If you’ve worked with, defended, advocated for or made decisions about at-risk youth, you’ve surely run into the difficult problem of teenagers becoming parents themselves.
As a juvenile judge in Florida, I remember becoming frustrated at the apparent immature, selfish, unrealistic and irresponsible behavior displayed by these young moms and dads in dealing with life’s most important task: raising a child.
The Many Things that are Wrong with A&E's "Beyond Scared Straight" Program
The "Beyond Scared Straight" message "In prison for a day to stay out for life" certainly appears to a television audience. The hit series from Disney's A&E Network became the most watched original series launch in the network's history with an audience of 3.7 million people. The show is a spinoff of the multiple award-winning documentary films also produced by Arnold Shapiro.
But do "scared straight" programs really work to reduce juvenile crime? "No," claimed Professor James Finckenauer, Ph.D., from Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, in his address to the National Conference of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in New York City in ,July. Finckenauer, author of "Scared Straight! And the Panacea Phenomenon," cogently ,explained why those programs don't work by examining the concept of "deterrence" as applied to teenage thinking and behavior.
I confess, I was one of the judges who accepted the evidence that "scared straight," programs didn't work, but I couldn't figure out why. After all, I thought, certainly would have been "scared straight" after experiencing a day in prison, including being yelled at by brutal inmates, clanging bars, menacing guards, etc. Why wouldn't it work on at-risk teens? What was wrong with the headline: "They think they're fighters. Will it change when they can't fight back?"
Plenty, according to Finckenauer. First, "Scared straight" programs arise out of the concept of "vicarious deterrence," which he defined as "avoiding behavior by experiencing what happens to others."
"These programs require young people to project into the future," Finckenauer said. "Teenagers don't think like that, they don't think logically or long term. That's why they're kids. They are impulsive, and think short term, especially when it comes to punishment."
Finckenauer mentioned a kind of "optimism" that works against vicarious deterrence. "Kids know how hit and miss the criminal justice system is. They believe they might not get caught when they think about committing a crime. What young people react to is (1) How swift is the punishment in terms of the behavior? (2) How certain is it that a consequence will occur? And (3) How severe is the punishment? The extreme nature of the punishment shows in "scared straight" programs doesn't match the expectations of young people. They don't picture themselves locked up.
"Scared straight programs are developed by adults for kids, but kids don't react the same way as adults," Finckenauer said. That's why the television series is popular with adults, but unsuccessful with kids.
"Big, muscular, tough guys are what the kids see during a prison tour as the inmates yell and scream at them in the hopes of scaring them out of committing a crime," Finckenauer said. "Kids don't see beaten down losers." It's a disconnect.
Most helpful to the judges in the audience was Finckenauer's discussion of deterrence in the general population. "There are three general types," he said. "First, the undeterrable, the psychopaths, where deterrence doesn't work at all. Then, at the opposite end are the Catholic nuns, who are already deterred. Finally, in the middle is the great mass of the public, those who are tempted to cheat on a tax return, to run a red light, to fudge on an application, and that's the group that responds to deterrence to stay honest."
So why is "Beyond Scared Straight" A&E's most watched program?
"There's a gut level attractiveness," Finckenauer said. "An inside look at prisons, clanging doors, delinquent kids. It makes for great visual appeal and good sound bits. Also, there's a great deal of frustration with perceived liberal treatment of young offenders." Perhaps adult viewers are vicariously experiencing their own "get tough on kids" viewpoint. That's where A&E's "Scared Straight" programming could be harmful, I thought. It diverts public support from the evidence-based programs that do work, in the areas of prevention, intervention, diversion, mental health and family counseling. As juvenile judges, we were taught that sanctions for kids should be swift, certain, and appropriately severe. Parents are taught the same in parenting classes. Why then would we think that the opposite would work? "Beyond Scared Straight" makes a good TV program for adults, but it's a lousy concept for keeping atrisk kids out of trouble.
What at-risk kids need are jobs. Jobs will keep them out of prison while a "scared straight" experience won't. Jobs dignify them, put legal money in their pockets, and provide mentoring and career goal opportunities. It's the employer, small or large businessman, non-profit executive, teacher or community volunteer whose lives they should be experiencing not the convicted, imprisoned felon.
Given the Disney channel's financial success with the "Beyond Scared Straight" series, why don't we challenge Disney to donate a portion of its profits to one of the foundations that does so much for at-risk kids such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Eckerd Family Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, or the Henry and Ryla White Foundation? Any of these worthy foundations could design a practical program to provide jobs for at-risk kids. They would also put the money to good use in proven programs that truly do turn around at-risk kids.
