Category Archives: SOCIAL JUSTICE

IMPOVERISHED ENVIRONMENT

So I put into my client’s pre-sentencing report all about his childhood, the dirt floor, the hunger, the instability, the beatings, the absolute poverty, the one year of schooling, the lack, the paucity, of pretty much everything that would have helped him develop as a social human being. Think about the photos you see to raise money – dirty kids with big bellies from parasites, staring at the camera like what will you do? What will you do? That’s him.

I see a lot of people, in a lot of situations. And a lot of it is sad. But when you sit across from a kid just out of his teens in an orange jumpsuit who just looks right at you and says, “I’m not very smart. I got hit in the head a lot. My parents were very frustrated with me. The teacher told them they might as well pull me out of school because I couldn’t absorb anything,” then even as a hardened lawyer, it kind of hits you in the gut, and you feel bad for the kid. He didn’t have much of a chance.

You know because he had a co-defendant and there were so many police witnesses, along with civilians, that he spent over a year in the county jail awaiting his trial. And I looked at several expert witnesses, but I couldn’t find one to support that his confession was coerced. So his confession was played to the jury.

My report outlined how lacking his whole life had been, both before and after coming to this country. I had an IQ test and he measured in the 60’s even in his native language. He is functionally very low. And he doesn’t sound bright. He sounds a little scary to people who don’t understand about brain injuries and lack of affect. When someone is telling you something horrible, and then just kind of smiling while they talk, that can be shocking, if you don’t understand where that comes from. You have to have a lot of experience with deep pain to understand that people sometimes have to leave their bodies to stay alive. And they cannot always integrate as adults.

I really wanted to speak for him, and be his voice, his only voice, at sentencing, but he insisted on talking, against my advice. And even though everything he said in his own words was already in my pre-sentencing report and in my sentencing argument, something about the way that he spoke upset the judge. I really think it was his low literacy and his lack of affect. His feelings do not show on his face; he just always shows a bland and pleasant smile. A lot of kids with low IQ smile a lot. This judge stated that she found the defendant’s words and his attitude disturbing, and she added 20 months to the standard sentence.

I argued with the judge, and asked her to reconsider. I pointed out that the psychologist who came to see him shortly before sentencing had noticed that he was actually doing much better in the county jail than he had done outside. That was my strongest argument.

Your Honor, I told her. The fact that the county jail would qualify as an enriched learning environment for this defendant should give you a sense of how truly impoverished this young man’s life has been. The county jail – Your Honor – the county jail is the most positive environment this young man has ever known. Can Your Honor please stop for a moment to reconsider, and take into account what a truly, deeply, and tragically impoverished environment this young man has come from?

My decision has been made, she answered. And that was that. And the poor kid just stood beside me, smiling through his pain, as the guards handcuffed him and took him away for twenty years in prison.

AT THE TABLE

I recently had the honor of working on a bench card for judges in my home state. It was an involved project with extensive research, editing, and vetting. I was further honored with an invitation to share in presenting the project to our state Supreme Court commission on interpreter issues, and it was well received. For me personally, it was a very emotional moment. Because when I looked out of the high-rise window of our meeting place that happened to be in my old neighborhood, I was looking down at a trailer park where my some of my childhood friends grew up.

Our family did not live in the trailer park,. My father was able to build us our own home, although it took him two years to do most of the work with his own hands. We didn’t have medical or dental insurance or a family car, but we had a home. My father was an immigrant with a sixth grade education, and limited English skills. His pickup truck with the name of his cabinet shop was our only ride, and we kids happily rode around in the bed of the truck, never really thinking about how easy it would be to fly out of there and lose our lives on the pavement. The future was nebulous at best. No one talked to us about “what we wanted to be” when we grew up. They wouldn’t have known what to say. I am the first person in my family to finish college.

