“I didn’t expect it to be like this.” The lady detective said as we walked through the juvenile detention center’s long hallways.
“Is it better or worse than you expected?” I asked. This brick and mortar building with its shining tiled floors and freshly painted walls, was built recently, replacing the outdated and much smaller overcrowded colorless detention center. But to me it still looked like a jail, the entrance, double locked doors, each wing having steel locked doors, each small cell with its steel toilet and steel sink, its concrete bench with a cushion covered in hard plastic, having a steel locked door.
“It looks better,” She replied. “I expected rows of cells. Do they stay locked in their rooms all day?”
There are rows of cells, but there is also an open class room on each wing with steel locked doors to a courtyard for exercise. There are windows looking out to the paved courtyard and a row of windows, high over the row of cells letting light into the classroom.
“No, there’s free time,” I tell her. “They are out for school and time on the basketball court everyday unless their privileges are cut for misbehavior.” I realized that I had been coming back here for so many years now that I couldn’t really tell what an outsider might think. I saw how they herded the kids from place to place, lining them up in neat rows, placing them in handcuffs and leg chains. I never understood the meaning of all the locked doors and the handcuffs. Where did they think these kids would take off to? How many locked doors did it take to stop a kid? Some of the staff members were really good with the kids, taking an interest, wanting to think they had a role in changing the kids’ lives. Some were mere sheep herders.
The police investigator was there to check out the charges my client, a kid named Ann, had brought against group home staff. Ann was just fourteen and had been bugging me every day about when she would get to see the investigator. She wanted to press charges.
The three of us now took a seat around a small table in an interview room. “Did you see the pictures of me they took when I came in here?” Ann demanded before she even got seated. “There were cuts and scratches all over here,” she motioned to her arm with a sweep of her hand, “and on my legs.” The investigator for the police Department asked Ann if they did anything for the cuts when she got to detention.
“They didn’t do anything.”
“They didn’t put anything on it?” the investigator pressed.
“Well, they let me see a nurse. She gave me some cream for it. That’s something, I guess.” Ann’s expressions changed easily from bright and cheerful to distraught. She could be as impetuous as a three-year old having a temper tantrum one minute and a delightful, curly-haired, blue-eyed, thoughtful fourteen-year-old the next.
It had been a couple of weeks since Ann had been brought into detention from the group home and the cuts and scratches were nearly gone now. She was brought in to detention for kicking a hole in the group home wall. She told me she did it because they had dragged her through the desert and she was mad.
“What were you doing at the group home just before the thing in the desert.” The investigator kept an even tone.
“We were having group and they kicked me out of group so I went to the desert.” Ann looked at the investigator indignantly.
“Why’d they kick you out?”
“No reason,” Ann looked down. “I didn’t do anything, they just kicked me out.”
“Did they tell you why they were kicking you out?” They investigator said raising her eyebrows.
“They said I was being disrespectful to staff.” Ann admitted.
“What happened then?” the investigator resumed.
“I just went to the desert. It’s behind the group home. There’s a water tank there and at the other end is a wall to someone’s property. I just walked around. They came after me and I ran away to keep away from them. They gave me three minutes to come in by myself or they would drag me in. So I stopped. They came over. I just sat there. I told them I needed a minute and calm down.”
“Who came to get you in the desert?”
“It was Liz, the therapist and Gregory and Jeff. They’re staff.”
“What happened then?”
“They just grabbed me and dragged me through the desert. I told them I would walk but they wouldn’t let me. I couldn’t stand up because they were dragging me. They were laughing and talking about it too. They said ‘let’s drag her through that brush over there.’ It hurt. You saw the pictures, right?”
I don’t know why Ann ended up in that group home or where her parents were. She was new to my case load. I had no history on her yet. Maybe her parents were addicts or had mental illness or were locked up themselves.
I liked Ann. There was a spark in her, not the dead-pan-look that eventually settled in on most of the kids from the group homes, the kids who had given up on authority, had given up on themselves.
On the way out of detention the investigator asked me if Ann would be getting out of detention soon.
“Next week I think. They’ve found a place in Phoenix that will take her.”
I hoped that Ann would not be back in detention, but I expect she will. It will be that spark that gets her in trouble. She’ll have one of those temper tantrums and kick a hole in the wall or punch one of the staff and she’ll be back here.
(The names and details have been changed but this essence of the story is true)