebook page on behalf of the teen.

Since starting the Facebook page she, her mom, and others worked together to come up with ways to raise awareness about the case. “We’ve had online fundraisers, yard sales, fundraisers at restaurants…had bracelets, shirts, bumper stickers made, found his previous lawyers and defense team, etc. That wasn’t just me though, all the people on the page made that possible.”

She describes Robert as wise and funny, with an interest in how the world works. She relayed a story about how when he was fleeing his home on January 9th he “made sure to bring his cat with him, because she was pregnant, and he wanted to make sure she was safe.”

Hannah’s mom, Eileen, did not know Robert before all of this happened. However, she has become fully involved in helping the teen. She worked as a special education teacher for 29 years. She has two children: Hannah and Larry.

Eileen remembers when the news broke in her small town. “I first heard of this story via a text news alert from a local TV station.  I can’t really explain it, but it hit me really hard.  I did not know Bob.  I had never heard his name.  I did not know that my daughter knew Bob.  I just got this feeling that there was much more to this story.”

Hannah, who was very upset by what happened, talked to her mother about Robert. “Her reaction reinforced my own feelings of misgiving,” Eileen recollected.

Hannah and her mom speak to Robert about five times a week by phone. They have also gone to see him at the Harford County Detention Center in Bel Air. The facility is an adult county jail. He spent the first nine months in isolation. He was only allowed out of his cell a couple of times a week to take a shower.

On his 17th birthday, on September 22, Robert was moved into what is known as “limited population”. He spends his days alone in his cell. He is given one hour a day to interact with other inmates housed in neighboring cells.

For Hannah and Eileen, Robert’s situation has been a heartbreaking wake-up call. “I’m no longer hesitant in standing up for what I believe in,” Hannah explained to me. “I also now know how to look out for signs of abuse and not just pass them off.” She added that her efforts to help Robert have caused her to grow by becoming a better listener.

I was interested in how Hannah’s peers have reacted to the advocacy efforts she has helped to spearhead. “Everyone is split,” she said. “Most people at school thought it was a great thing I was doing, but a lot of people have been really mean about it. I guess you could call it bullying, but I hate that word.” She talked about how she and her mom have received death threats from people online. “Nothing has happened, but it’s still scary.”

The threats and criticism will not deter Hannah, however. She feels that the justice system is in need of reform. “We need to realize that kids are kids, no matter what they do. A 16-year-old could kill hundreds of people, but that doesn’t stop them from having been born in 1996, and being 16-years-old…People like Robert need treatment, not punishment. He needs therapy. This kid has been through way too much to just be given up on. It’s not fair to be given up on, when you’ve never even had a chance.”

Support bracelet

Support bracelet

Eileen shares her daughter’s goal of seeing Robert receive treatment. She would like to see him placed in a juvenile facility that focuses on rehabilitation. “Bob has never had good role models, and he is stunned to see so many people come to his defense now. I am happy that he is realizing that there are so many good people in the world, but he has a lot of work to do.” She elaborated by explaining that since his incarceration Robert has not received counseling, an education, or been involved in any kind of rehabilitation program.

“Most importantly,” Eileen said, “I would like for Bob to feel as if he is a part of a loving and supportive family. He will always have a place in my family.”

This experience has inspired Eileen to do even more to help Robert and other survivors of abuse. She would like to start a foundation at some point to make this dream a reality. Meanwhile, the actions taken by Hannah, her mother, and all those who have rallied in support the teen demonstrate that all hope is not lost. Though Robert’s existence prior to this horrific situation was dismal at best, he now has a support system in the people who have committed to both him and his cause.

This case is a reminder of the responsibility we as a society have to protect our children. Does it make sense to punish a teenager for the repeated failings of those who should have protected him? Richard’s story is not an isolated incident either. Children are abused across this country every single day. Much of this abuse is ignored.

Hannah, Eileen, and others who support Robert refuse to look away. I am left wondering how this story will effect others and what they will do to correct the problems that allow situations like this to escalate.

The Facebook page for Robert Richardson is here. The page provides updates on his case and advocacy efforts surrounding it.

Hannah also put together a video detailing Robert’s case here.

In Ryan’s words

Ryan with his sister and mom during a December 2011 visit

Ryan with his sister and mom during a December 2011 visit

This is the first guest blog I have hosted on here and I am really excited about it. I recently wrote about some of the people who have been sacrificing some of the last bit of privacy they have retained while incarcerated so that they can share their experiences with others. I feel that if more people did this it would be hard to ignore the problems that plague our justice system – mainly because it would become apparent that those who have suffered various forms of injustice are people, just like those reading the blogs that they write. Some have been wrongfully convicted, some have been overcharged, and some are guilty of their crimes but remorseful.