Yet here I was, addressing judges, within view of the trailer park. From that high window, my heart swung like a pendulum between the two very separate worlds I serve as interpreter. On the one hand, I am serving society’s most privileged and respected professionals, our doctors and lawyers. Our judges and surgeons. These are the people who continue to study and train throughout their 20’s and into their 30’s while their working class peers, people like my parents, have already spent half their lives in the workforce. On the other hand, in these same communications, I am serving the needs of the most disadvantaged immigrants. Arriving on our shores from a war zone or area of unrest, lacking language skills, impoverished, under-educated and usually clueless about how the system they have ended up in works. Few of my clients have even made it through the sixth grade education that served my father so well. My heart goes out to them in their struggles, while I admire the successes of the professionals whom I also serve. I have an ear in each of their worlds. And it is my privilege and my honor to have a voice in both.

PLENTY OF ROOM

I just don’t get this eviction notice thing.  We’ve paid the full rent all along, for five years now, and we’re up on all the utilities.

Yeah, we have seven people in our apartment, but the place is huge! There’s plenty of room.  And I fixed things up myself – I never ask the landlord to help. I figured we’d be here for years, so let’s make it nice.  See how clean we keep it? Now look at this photo! That hole with all the black mold In the ceiling? Yeah, that’s our bathroom. It happened before, some kind of leak from the roof. I just patched, sealed and painted it myself, but now two years later it’s come back.  Because they never fixed the roof.

So what happened is this. I wanted to help out my friend, who has two kids, when her husband got deported, so we got this place together. And it worked out fine. She has the big bedroom, and she and her kids sleep in there. The walk-in closet is gigantic – really more like another bedroom. So I set myself up in the walk-in closet. Everything was fine. She worked. I worked. We paid the rent and everything was fine.  Then her sister got sick.

Her sister has two kids too, and her husband is gone, too. So her sister got sick and she couldn’t work and then she got evicted. Well, were we going to let her and the two kids sleep on the street? No. So they moved in, but it was still okay. The two sisters sleep in the big bed. The little ones sleep on mattresses on the bedroom floor.  There’s plenty of room, and they keep it nice. The sister now, the sick one, she spends about half her time in the hospital, and half her time at the apartment, and she takes about twenty pills a day. I don’t know what she has, but it’s in her blood and it’s really bad.  Some kind of cancer, they say.

And now the landlord is saying we can’t have more than two people and that it’s in something we signed five years ago. But when we moved in, we already had four people, the two of us and the two kids. So I don’t see how we could have agreed that there was only gonna be two adults. What did they think we were gonna do, leave the kids on the street? You can’t leave kids on the street!

So now the landlord wants to evicts us because they say there are too many people. But my friend has to take care of her kids, and help her sister, and her nieces. She has to keep a roof over their heads.  Her husband can’t help her, because they deported him. And then there’s me. I’m just a single guy from their village who wants to help them out. Some of my friends tell me I should just forget them and find my own partner, someone of my own, and just have my own kids and quit helping them, and someday I hope I can, but these kids are already here.  And you can’t leave kids on the street.

I hope the judge will listen to me, and I hope the judge will understand.  And I hope I am allowed to ask the judge questions, because I really want to know something.  If you don’t have room for kids, then what use is the room? If you don’t have room for people who are sick and dying, then what use is the room? If you don’t have room for people who are trying to help people out because their kids are citizens and their husbands got deported, then what use is the room?

I’m not trying to be rude.  I mean really, with all due respect, it’s a real question.  And I hope someone can answer.  Because it seems to me that there’s plenty of room, and I don’t see what the problem is.

NOT LIKE YOU

You are getting mad at me because I keep going back and forth.  I keep changing my mind.  Sorry.  I know you think I am just – I don’t know, just changing my mind over and over for no reason.

But if I go to trial, I could go to jail and then get deported.  And if I plead guilty, I can still get deported.  And if I get deported, I’ll get killed.  You see?

You talk about how we already talked for 40 minutes and how we talked for half an hour before.  Okay.  We did.  But you’re telling me a lot – a whole lot – and I don’t know anything about this system.  I don’t get it.  Maybe I’m just stupid.

You want me to just decide and stick to it.  I get it.  But you need to understand something really important.  I am NOT like you!  I am not like you.  You have your brain intact.  You have schooling.  I was in a gang.  I got beaten.  I got beaten in the head.  I can’t think like you.

