Monday, September 29, 2008

Revisiting the Question, "Who Is a Victim?


When I arrived at my church office Sunday morning in preparation for a full morning of pastoral responsibility, I happened to check my "in" box. Amongst the typical junk mail drivel was an official looking envelope with a return address of Department of Corrections, State of Minnesota. I knew immediately it was a piece of mail about our son, Mike, who is currently serving a sentence that will be up sometime in October. The piece of mail arrived at my church office because it involved the third degree felony burglary charges Mike acquired in the act of breaking into our church earlier this year.

Enclosed in the envelope were two documents. The first was a factual piece that reports Mike has pled guilty to the charges against him (evidently the five felony counts were dropped to one in exchange for his plea of guilty) and will be arraigned in mid-October. Anyone representing the aggrieved party (the church) was welcome to attend the sentencing. In addition, questions were asked about restitution. How much damage was done, what was not covered by insurance, what kind of restitution did the party suffering loss wish to pursue. Those kind of questions.

The second document is the one that made me pause. It is the Victim Impact Statement. Intended to be completed when a human person has been affected, the document was addressed to the name of our church and then "Educational Wing," with the address. The building in question is not going to be able to respond as a victim in this situation, so I pondered what I should do. I am not simply the pastor of the church in question, but the victimizer is my son. Who, then, is most appropriately the victim?

Is it I ... because the act was certainly motivated out of a personal vendetta against me as the perpetrator's father. Is it the trustees of the church, who are charged with the responsibility of caring for the physical property? Is the members of the congregation whose sense of security has been challenged?

Or, I wonder, is it Mike?

Hear me carefully. What Mike did is wrong. It is a felony kind of wrong. He needs to have legal consequences for his actions and his disregard of a place of worship. I am not saying that Mike is the "victim" of the court system or anything like that. I am not excusing his actions.

But I have to wonder what kind of person Mike would be at the age of nineteen if his birth mother had chosen not to drink during his pregnancy with him. Would he be successfully beginning his second year of college this fall? Would he have embarked upon a journey as an artist or another creative type in accordance with the innate abilities he demonstrates? Would he and I be talking about financial aid and class schedules and social life instead of solitary confinement, attempting to find work and looking for a place to live?

I know that his genetic type can succeed, because his brother is 21-years-old and a college graduation, giving back to the world by teaching a third grade classroom this fall. But Mike is sitting in a jail cell, awaiting yet another sentencing hearing. At some point Mike has to figure out that given his organic brain challenges he needs someone to guide him in life. But the tragedy is that not only does Mike have FASD, not only is he quite intelligent, but he has significant attachment issues that have never allowed him to trust anyone.

Ironically, as Claudia and I were walking today at lunch time I was beginning to talk with her about the Victim Impact Statement when my cell phone rang. I picked it up and saw the incoming number as "blocked." I debated whether to answer and Claudia said I should. Clicking the button to connect me with my caller I heard Mike's voice. "Dad? It's me, Mike."

He went to ask whether we had had any contact with the most recent treatment center he had been in, but I reminded him that since he is a legal adult they can have no contact with us at all. We couldn't even initiate contact on his behalf because we are not legally allowed that access. He was concerned because he believes the treatment center has both his birth certificate and social security card, he needs them to apply for a job, and he doesn't know how to get them back.

Now, really, what is someone who is that scattered as a young adult doing in a jail cell month after month? No one, not even he, contests that he broke the law, and that numerous times. But what good have jail sentences served him? I have never been convinced of the rehabilitative value of jail or prison, and Mike's experience has only confirmed my opinion.

I'm not sure what the answer is since none of the interventions we have tried over the years have managed to effect much change in Mike's life. But surely in a society like ours that still allows pregnant women to drink as they wish there should be some resources available for the ones who are victimized by her morally outrageous behavior.

Pregnant women who drink should be sitting in jail, at least until they have given birth to a relatively healthy child. But, as in many cases in life, the one who is held responsible is the one who has been impaired by a choice he was not able to make years ago in utero. And so we punish the one whose brain has been organically damaged.

I'm not sure anymore who is the victim.

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