I approached Ryan Holle about writing a blog post. I have written about Ryan’s case a few times – most recently here. Also I maintain a website for his case here. I wasn’t sure if he would be interested or not, but I hoped that he would. That said, the following was written by Ryan:

____________________________________________________________________

You know when I was asked to write for this blog my mind went a little scatterbrain. I mean seriously, I’m sitting in a 8′ by 12″ cell on a mat that is like 3″ thick and a light that is just enough to write with. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t do the whole “woe is me” stuff. That train of thought will get you absolutely nowhere. Of course I never thought I would spend my 30th birthday and almost 10 years incarcerated either. I have hope though and that is what keeps me going.

You know it’s sad and hopefully it doesn’t make me sound crazy but even though I’m here I’m just thankful to be alive. I made a lot of poor decisions before I was incarcerated. It’s amazing how you can become so wrapped up in just what matters to you that you don’t see how your actions affect those that care for you. How can you adequately describe what it feels like to lose everything including your freedom?

If you have never been incarcerated then I pray that you never do. I could sit here and tell you everything that you have to go through but I’m not because that would just be a biased opinion from my perspective. I can tell you that it has been a crazy journey. On the day I was convicted a deputy who was escorting me back to the county jail after I just got a natural life sentence asked me if he could share some advice with me. As an inmate, trust me there are very few guards/police that care at all. He told me, “Don’t become an animal.” I have taken that to heart. I refuse to let prison dictate the person that I am.

I have learned a lot from being and try to be someone my family can be proud of. I really believe that you can do that even from in here. I have never been a writer besides in letters to family and friends. So, I hope you will excuse my poor penmanship. If there is one thing I could say it’s, “Be thankful for your freedom and cherish it.”

People tell me a lot that they can’t believe that I have been incarcerated for nearly 10 years and have an upbeat attitude. They are surprised that I smile a lot. In my mind this is just a part of the journey that is my life and I believe with all my heart that one day I will be free!!

The first page of Ryan Holle's guest blog.

Page one

Page two

Page two

Injustices in Indiana

Ellen Page played Slyvia Likens in "American Crime" - a girl tortured and murdered by neighborhood children

Ellen Page played Sylvia Likens in “An American Crime” – a girl tortured and murdered by her caretaker and neighborhood children. Copyrighted and all rights reserved – in compliance with Fair Use or educational/research purposes

Indiana is a dangerous state for adolescents and teenagers. The consequences for poor decision making, on the part of minors, are severe. Most recently we got a glimpse into the inner workings of the system when a group of teenagers were arrested for felony murder in Indiana after entering a man’s home. They did not commit a murder. They did not even plan a murder. They picked a home to enter based on the belief no one was even home. However, because the homeowner pulled a gun on the teenagers and killed one of them the prosecutor feels he must set an example.

There is no question that making a choice to break into a home is a bad one. No one – including the family of one of the boy’s, Blake Layman – would argue that a consequence is not warranted. The consequence should reflect the crime committed though, right? It should not be based on the crime manifested as a result of a prosecutor perverting one of the best examples of bad law in existence.

The prosecutor clearly feels he must set an example though. The felony murder rule almost always seems as though it is intended to set an example. We live in a society that quickly forgets the harsh lessons learned by others, but we like to establish precedents. The more extreme, the better.

That is, until that precedent involves someone we love.

You don’t necessarily have to make a bad decision to find yourself facing serious time in prison. People just need to think you did – namely a prosecutor and a jury. In the state of Indiana age has seemed, prior to today, insignificant.

How many times have you heard the mantra “adult time for an adult crime” or “if a child can make an adult decision they should be tried as an adult”? On its face it almost sounds reasonable, but these are fallacies.

First off, there is no such thing as an adult decision. One cannot logically say that a child made an adult decision. The main reason it is illogical to describe a decision in the above way is because it is a scientific fact that the brain of an adolescent, teenager, and even young adult is not fully mature. The process of brain maturation is a gradual one. Areas in the brain critical for making intelligent decisions appear to be the last to completely develop. For example, children do not have the same degree of impulse control, ability to fully understand consequences, or emotional control as adults.

If children could drive...