I have traumas – I was held and tortured.  I cannot tell you everything they did to me when I tried to leave the gang.   I’m not okay.  Getting hit in a head with a baseball bat is not the worst.  Not the worst.

You, Counsel, you go home and you can think and understand.  See?  You can think and decide things.  I am going to a tiny little tent under the freeway and I am going to think and think and think – but I cannot get anywhere.  I just go around and around.

You keep saying I have to decide.  But how can I decide?  All I know is I want to stay in the country.  I don’t want to go back.  As far as which way to handle the case, you’re the lawyer.  You tell me.

GOOD ENOUGH PARENTS

I could not handle working for child protective services.  I could not be a social worker making decisions on whether to put children back into their homes or deciding whether to remove them in the first place.  Or choosing foster homes.  I admire and respect the people I have met who do this valuable work.  I believe absolutely that all children deserve a safe and happy home.

But I want to talk about parental rights termination from the perspective of a parent who was not abusive herself, but simply unable to protect her children.  Because in spite of all the hard work and good will and good intentions, the overall system, once it hits the courts, can be overwhelmingly burdensome on victims of domestic violence, especially immigrants and the poor.  And I think some of the problem is based on our misguided ideas of what a “good enough” parent should look like.

In a criminal case, in simple terms, you are charged with a specific crime on a specific time at a specific place.  If found guilty, you are sentenced, and the judge signs off on your conditions.  Those conditions are set in stone and you know what they are.  But in termination of parental rights cases, it can be a case of shifting sands.  You are accused of poor parenting, your children are removed, and then the court orders you to complete remedial services, but the services keep changing, the requirements keep changing, and no matter how much you comply, and how many hoops you jump through, you are not done until the state decides you are done.

Let’s take a family with several children in the system.  The mother was abused as a child, left her homeland, moved to the US, and ended up in a domestic violence relationship.  Like many people without any family support, raised with abuse being normalized, it was hard for her to even fathom that she could in any way protect the children from Daddy hitting Mommy, and Daddy hurting them.  But in the US system, it is absolutely each parent’s legal duty to proactively protect the children from abuse, even from the other parent.  Which is good.  Child Protective Services investigates this and can refer these cases to the courts for “failure to protect”.

One parent goes to jail and the other is now caught in the system and under intense scrutiny.  She has been a bad mother in part because she had bad parents and a bad partner.  She was abused twice – both as a young girl and now as a wife – and never got the skills to be the fierce maternal protector and lioness we demand, and that the children deserve.  And of course her financial situation has gotten much worse, as she just lost the “head of household” income.  So what can the state do to make her protective and whole, and “good enough” to parent her children?

Take the children and put them out into foster homes, and keep them there until the court decides the mother is sufficiently improved to deserve the children back.  Take time to investigate, evaluate, test, interview, and assign classes, therapy, drug testing, and more.  Have the mom attend domestic violence prevention programs twice a week.  Order individual therapy, after a psychological evaluation reveals just what kind will best serve.  Keep checking, reading the reports, and deciding on next steps.  This may involve upwards of a dozen paid professionals.

This isn’t a television movie where all the kids are sent to a loving, two-parent middle class foster care household that will later adopt them, where they will have plenty of love, extended family, money for sports and music, and can still have open visitation with their suddenly healthy biological parents, who are wonderfully recovered and even get sober and get good jobs and good parenting skills.  In the actual situation, the kids are split up.  And months go by, a year goes by, in this limbo.

The mother I am thinking of lives way out of town, because it is cheaper there.  But services tend to cluster in urban areas.  It takes her close to two hours on three buses to get to her lawyer’s office.  Because she needs services in her language, she has been ordered to appointments in other far-flung towns and cities around the county.  She spends a couple hours a day on travel, and another couple in appointments with her case worker, her social worker, her group therapist, her support group, her counselor, and others who come and go and write reports about her.  She also meets with a court-appointed special advocate who is assigned to “look out for the best interests of the child” during the court process.  And she goes to her supervised visits, of course.

