It’s one week before Thanksgiving in Juvenile Judge Stephanie Reed’s courtroom. A baby-faced boy appears before him. Six adults are present to help determine his fate. None of them are family.
His name is Jeremy. He’s thirteen. The edge of courtroom table where he sits amid lawyers, district attorneys and juvenile court workers comes up to his chest. His head doesn’t reach the back of the plush chair. If he slouches—which he does today—his feet barely reach the floor.
Once the case is called, Reed reminds those at the table that of the people present, only she and the child have been on this case since the beginning. Jeremy was four, then. The State intervened because his family was not safe. His birth mother’s parental rights were terminated shortly thereafter, but Department of Human Services has failed to find him a permanent home.
What’s Jeremy’s biggest problem?
Maybe it’s the adults’ pesky ideas.
Jeremy moved through multiple foster homes in the first six years. Finally, he was placed in a home where he settled down. His behavior became manageable. He got along well with the other children in the home. He was so agreeable after two years, the adults in Jeremy’s life decided he should move.
Well, yes. His ability to integrate well in the current foster family demonstrated to the State that he was adoptable, a term that means he is adequately socialized and emotionally resilient enough to live in a family. But this family wasn’t an adoptive family. So without asking Jeremy what he thought about losing the one family he trusted, the agency social worker recruited adoptive families. They found a potential home in Idaho. Then they told Jeremy the good news.
Only he didn’t see it as good news. He became anxious at having to leave yet another family, and at the possibility of living so far away from his birth mother and sister whom he hoped someday to see. His behavior escalated. For the first time in his life, he acted out sexually with a younger child.
Everyone agrees the way Jeremy showed his anxiousness was inappropriate. But there is contention among the adults about how serious the incident really was. It was, the caseworker said, “unfortunate” because it ruined the agency’s plan for adoption. It also meant he was immediately removed from the family he’d grown to trust.
He was placed in a program for boys who need supervision pending treatment. But that program was a limited-duration placement for emergency shelter care. They moved him to a residential program, but it was expensive and it mainly served older youths. Then, more pesky grown-up ideas.
Somebody decided that if Jeremy was adjudicated as a sex offender, there would be more therapy options available. Department of Human Services could relinquish control to the State Youth Authority. Then, they wouldn’t have to foot the bill to house and treat him. Someone at the district attorney’s office agreed. Without parents to stand up for his rights, Jeremy became designated as an adjudicated sex offender.
The residential program that Jeremy was housed in considered adjudicated offenders a liability risk, so Jeremy is in court today because he has to move. Again. Removed from his birth family as a preschool child, shuffled through myriad foster homes through his elementary school years, and taken from the only family he’d developed healthy attachment to, Jeremy is alone, apparently destined to grow up without a single adult that cares.
Unless the judge has her way.
As the professionals looked on, Judge Reed apologized to Jeremy for participating in a system that failed to find him a forever family. “If you could go anywhere in the world,” she asked, “or be with anyone in the whole world, where would you like to spend Thanksgiving?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
That sent the judge into tears.
“How is this okay?” Reed asked the other adults. “He’s been waiting his whole life for somebody to love him. While you and I are looking forward to turkey with our friends and family on Thanksgiving, he can’t think of a single person he’d like to see.”
Reed urged the adults to find Jeremy a permanent family, even if that meant reconsidering his birth mother, who is a decade older now, has a job, and lives in her own apartment. Perhaps she is in a better position to be a mom. When the social worker protests they can’t undo a termination of parental rights, Reed says, Who do you think he is going to go look for “when you toss him out at eighteen as cured?”
Such questions provoke others. Like, why known adult perpetrators aren’t prosecuted, but children can become adjudicated perpetrators after one incident of sexual impropriety.
Or why Jeremy was labeled a sex offender at age twelve in a state where grown men like Neil Goldschmidt aren’t held responsible for having sex with girls too young to consent.
Maybe Jeremy should have waited a few more years to act out the anger he felt at a system that taught him it isn’t safe to love anyone taller than himself.
Names were changed to protect the identity of the youth.
If you don’t work or volunteer in child welfare, you may not know these kinds of decisions are made about vulnerable children. If you’d like to advocate for youth in your community, you can locate the closest advocacy program by entering your zip code in the Find a CASA Program box on the left sidebar of the National CASA for Kids page.