Standing against injustice

The debate regarding the treatment of youth in the United States criminal justice system is heating up. I predict that 2013 will be a year of change and progress when it comes to juvenile justice issues. Over the last few months alone I have seen more people rising to the cause then I have observed in years. I am dedicating this post to pictures from three separate rallies that were hosted on behalf of teenagers facing injustice in various forms.

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Blake Layman
Rally Location: Elkhart, Indiana Prosecutor’s Office
Date: April 3, 2013
Case summary:

Blake and four other teenagers were charged with felony murder after breaking into a home they believed was unoccupied. Upon entering the home, the owner got a gun and fired shots at the group as they tried to escape. He shot two of them, fatally injuring one. Instead of charging the surviving teens with the crime they actually committed, Prosecutor Curtis Hill charged all of them with felony murder. One of the teens has already accepted a plea for 45 years in prison.

Again, these teens did not murder their friend. They did not shoot him, nor did they ever imagine he would die. However, if the prosecutor goes through with the felony murder charges and obtains convictions these teenagers will spend all or most of their lives in prison.

On April 3rd, Blake’s family held a rally on his behalf.

Friends, family, and other supporters rallied against felony murder charges involving four teenagers.

Friends, family, and other supporters rallied against felony murder charges involving four teenagers.

Felony murder is not the appropriate charge in this case. Blake's family and friends refuse to allow him to suffer this injustice silently.

Felony murder is not the appropriate charge in this case. Blake’s family and friends refuse to allow him to suffer this injustice silently.

The Elkhart Truth printed a story about the rally, with additional pictures here.

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Josh Young
Rally Location: Louisville, Kentucky courthouse
Date: April 2, 2013
Case summary:

Josh Young is set to stand trial this summer in connection with the murder of his younger step-brother, Trey Zwicker. Though the prosecution has still not presented physical evidence, within the case’s discovery files, connecting Josh to the murder, the prosecutor is moving forward with the charges. It is important to note that Josh’s own father – Trey’s step-father – has since admitted to committing the murder and to manipulating others into throwing his own son under the bus.

Many of Josh’s friends and family believe he is innocent of the charges. This includes his former foster mom, Susan Stoneburner, who firmly believes in the teen’s innocence. In response to the judge’s decision to delay Josh’s trial for another couple of months, a group of Josh’s supporters took to the streets near the courthouse to express their distastel. Though the event was somewhat impromptu, it sent a strong message.

Those who believe in Josh will not give up this fight.

Friends, family, and other supporters rallied in front of the court to express their belief in Josh's innocence.

Friends, family, and other supporters rallied in front of the court to express their belief in Josh’s innocence.

Those who attended communicated the same simple message: "Free Josh Young"

Those who attended communicated the same simple message: “Free Josh Young”

Josh will stand trial jointly with his own father - the person who originally accused him of committing the crime before admitting he was the real perpetrator.

Josh will stand trial jointly with his own father – the person who originally accused him of committing the crime before admitting he was the real perpetrator.

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Robert Richardson
Rally Location: Bel Air, Maryland Courthouse
Date: January 16, 2013
Case summary:

Robert is facing trial for the murder of his father in Maryland. In the days, weeks, and months following the crime people began to emerge to describe stories of suspected verbal and perhaps even physical abuse perpetrated on the teen by his father. Robert was reported as attending school in well-worn clothing and neighbors described hearing many loud fights – including one where the father threatened his son. This case is a tragic reminder that we all have a responsibility to stand up for children when we suspect they need help. If this had been done for Robert previously his father would almost certainly be alive.

This is not lost on those who are now very vocal about their support of the Maryland teenager. His supporter base is growing and those who have grown to care about him refuse to turn a blind eye to this terrible situation.

Robert's supporters stood in the rain on behalf of the Maryland teenager.

Robert’s supporters stood in the rain on behalf of the Maryland teenager.

Those holding signs communicated a number of different messages regarding juvenile injustice.

Those holding signs communicated a number of different messages regarding juvenile injustice.

Those in support of Robert plan to keep standing against injustice until their voice is heard loud and clear.

Those in support of Robert plan to keep standing against injustice until their voice is heard loud and clear.

A third rally for Robert is scheduled to take place on April 19 at 10 a.m. Those attending plan to meet in front of the courthouse at 9 a.m. at the Harford County Circuit Court. If you are in the area and would like to attend there are more details on this Facebook event page. Please help spread the word to anyone who might be in a position to attend.

An article about the January rally is here.

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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.