Now after several delays and continuances, a hearing is coming up and the defense attorney is preparing a declaration with lots of exhibits proving compliance with all prior court orders.  Time has passed, and Mom is really close to completing everything she was asked to do.  She has graduated from her domestic violence prevention course.  She has come to understand her vital role in protecting her own children.  She continues with her weekly therapy.  She has one more appointment with her overall case manager who has been looking over all her other tasks and even inspecting her house once a month for the last six months.  Her house is clean and orderly.  She has tested clean, as always, for drugs.  She has two part-time jobs.  She has visited with the children, supervised, as often as the state has allowed.

All systems are go for reunification.  In the best interests of the children, the defense attorney is going to ask for a gradual return, starting with unsupervised visits, then overnight visits, then reunification.  Mom has got all the skills she is going to.  She is doing her very best.  So it is the right time to reunify.  Not with Dad, of course.  He was physically abusive and there is a ten-year protection order, so he is out of the picture.  But the kids can all live with their mother.

The state can save who knows how many thousands a month on this family, adding up the cost of foster care placement and all the services the state is paying for so that this mother can be a safer, better parent.  Money well-spent, that can now be used to help another family in need, and keep other children safe.  All that is left is the final report from the court-appointed special advocate for the children.  Let’s take a look at that.

The children’s advocate has some new recommendations in his final report.  He asks the judge to order a new neuropsychological evaluation, to see if the mother has some kind of intellectual limitations that would preclude her from ever being an adequate parent.  When he talks with her, she seems slow.  The advocate also asks the judge to order another psychiatric evaluation, because last year’s report was inconclusive.  No specific mental illness diagnosis, beyond post-traumatic stress and depression.  He thinks there may be more to it.  These two new evaluations will really help.  The advocate also demands signed releases so he can talk directly with all of Mom’s counselors, case workers, supervisors, doctors, and others.  He is getting some positive reports about her, and from her, but he wants to find out more.  He is not convinced.

The lawyer tells the mother they will need to argue against these new evaluations and the release of information.  “They are just doing what the state always does, which is bait and switch.  Every time you finish, they find new hoops for you to jump through.”  She adds that the only purpose of the additional evaluations and the releases of information are to “dig up more dirt on you so they can keep your kids.”  The lawyer is really frustrated about how the state seems to set an impossibly high standard – unfairly expecting the parents she represents to be close to perfect, in order to win back their children.  She finds it unrealistic, unfair, and extremely biased.

“The standard should be – are you better than foster care?  Or even – are you as good as foster care?  Because kids are 14 times more likely to be abused in foster care than at home.  That’s just the facts.  So it really makes me angry that the state wants you to somehow become this perfect parent before your kids can get out of foster care.  I am going to start my hearing brief by reminding the judge that you have a fundamental right to parent your own kids!”

The mom is nervous about refusing to do the further services.  She is afraid of the authorities.  She doesn’t want to get into trouble.  She has been steadily compliant throughout this long process, now over a year.   She wants to do anything they ask, she tells her lawyer, so she can have her kids back.  She cannot really process the idea that they are asking her to do more so they can keep the kids from her.  That doesn’t make any sense to her.  It makes her anxious that the lawyer is going to tell the judge she won’t do what the state tells her to.  She feels trapped and helpless.  She wants her kids back.

Now, the state can and should do whatever it can to keep children out of harm’s way.  But given the documented higher risk of physical and sexual abuse in foster care, the state must be extremely careful about removing children from homes like this, where Mom has no record of abuse, but simply poor parenting skills, poor education and poor language skills.  Because the standard for return cannot be that the parent in question must suddenly become a white, educated, middle class, soccer mom complete with a well-employed steady partner and an SUV, a large backyard, and a friendly dog.

Every child deserves a safe and happy home.  But to what degree will removing kids from a not-that-great home – where there is no ongoing abuse – improve their lives?  And given that parenting is a fundamental right under our legal system, we have to make some very difficult decisions about how good “good enough” is in the parenting department.  All families are not going to look alike, act alike, or share the same religion or core values.  Or even the same hygiene.  All families are not going to have the same income and education.  These disparities are reflections of our economic and social inequities, but we will not solve them by demanding that poor parents stop being poor, or that all families must look exactly alike, before they are allowed to raise their own children.