What about that, Disney?
By Irene Sullivan
Published Date: 10/06/2011
Ten Tips for Tackling Truancy in your Town
It’s A Community Problem that the Business Community Can Solve:
It's a fresh start. A chance to start over. An opportunity to be successful, to put the past behind, to forge a new reputation and to have perfect attendance. It's the new school year, which begins in August and September, offering students new teachers, new friends, new challenges and rewards.
Sadly, for many middle and high school students, it's another year of half-hearted attempts to get to school, cherry-picking classes to attend, discouragement, suspensions, falling behind, temptations from the outside world, little parental encouragement to attend school every day and eventually being labeled "a dropout."
As a juvenile judge for 9 years in Pinellas County, I also presided over Truancy Court. At first, I regarded that assignment as almost an insult, not as important as presiding over juvenile delinquency trials or child welfare hearings. I was wrong. I soon learned that chronic truancy-- missing more school than you attend-- is the root problem for so many things that go wrong with kids: using drugs, joining gangs, committing crimes, dropping out of school. Thousands of kids in the Tampa Bay area, particularly those that are not in fundamental, magnet, charter or private schools, skip school more often than they attend.
I quickly learned that bringing the business community to the table is the secret to a successful truancy reduction program. It's not just a matter of an educated workforce, certainly a high business priority. It's keeping kids in school and off the street, reducing juvenile crime, and thus adult crime, reducing illegal drug use and saving tax dollars spent on prisons for dropouts who break the law to earn a living.
Ten things that you can do to reduce chronic truancy:
1. Adopt a middle or high school near to your business. Talk to the principal, find out the extent of the problem and what you and your employees can do to help. Provide mentors to troubled students. Provide incentives and rewards to students who improve their attendance. These can be as simple as small gift certificates, movie passes, or, perhaps for the class that improves attendance the most, tickets to a Rays' baseball game.
2. Work with your local Rotary or Chamber of Commerce clubs to create signs for businesses to display that basically say: "We don't serve children during school hours. Please stay in school." And, live up to that.
3. Volunteer to set up a table at a local shopping mall during school hours for school attendance specialists or social workers to intercept students and talk to them about why they are not attending school. Believe me, there is always a reason, like transportation, lack of proper clothing, no alarm clock, bad bus schedule, violence in the home. Sometimes the problem can be fairly easily fixed.
4. Organize local businesses to work with your State Attorney to create a campaign against truancy. In Jacksonville, under former State Attorney Harry Shorstein, the business community was a huge part of the success of "Jacksonville United Against Truancy" funding poster programs and a media campaign through the Chamber of Commerce.
5. Encourage your employees to be mentors in schools while "on the job" through programs like former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker created, and that Mayor Bill Foster supports, or by becoming a "Big" under the Big Brothers Big Sisters programs that focus on school attendance. Each school will have its own list of "at risk" kids who can benefit from these mentors who not only can encourage school attendance and goal setting, but can introduce students to their own work, careers and employers.
6. Understand the mindset of a chronic truant. Sometimes they have so many hurdles to face: flunking classes, poor nutrition, untreated mental health problems, homelessness. They just don't put the required importance on school attendance or a high school diploma. They just don't get the adage that most of us understand: "Ninety-five percent of success in life is just in showing up." So we have to understand them and help to resolve those problems keeping them from school. Mentors have to be extra persistent, says Donna Sicilian, supervisor of school social work in Pinellas County. "Don't expect them to be at school every time you visit. That's the problem we're trying to fix."
7. Feature "turnaround teens" with some good publicity. These kids have amazing stories and need the business community to secure media attention, donate billboards, and for the teenage set, twitter/tweet/YouTube messages about the importance of school attendance. "Turnaround Teens" can be great ambassadors and just need a little financial support from business to get the message out.
8. Create a competition between schools or between kids. Businesses could organize themselves geographically around certain middle and high schools and then enter into a year-long competition to improve school attendance, with a big party at the end of the year to celebrate the winners. Nothing sparks a student's interest more than competition and an award, I found, even for chronic truants. Ride and Roll, a Largo bike shop, donates a bike to a child who has perfect attendance.
