Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Place Where Shame Lives

It is a place where shame lives, and those summoned to its chambers want to stay no longer than necessary. This morning I accompanied our son Mike to his court hearing in a new county. His previous charges have been within the county in which we reside, but the two charges he appeared about today occurred across the border in a neighboring county two or more months ago.

I picked him up at his apartment early, where I was pleasantly surprised to see him ready fifteen minutes before our agreed upon departure time. We left with few words spoken, and both the trip to and from were rather silent. Both Mike and I are introverts by personality type, so sitting with silence is not that uncomfortable for us, and with what I've learned about Mike over the years, "over-talking" the situation is not helpful for him.

As we approached the courthouse in question, I asked Mike what he wanted my role to be. "Well, I'm not really sure how it works here," he said. "I think it's probably pretty much the same at most courthouses, Mike. You walk in, find court administration, identify yourself and they tell you what to do. Is this something you want me to navigate with you, or do you want to do it yourself?" "I think I can do that myself." So I let him. I, of course, accompanied him to court, but I let him take the lead.

I shouldn't have been surprised, but as we arrived at court administration seats on both sides of the corridor were filled with those waiting court appearances, which wasn't the surprise. The surprise was that I was the third of three other father-son combo's waiting to face the same or similar charges. In Mike's case the charges were underage consumption and possession of drug paraphernalia (which he contends were not his items, but they were in the car with the people he was with, and since he was the only legal adult "they decided to put it all on me").

Mike completed his paperwork at the desk, and we awaited the summons of the bailiff. At precisely 8:30 we were directed to enter the chambers (all who had 8:30 court appearances, which included about 25 people) and await the arrival of His Honor.

As we sat waiting I glanced surreptitiously at the faces of those awaiting "their day in court." Both genders, every age spectrum and more than one ethnic background were apparent behind faces etched with anxiety. There are few smiles and no lightheartedness in a moment like this. Mike sat resolute, his hands blanched white with worry, his face betraying little emotion, his eye occasionally "tic-ing" as is his ordinary, unaware response when faced with intractable situations.

While waiting I asked him several questions about another matter pending in court (his arraignment on adult felony charges), to which he gave complete and correct answers that helped me know he understands what he needs to do. Eventually he tired of my interrogation and said, "Why are you asking me all these questions?" "Just to make sure you understand how serious those charges are, Mike, and if you fail to complete what you need to complete before the arraignment it's going to be bad for you." He just nodded, and I could tell I had said enough for the time being.

Several other defendants appeared before Mike's name and date of birth were called. One was a bad check charge, which the middle-aged man had previously cared for, so he was free to leave. A second was a young woman charged with misdemeanor DWI and assorted other charges. The judge respectfully reminded her of her rights and reminded her that if she continues to accumulate DWI charges it will eventually become a felony matter in the state of Minnesota. She evidenced little appropriate courtroom behavior as she challenged the judge at several points and asked sarcastically how she was supposed to keep a job (presumably to pay the fines) when what he had ordered (a CD assessment, twelve months' probation and the like) would mean she would have to forfeit her work scheduled. In his well-controlled respectful manner he simply informed her that he was sure "they will work with you as best they can."

Glancing at the others awaiting their individual summons, I became aware of the palpable sense of embarrassment -- and perhaps, for some, shame -- that pervades a courtroom filled with individuals who have crossed the line legally. Some, like the twenty-year-old accompanied by his father, cited for underage consumption, confessed to "guilty" with a trembling voice and a reddened face as he heard the fine of $180 levied. Others, faces hardened with the challenges of life, betray little emotion: it is one more day in court to be reminded of a dumb decision and assessed a fee that may make life a little harder on the whole family. But what they all have in common, regardless of how it is expressed, is a sense of shame.

After four others' appearances, Mike understanding the way things were headed, leaned over and asked, "Dad, can you pay my fine today?" "No, Mike, you will have to do that yourself." "Oh. OK." "So what should I tell [the judge] when he asks if I can pay it today?" "You'll have to say 'no' and ask for some time to do it." "OK."

Then it was Mike's turn. As he ambled his way to the podium before the judge, I realized that in the many times I have heard Mike's name called out in court previously, this is the first time I have heard it since he was an adult. And not the last time. No more is the courtroom drawl, "In the matter of the welfare of Michael Ward Fletcher, minor child of Bart and Claudia Fletcher." It is simply, "The State of Minnesota versus Michael Ward Fletcher."

The judge presented the charges against him, explained his legal rights and asked Mike if he understood. "Yes, sir." How do you plead? "Guilty." "The fine will be $280. Can you pay it today?" "No, sir." "How much time will you need?" "Uhh. Thirty days?" "OK. It needs to be paid in 30 days or we will put you in jail. Do you understand that?" "Yes, sir."

And with that Mike's morning in court was complete. But it really wasn't complete, because he now has an additional $280 to come up with before September 10. He has no job and doesn't seem interested or able to find one. He does not want Claudia's or my help with finding a job. He doesn't want to talk about the issue at this time.

So we wait for Mike to take up the reigns of responsibility for himself because we have done all we can do, knowing that we will have many more opportunities to visit a place where shame lives. My hope is that in those anticipated future interactions I can remain for Mike an advisor and a guide so that one day he, too, may discover freedom from the shackles to which his disability presently consigns him.

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