If children could drive…

As a society we know this. We don’t let young children drive vehicles. We don’t allow adolescent girls to make the decision to get married. Though there are some parents who allow their children to drink alcohol in the privacy of their home, it isn’t legal and as a society we allegedly do not condone it. There is a laundry list of decisions we do not allow children to make and these are only a few examples.

Individually most people realize there is a difference between children and adults, even if these people are the first to post a disparaging comment on a news story about the latest tragedy perpetrated by a young teenager. “Fry ’em!” is one I see a lot. However, these people probably wouldn’t hand their car keys to a twelve year old boy and ask him to go to the store and buy a six pack of beer. Not just because it is illegal to do it, but because they would likely have grave concerns about whether he would even make it to the store without causing an accident.

They also probably wouldn’t tell their fourteen year old daughter that it is okay to quit school and marry a 20-year-old boy she met on the Internet. One reason is because most parents wouldn’t trust their child to make a decision of that magnitude. Parents have a job, which is to protect their child or children from others who may harm them. Often the responsibility of a parent is to guide the child when it comes to making decisions, protecting the child from his or her own self.

Some believe the act of committing murder – under any circumstance – is different than other kinds of decisions. Again, this is illogical. The same adolescent brain that society has deemed incapable of making decisions such as drinking alcohol, voting, gambling, and myriad other activities is responsible for making the decision to kill. A person’s brain does not magically mature moments before this kind of decision is made. A child does not automatically transform into an adult just because he or she is waived into the adult court either.

And yet that is exactly how the system works in some states. A look into Indiana’s past reveals a state that is inconsistent in its treatment of juveniles as well as adults. However, the state was not always as hard on teenagers as it is now. Take the story of Sylvia Likens. Sylvia was left in the care of the Baniszewski family a few months before she died in 1965. The 16-year-old was tortured and brutalized in more ways than one before she finally succumbed to her fate.

The manner of her death is shocking, but the circumstances surrounding it are almost unfathomable. The woman charged with her care, Gertrude Baniszewski, not only inflicted severe abuse on the teenager, but encouraged her own children and other kids in the neighborhood (one as young as ten) to do the same. Astonishingly, adults who came in and out of the home saw Sylvia’s condition but did nothing to help her.

Gertrude had seven children of her own. Paula was 17, John was 12, Stephanie was 15, Marie was 11, Shirley was 10, and the twins were 18 months. John was convicted of manslaughter – sentenced to serve a penalty of two-to-21 years. He was released after two years. Paula was convicted of second-degree murder. Two neighborhood boys named Richard Hobbs and Coy Hubbard, were also convicted of manslaughter. They were released after two years as well.

Though Gertrude was sentenced to life in prison, she and her daughter eventually received new trials. Twenty years after Sylvia’s murder, Gertrude was released on parole. She changed her name and left the state. In 1990, she died as a result of lung cancer. Her eldest daughter Paula took a plea of voluntary manslaughter and was released after serving two years.

The story was immortalized in the 2007 film An American Crime, starring Ellen Page and Catherine Keener.

What a difference a few decades make, right? In 1966, a child of 12 in Indiana faced a sentence of 2-to-21 years for murder.

It is hard to know what the future holds for Anthony who resides at Wabash, or 16-year-old Blake who awaits his trial for felony murder while housed currently at the county jail among adult offenders. Just prior to his arrest, Blake was a freshman in high school and working 30 hours each week at Wendy’s. He also helped his mother care for his younger sister who has suffered from a brain tumor since she was very young. In a very short span of time Blake’s life changed completely. Now he faces the possibility of a lifetime in prison.

The frightening lesson to take away from this is that if you live in Indiana (or states who treat juveniles similarly) you or someone you know could find themselves in this type of situation. Blake and Anthony could have been anyone’s children. They are someone’s children. As resistant as one may be to the idea that something like this could happen to them, it is important to accept that possibility because the justice system is broken and anyone may become its victim.

This is American society at its core. This is how we respond to complex social problems such as juvenile crime. These sentences will not reduce the amount of crime in this country because they are not the cause. Forcing children to become adults in a legal sense when we scoff at the idea of doing so in other aspects of life is absurd.

Enough said.

…dig two graves

Amanda Clarke of ABC's "Revenge"

Emily VanCamp plays Amanda Clarke – a woman bent on getting her “Revenge” Copyrighted, all rights reserved – in compliance with fair use for educational/research purposes

Confucius said, “before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Everyone has been wronged at one time or another. We have all felt the sting of betrayal and the satisfaction that comes with turning the tables on those who have hurt us. But few have experienced the peace that comes from seeking to stop others from being wronged similarly by taking the moral highroad and committing to make the world a more just place.