9. Focus on foster kids. Those children whose parents' rights have been terminated due to child abuse, abandonment or neglect, or those living even temporarily in foster homes or with relatives, are often absent from school as they are bouncing from home to home, changing schools, becoming depressed and defeated with the challenges they face. Ready for Life in Pinellas County and Connected by 25 in Hillsborough County address these issues and would welcome your support.
10. Commit to fixing a "community problem." When they did that in Brooklyn, N.Y. a few years ago, by looking for kids on the street during school hours, they found hundreds of "missing and exploited kids" who were kept from the parents, guardians and the schools. It's amazing what an increased focus on truancy can accomplish. So at the very least, if you spot a school-aged kid on the street during school hours, call the police. It may well lead to a good intervention or even the rescue of a missing or exploited child.
Why is this so particularly important to business in Florida? First, juvenile crime goes down when kids are kept busy and engaged in school. Then, employers have a much more educated work force to choose from, with particular skills and a commitment to show up for the job.
In Truancy Court, the case managers from Family Resources, Inc., the school social workers and attendance specialists used to talk a lot to the kids and parents about the importance of a good attendance record to an employer looking to hire a youth. You might get Cs instead of As and Bs, but if you have good attendance, an employer can count on a reliable worker.
Our motto in Truancy Court was "Attendance, Attachment, Achievement." We tried hard to find a sport, an activity, a favorite teacher or a new friend for the youth to "attach" to in order to become more engaged in school. When we were able to boost attendance, and find an attachment, the "achievement" part came easily. Many of the truants wrote letters to us saying how much easier school was than they thought, once they started attending every day, and every class. "I just told myself I had to go each day," one youth said. "I had no choice. Just like my Dad and his job. Then it became a lot easier because I didn't think about it." This young man also played his saxophone during Truancy Court. He'd found a music teacher who got him to become engaged in school. One person, sometimes that's all it takes.
It's difficult to over-emphasize the importance of truancy reduction and focusing attention on chronic truants. A report prepared by a group of more than 60 retired generals, admirals and civilian military leaders, titled "Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve," calls attention to the fact that, according to the Pentagon, 75 percent of young people aged 17 to 24 are unable to enlist in the military. Some 30 percent are high-school dropouts, 30 percent can't pass the written tests, 10 percent are physically unfit and five percent have felony records. I would bet that well over half of those young people were chronically truant.
For teenage boys, especially, being truant from school each day, without a job or a positive influence, can be a deadly situation. Nicholas Lindsey, the 16-year-old St. Petersburg youth accused of gunning down St. Petersburg Police Officer David Crawford last February, did not have a significant juvenile record. However, he'd been truant from school for months, and he had a scheduled hearing in Truancy Court but was arrested and charged with the murder before those problems could be addressed.
Here are some of the people you can call to get involved: Donna Sicilian, supervisor of school social workers, Pinellas County schools, 727-588-6355; Ken Gaughan, supervisor of school social workers, Hillsborough County schools, 813-273-7090; Susan Rolston, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters, 727-518-8860 or at www.bbbspc.org; or Jane Harper at Family Resources, 727-521-5200.
Don't wait any longer. Catch a truant, and save a life!
Irene Sullivan is a recently retired juvenile judge in Pinellas County, author of the book, Raised by the Courts: One Judge's Insight into Juvenile Justice, available at bookstores or at Amazon.com. Her book contains many chapters on truancy and at-risk kids.
In mid-May I traveled from my home in Florida to Evanston Township High School, just north of Chicago, to meet with students, school social workers and law enforcement officials. My intention was to talk to them about my nine years of service as a juvenile judge and the stories of the kids in court I wrote about in my book, Raised by the Courts: One Judge’s Insight into Juvenile Justice.
Boy, was I in for a surprise! . . .
Juvenile Justice Information Exchange Written by Irene Sullivan on May 30, 2011 .
Juvenile Justice: Locking up teens not the only option
When I became a juvenile judge in our Unified Family Court in Tampa Bay's Circuit 6, presiding over juvenile cases involving child abuse, abandonment, neglect and delinquency, I felt overwhelmed by my own inexperience with the families and children I served. I could not believe how complicated these kids were and how chaotic and violent their lives had become.
As published by the SunSentinel March 7, 2011 By Irene Sullivan
What do Bay Area courtrooms, local foster care systems, and state juvenile detention centers all have in common? They provide the world in which a large portion of our troubled youth live - and bounce around. One local author, and former judge, is ringing the alarm and calling for a revolution in reform. You’ll meet her on this episode of Up Close.