Again, I have the utmost respect for those workers who can handle being in the trenches, visiting homes and having to make that critical decision on whether to remove the children.  And for the judges, who with limited information, must determine whether to reunify the family, or terminate parental rights, or just drag the case on and on in the hopes of future clarity.  I sympathize with the individuals involved.

And yet I still feel compelled to conclude that the state, through its court system, has a huge responsibility in deciding how to carry out its mandate to protect children while respecting a parent’s fundamental rights.  Erring on the side of protecting the children does not necessarily equate with removing the children in every “failure to protect” scenario.  And once removed, the system itself  should be as free from class prejudice, gender prejudice, and race prejudice as humanly possible.

Most importantly, we need to understand that parents do not have to be perfect in order to be a better choice than foster care.  Because this understanding is in the best interests of the children we are trying to protect.

 

 

 

ALFORD PLEA

There once was a case called North Carolina vs. Alford.  People in the legal field are very familiar with this case and its consequences.  A person who wanted to avoid the death penalty pled guilty to murder, but then appealed his own guilty plea.  He claimed he only pled guilty to avoid the gas chamber, and wished to maintain his innocence on the record.  Basically, he was saying he didn’t do it, but he knew he would get convicted.  Long story short, people now have the right to make an Alford Plea – officially pleading guilty, and being sentenced, without admitting to having committed the crime.

When law students and others first hear about this concept, it is a little puzzling.  Why would you plead guilty to something you didn’t do?  There is only one good reason I can think of – because the evidence the government has against you is so strong that you are pretty much guaranteed to lose at trial.  And you want to take advantage of some kind of offer that the government is making you in exchange for your pleading guilty.   In essence, although you did not commit a crime, the weight of the evidence is against you.  So to avoid even more dire consequences, you accept some kind of deal, in which you plead guilty to a crime you did not commit.

The underlying concept is even stranger and more baffling, but there is no remedy for it.  You have the right to a fair and impartial public trial before a jury.  You have other rights, such as the right to counsel and the right to remain silent, to hear and witnesses who testify against you, and to have witnesses brought on your behalf.  But what you don’t have is the right to the correct outcome.  I cannot stress this enough.  You do not have the right to be exonerated and released, even if you did not commit the crime.  You have the right to due process – the procedures must be followed.  But you can, legally, be convicted of a crime you did not commit.

Let’s take an Alford Plea case and see how this plays out.  Say you are walking to work, about a mile and a half, to the same job you have had for some years.  You have your backpack with your lunch and your work clothes, and a baseball cap on to shade your eyes as you walk in the sun.  You are sweating a little.  You want to get to work on time, and your youngest kid kept asking you to pick her up for one more hug goodbye.  You are not a US citizen, but you have it pretty good.  You have a steady job, and you can support your family in a simple way.  You walk with headphones on, and a bit of a smile.  Just a day like any other.

Around the corner, unbeknownst to you, my friend, there is a drama playing out.  In broad daylight, while another man sits in his living room,  his basement window breaks.  Someone is going to force their way into his place!  Such a scary moment for anyone, to be inside our own home and have someone break in and maybe rob and even kill us.  We all want to be safe in our homes.  The homeowner runs downstairs to confront the intruder.  But the man at the window must have heard his steps, because he has stood up and is starting to run away.  He has a backpack and a baseball cap on and he looks – well, the homeowner isn’t sure if he saw his face but maybe he slightly turned around and anyway he had on a dark jacket, a backpack and a baseball cap.

The cops cruise the neighborhood and a couple blocks away who do they see but – you.   You don’t hear the sirens with your music on.  You are bopping along to the beat, thinking about your willful little girl who demanded one more hug.  Haha, she is just like her mother.  A strong character.  A good heart.  You smile again.  You are walking briskly to the beat uphill toward your job.  You have to get to work on time.  The cops seem to come out of nowhere and you are face down on the ground and being cuffed.  You didn’t hear when they told you to freeze and put your hands up.  So they are being rough with you, thinking you were resisting.  What is going on?  What is happening?  Oh my God.

