You might wonder why anyone would travel to Phoenix in June. As the temperature rose today to nearly 110 degrees, I too, have wondered, but the real reason we’re even here in Arizona is so that I can participate in a conference sponsored by the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention. Five weeks ago I received an email describing the conference, “Mental Health Service Delivery For Youth in Detention/Corrections.” This email arrived around the same time Claudia and I had been in court with our seventeen-year-old son, so the relevancy immediately caught my attention. As I read further I discovered that there were a limited number of scholarships, including travel and lodging expense, to attend, so I applied and was accepted.
I have participated in many conferences over the years, most of which relate to my pastoral vocation, but some of which have related to youth advocacy. It has been some time since I have related with a large number of people outside of my vocational discipline, so I have been looking forward to this opportunity. Today was the first day of the conference.
There are ninety participants from across the United States, most from the west coast, but a number of us from other parts of the country as well. As best I can tell I am the lone Minnesotan here. I am surrounded by probation officers, juvenile detention directors and officers, a California Superior Court Judge, and therapists for incarcerated juveniles. It is an interesting crowd, and what I find most interesting is the shared sense of advocacy on behalf of troubled youth. Although we are from disparate backgrounds (my background being perhaps the most unusual in the group), there is a sense of camaraderie and commitment to find ways to provide mental health care for youth in custody.
I have an agenda in being here. If this were January my agenda might be quite selfish, as I would be soaking up the sun and enjoying the warmth of a desert climate in the midst of a cold Minnesota winter. But this is June in the desert after all, and my agenda, while personal, is not that selfish. My agenda is to be a voice for kids in the system who do not receive the mental health resources they need. More specifically, my agenda arises from the disappointing experience we have had in regard to our seventeen-year-old son who spent the better part of two years in social services custody with little helpful mental health intervention. Now that he has started his “corrections” career (as the professionals have put it), perhaps he will get what he needs, but I am yet dubious. Every day I grieve for my lost son, every day I wonder in my heart if we did the right thing in involving him in the social services system in an attempt to find some answers for him. And every day I am angry that he has less chance of success today than he did three or four years ago before his system involvement. I am angry with the system for the lack of care he has received, for the ways we have been disrespected and mistreated in the process. And I will not be silenced.
Like most conferences, this conference is divided into table groupings. Part of the daily task is to discuss issues with others at one’s table and then report back to the large group. Today we did introductions, and I can state with some confidence that of the ninety participants, I am the only parent in the room who has a son in custody. My table group found my story compelling and urged me to share it with the whole group, which I agreed to if selected. (Because of the size of the conference, the conference leaders select four or five tables per issue to report back to the large group). I said, “Sure, I’ll be happy to share our story if our table is picked.” In the first round of table picks, our table, number nine, was the first table picked to report to the large group. While I cannot speak for the faith orientation of others at my table, I sat back and marveled at what I understand to be God’s providence. Not only did my table group find our family’s story compelling, but I was the first one selected to speak.
And so I introduced myself. “I’m Bart Fletcher, from Minnesota, and I’m kind of a fish out of water here. I’m an ordained minister, my wife and I have adopted ten special needs kids, and our seventeen-year-old son is in custody.” There was a silence in the room, which I expected, and which I used to my advantage.
“Our frustration has been the inadequate ways our son’s situation has been handled. He has received little in the way of mental health intervention, and the sole therapeutic intervention he has had while in custody resulted in his manipulation of the therapist to report back to the court that we are neglectful and abusive parents. We are frustrated that in our efforts to advocate on his behalf and his foundational disability of FASD, we have been told that we are making excuses for his behavior. We are frustrated that the social services system after two years is relievedly washing their hands of him and is telling us that they’ve done all they can do now that he has started the corrections path. So, my story is that I am here to find ways to advocate for other kids like our son, in hopes that it will not be too late for them.”
As I glanced through the obligatory three-ring binder provided us, I was disheartened to see that amongst over fifty other mental health disorders enumerated and described, FASD was not mentioned one time. (I also pointed this out during my introductory speech to the whole group, which caused one of the conference leaderes to immediately connect with me on a break to express her affirmation of what Claudia and I are doing, as well as to suggest that they will do better work on presenting FASD issues in the future). In fact, to my knowledge, there is not a reference to pre-natal drug exposure at all as a complicating factor for many youth in custody. For me it points out the huge gap between the reality of the mental health needs represented by youth in custody and those who are providing training to those on the frontlines. I mean, if the United States Department of Justice, in their official training of juvenile corrections leaders, doesn’t acknowledge FASD or pre-natal drug exposure as contributing to delinquency, I think we have some significant issues before us.
I am not suggesting that the designers of the curriculum were ill-intended nor purposely excluding the FASD/pre-natal drug exposure issue. I am simply suggesting that even the trainers may be sadly disconnected from the realities many of these youth face, and I will not be complicit in that silence.
To their credit the presenters are clear that the system needs to respond in better ways to the mental health needs of youth in custody. But I am hopeful that the perspective of a parent with a child so challenged may be able to stir the currents of change.