What about the wrongs society perpetrates on those who have committed wrongs themselves? At what point does retribution transcend punishment and become revenge? Does this happen when the rights of the most vulnerable are violated in the name of righting a wrong? When the punishment exceeds the crime? Or is the mere pursuit of punishment, devoid of compassion and common sense, just another form of revenge?

If these are questions you have not yet thought to ask yourself, now is a good time to do it. The American justice system is not just broken; it is morally bankrupt as well. However, the answer is never to ignore the problem and hope it will go away. It certainly will not become remedied on its own and the devastating consequences – many of which are unclear now – will compound over time.

That said, the first step to solving a problem is to identify it. When it comes to the juvenile justice system the problems are many. Perhaps the greatest is the mistake society makes when it holds children and teenagers accountable as adults in this one respect. One solution is to grant children the rights afforded to adults. We could change the drinking age to 10 (since there are states where children this age may be tried as adults for specific crimes). We could also allow 10-year-old children the opportunity to vote, to drive, to purchase tobacco products, to choose not to go to school, and to get married.

What images come to mind when you envision granting the above rights, and others, to children as young as ten? Is it one of mass chaos? Or is it one of harmony and peace?

Another solution is to change the law. If the justice system offers no appropriate solutions for children who are 11, 12, 13, or older who commit crimes  the answer seems quite simple. Admit the system does not work. Acknowledge the laws are flawed. Construct a system that works. Demand change. But most importantly, never assume that you as a single person lack the power and resources to help facilitate this kind of change. In fact, you have the power to prevent change by doing absolutely nothing to help fix what you know is broken.

There is much I don’t know, but I know this: We should not live in a country where a 20 year old man can be convicted of felony murder and sent to prison for the rest of his life for a crime committed by others while he was asleep about two miles away in his bed. This is what happened to Ryan Holle of Florida.

I know we should not live in a society where a person must pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for DNA testing to prove their innocence because their defense was inept and the prosecution was short-sighted. This is what has and is happening to Darlie Routier, who has been on death row in Texas for over 15 years.

A person should not have to beg for permission from a stubborn prosecutor to have DNA tested to prove they did not commit a crime that happened 170 miles from where they were at the time. And yet this happened to Kirstin Blaise Lobato of Nevada.

A person should not have to be at the mercy of a magistrate when the decision is made between trying the person as the juvenile they are or as the adult the prosecution wants to force them to become. I also know that no person should face what is tantamount to a life sentence because people affiliated with a gang claimed the individual committed a crime – people who likely had motive to commit the crime themselves. This happened to Martin Anthony Villalon of Indiana who was just 15 at the time.

A person should not ever face a mandatory life without parole sentence for a crime they allegedly committed at the age of 12. Yet this is what is happening to Cristian Fernandez of Florida. The judge in his case recently denied the defense’s motion to drop the charges in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling that a mandatory life without parole sentence is unconstitutional. Florida provides no alternative sentence to felony or first degree murder except for the death penalty. This country no longer sentences children to execution as of 2005.

A person should never be treated differently in the justice system than others because of race or ethnicity. However, this happened to 16-year-old Curtis Shuler of Florida who is serving a life without parole sentence for a crime his trial co-defendants have admitted he did not participate in, let alone commit.

A person should never face a life sentence for a crime their father, with a criminal background and a penchant for vengeance, admitted to committing himself. This is especially true when the prosecution has no physical evidence to link the teenager to the crime. Despite this, Josh Young has been incarcerated since he was 15 and is waiting to stand trial as an adult.

And then there is Blake Layman of Indiana who is facing severe consequences after assisting a group of teenagers in a home invasion – an event that turned fatal when the homeowner took his gun and shot two in the group, killing one and leaving the other wounded. Because of the felony murder rule, Blake and others will eventually stand trial for murder. Unless, as one of the teens have already done, they accept a plea bargain. Jose Quiroz took a plea requiring him to serve 45 years in prison. He will be 62 years old when he is finally released and the irony is he never planned a murder, nor did he commit one.

There are too many injustices to list them all. The above are just some of the ones I have come to know all too well. As I write this I am certain there will be many more I will learn about in the future. Some injustices are startlingly clear, while others require the willingness of a person to accept that there are degrees of guilt and innocence. Some injustices are perceived by many as fair applications of the law; however, something does not become right just because it is perceived by one or more as such.

Right is right and wrong is wrong. It really is that simple. And it is wrong to look the other way in the face of injustice, large or small.