Published Date: 03/08/2011
Q&A: Juvenile Judge Irene Sullivan
YouthToday.org is a daily provider of news and resources regarding services for disadvantage youth. John Kelly covers juvenile justice and child welfare for Youth Today.
Maybe Amber and John would have married and had children together. Maybe they would have just stayed friends, hanging out, attending each other’s weddings. They certainly had a lot in common. They loved the outdoors, camping, hiking, exploring the wilderness, and animals. They were both twenty-six years old, community college students in Gainesville, Florida, who worked part-time jobs and had close families and big dreams. Amber Peck wanted to be a veterinarian. She’d just been awarded a grant to study zoo conservation in Australia. John Parker served two tours of duty in Afghanistan as a marine and had returned home eager to be a real dad to his eight-year-old daughter, who adored him.
In 1998, Irene Sullivan took a seat on the Florida Circuit Court’s Unified Family Court in Pinellas County after two decades in corporate law. Her new territory turned out to be just as foreign to her as it sounds.
"She was so amazed and astonished as to what she didn't know," said friend and colleague Jack Levine, founder of Florida advocacy organization 4Generations Institute. "She had had no contact with certain elements in the lives of some of these kids."
Q&A: Juvenile Judge Irene Sullivan, Part Two February 04, 2011 by John Kelly
Irene Sullivan: It was kind of an evolving thing. He was a Pinellas County youth, and it happened right when I was beginning.
[To clarify what follows: Boatman was in foster care previous to his involvement in the justice system, and according to Sullivan, the duration and severity of his confinement was augmented by a number of altercations he had with staff and other inmates].
TALKING ABOUT THE ISSUES: A Conversation Between a Judge and a Child Welfare Agency Director
Is it a tradtional clash between branches of government? Is it a mistrust of each other's expertise and responsibility? Or is it just that the stakes are so high-the safety and quality of life of kids in state care-that causes judges and child welfare agency administrators and case workers to tussle in court? Two experienced professionals, Judge Irene Sullivan of Clearwater, FL and Judge James Payne-former juvenile court judge in Indianapolis who now serves as Indiana's Director of Child Services-take on these issues in a conversation held in June 2010. . . .
As printed in Juvenile and Family Justice Today Winter 2011
. . . I believe that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been a great judge in the juvenile division of our courts system. Like no other, King understood tension in the journey from injustice to justice. . .
By Irene Sullivan, special to the St. Petersburg Times In Print: Monday, January 17, 2011
Published Date: 01/17/2011
Judge interviewed forest killer for book on justice
...It's such empathy, combined with an urgency to adopt into practice needed reforms and a shift in attitude toward juvenile delinquency, that runs like a current through Sullivan's new book: "Raised by the Courts: One Judge's Insight into Juvenile Justice." ...
By Suevon Lee Ocala.com
Published: Sunday, December 26, 2010
Published Date: 12/26/2010
JWB TV January 2011 Segment
Judge Irene Sullivan is interviewed by Benjamin Kirby, Communications Manager for JWB Children's Services
Published Date: 12/22/2010
Two families open their homes to two sets of sisters on Adoption Day
... Kindra, 4, hung from the doorknobs of the courtroom, kicking her feet up. Saira, 5, tapped on the keys of the court reporter's keyboard. Earlier, when Melissa Maynard was coaching her girls to the right floor, Trinidy, 7, had run ahead to the escalators, dancing.
By Drew Harwell, St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer In Print: Saturday, November 13, 2010
Judge Irene Sullivan could write a book, so much has she seen in her Unified Family Court. Now she has. In Raised by the Courts, she recounts the balancing act she performs in trying to help rehabilitate kids who often grew up in horrible circumstances in her geographical area, which stretches roughly from Ulmerton Road in Pinellas County south to the Skyway, excluding the beaches. She has strong ideas about what works and what doesn't for young offenders as well as society. Her book is timely, coming as the NAACP just held a crowded community forum in St. Petersburg to sort through solutions to the dismal graduation rate of black males in Pinellas schools among the worst in the nation by one measure. Staff writer Waveney Ann Moore interviews - the judge, who is retiring in December, and intersperses Sullivan's observations with edited excerpts from the book.
By Waveney Ann Moore, St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer In Print: Sunday, October 10, 2010
“Judge Sullivan’s insightful research and passion for reform is a must read—a critical wake-up call to end this madness.” — Kenneth Wooden, author of Weeping in the Playtime of Others and Founder and President Emeritus of Child Lures Prevention