Category Archives: JUVIE


At the end of juvenile detention hearings, the judges typically ask parents if they have anything they wish to say on the record, or anything they would like to see happen.  Sometimes they will say they think the youth has learned his lesson, and they want him home.   Or that they do not trust the youth and want him away from younger siblings.  Mostly they say they don’t know what to say, and they don’t know what to do.  They are at their wit’s end.

The most common complaint is that their kid will not listen.  He won’t mind.  He refuses to attend school.  He won’t do any chores.  He doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks. He is just angry, violent, using drugs, or what have you.  Sometimes a single mother will ask the judge to please make the child mind, or be the father figure he never had.   This is sad and touching, no matter how many times we hear it.   But it touched me in a different way when a mother was invited to say something on the record, and she responded, “He has gifts”.  She then went on to explain the following.

“My son has gifts.  But he can’t see it himself.  I am his mother, and I know him better than anyone.  I know him better than his friends who think he is disposable.  For me, he is irreplaceable.  He is so talented!  You have no idea.  He is so smart.  When he draws, he just acts like it’s nothing, even when I tell him it looks great.  He could do something with it.  He is creative and artistic.  He has talent.  He has brains!  He does well in school whenever he tries.  The teachers like him.  He has so much potential!  I just see so much in him.

“I went to the local college and asked for their application for admissions form and I put it on our fridge with a magnet.  What is that, he asked me when he saw it.  That is for you, son, I told him.  It is your college application.  I want you to go to college.  Whoa, he said, mami, do you think I really could?  Of course, son, I told him, because you have gifts.  You are very smart and very special.

“But I see doubt in his eyes, no matter what I say.  Because his father left him, and he just doesn’t believe me.  He cannot see the good in himself.  He only sees the boy whose father didn’t want him.  Who wasn’t good enough to deserve to have a father around.  He is wrong, and I tell him so, but that is how he feels.

“He loves me.  He hugs me.  He tells me not to worry.  But I know I am not enough.  I lie awake at night thinking, what can I say?  What can I do?  I would give me life for that boy.  Meanwhile, his little gang friends come by and he is off taking people’s cars and driving them around even though he is too young to even have a license.  That is why he is locked up now.  He is making bad decisions, being led by others, not seeing anything to look forward to.  So your honor, can you show him, can you tell him, can you get him to see, that he has gifts?  He can’t see it.   And it is really, really important for him to see, that he has gifts.”



In immigrant families, there is a language-based social issue that I call The Flip.  In it, the parents and especially the mothers in traditional homes lose their authority, and the authority flips over to the bilingual child.

Take a typical immigrant family.  In many cases, Dad arrives years ahead of time and works and gets somewhat integrated, learning at least the English needed to converse with bosses and coworkers.  Then mom and children arrive.  Children get enrolled in school  while Mom stays home.  Everybody is out learning English, except Mom.

A few years later, daughter or son is taking mom to the bank, the doctor, the school, government offices, the grocery store, and acting as interpreter.  The child is making phone calls and talking to the manager about late rent.   Then the school sends a note home: your child struck another child at school.  Please come in for a meeting.  Sign here.  The child translates the letter: Yeah, Mom, it says I am getting good grades.  Sign here.  You don’t have to come to school.

Over time, the power and control that comes from knowledge of the culture, and ability to speak and communicate in English, shifts.  The family matriarch is slowly undermined until she is mostly irrelevant.  She is  viewed as ignorant, old-fashioned, out of place. She simply cannot understand what is going on at school or the streets or anywhere else.  She is no longer a person you would go to for advice or help.  Just the opposite – she relies on you, the child.  The family has flipped, and now the child is on its own.

Put yourself in the place of that child. When someone with authority on the street is willing to take you under their wing, there is a certain temptation.  And a certain sense of comfort.  Here is a new family that seems to have power and authority in your new community.  They have money and they have respect, and they can tell you what the rules are.  If you follow them, you will be okay.  Until the police get involved.  Then when you try to tell your mother what happened, she cannot understand.  She just sits there crying helplessly.  And you are alone once again.


Before I ever interpreted at juvenile criminal cases, I have to admit, to my shame, that I unconsciously shared the common belief – kids who get into trouble probably have bad parenting.  This belief is a way to protect ourselves and to avoid identifying with these families, because then we don’t have to be scared.  If it could happen to any family, it could happen to us.  So let’s blame the families!

I have been humbled by the vast majority of juvenile cases.  The parents I meet have done everything they can.  They uprooted their whole families in the first place in order to give their children a fighting chance. They work hard at unpleasant underpaid jobs.  They try to supervise when they are home.  They love their kids.  They discipline them, scold them, instruct them, and set up rules and chores.  They try to have consequences.  But at some point along the way, the kid quits listening.

At most juvenile hearings, after simultaneously interpreting the whole hearing to the mother or father, there comes a point where the judge asks usually mom what she would like to testify.  It is almost always something like this: My child won’t listen to me.  I try to explain, scold, discipline!  I try to show them how to live through my example of hard work and honesty. There is nothing else I can say or do.  I don’t know what else to do.  I need you to help me with my child.

At one hearing, the mother had tears pouring down her face, and the defense attorney turned to the teen who had been caught breaking into a couple houses.

“Take a good look at your mother.  She loves you, and look what you are putting her through.  Don’t ever forget her face at this moment.”

We rarely get to follow up on our own cases, as they are randomly assigned, so I don’t know if that young man remembers his mother’s face at that moment.  But I do.