The cops take you in handcuffs to the homeowner’s house.  They tell him, we caught this guy sweating and half-running a couple blocks from here.  Is this him?  Is this the guy?  We think this is the guy.  Right?  It’s the guy.  The homeowner sees you, really sweating now, already in cuffs, with your backpack and your dark jacket that one of the cops is holding.  It’s you.  You are the guy who tried to break into his house in broad daylight.  You are the criminal we all fear and hate.  Thank God the bad guy is caught and we are safe again.  Thank God.  Yes, that’s him, the homeowner says.  That’s him.  It was him.

You are taken to jail and booked for criminal trespass.  That charge is up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.  If you don’t hurry up and plead guilty to that, they may also end up charging you with residential burglary, which is a Class B Felony and carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison and a $20,000 fine.  You are not going to show up for work today, and your boss is going to be worried about you, because you always show up.  You do a good job, and your boss will never believe that you stopped on your way to work to break into a house in the middle of the day.  But what if a local jury does believe it?  Do you want to take that risk?  It is up to you.

You think about it.  You are sitting in jail because you don’t want your family to use their rent money to bail you out, and your boss says if you can get out within a couple weeks he will hold your job for you.    You think about it.  You have a lot of time to think about it.  Because you are in jail, away from everyone, not working, not having dinner with your family, not walking to work a couple minutes late – what if you had left on time?  Would any of this have happened?  But it did, and now you think and think again.  What is the best thing for you and your family?  Trial and a possible acquittal?  Yes, but at the risk of ten years in prison followed by deportation?  Or take a misdemeanor deal and be done with it?  But then you are admitting to something you didn’t do, and you will have a record.  Think and think again.

Your lawyer comes with bad news after interviewing the crime victim.  He was unshaken, completely convinced and ready to testify that it was you, and only you, who tried to get into his house.  The lawyer tried to create some doubt – he reminded him that he never saw your face.  That your dark jacket and baseball cap and backpack are so common.  But the homeowner just cut him off and said he knows what the lawyer is trying to do and he isn’t going to fall for it.  He knows it was you and he will testify under oath that you turned around – he saw your face – he would know you anywhere.  He is happy to testify – he is looking forward to it.  It pisses him off that someone would break his window in broad daylight and he wants you punished.

The lawyer lays out the options once again:  We can argue to the jury that the way they identified you was wrong – they shouldn’t have brought you to the house but should have done a real line-up, but the guy is really convincing.  I think the jury will believe him.  We can bring your boss in to say he doesn’t think you would do that, and that you were due at work. But your boss wasn’t there – the homeowner was.  The prosecutor sat in on the interview with the homeowner, and he says he is even more confident now that they will get you on the felony residential burglary, a deportable offense.  They plan to file it within the week, unless you plea out to the lesser charge.

The lawyer tells you he hates to say it, but you may be found guilty in a fair and impartial trial.  the jury members might believe the police and the homeowner, and really think you did it.  They might be convinced that you did it, beyond a reasonable doubt.  It isn’t really about whether you did it.  It is about whether the jury believes you did it.  They get to decide if the government proved their case.  So you should probably very strongly consider making an Alford Plea.  You will be saying that you didn’t do it, but you believe you will be convicted anyway, so you opt to plead guilty to a lesser charge.  It is up to you, but you need to decide pretty much right now.

This, my friends, is an Alford Plea.  Yes, you have the right to a fair and impartial trial.  But you do not have the right to a fair outcome.  So it is absolutely legal for you to be convicted of something you did not do.  And it is legal for you, in wishing to avoid the dire consequences of that, to plead guilty to something you did not do.

 

TEEN PORN

Here in the US and increasingly in many other countries, we live in a hypersexualized and commercialized society.  People are no longer viewed as full human beings, but as commodities to be bought and sold, or used to sell something else.  We all know this.  Parents are aware that the media portrayal of human bodies is causing severe and relentless body image issues that lead to young people living miserably or even dying, trying to fulfill an impossible standard.  Because the standard lets us know that our bodies are all that matter – that the feelings of the person who lives in that body are just not relevant.  Outside of actual warfare, this is nowhere more apparent than in the new wave of social acceptance for pornography.

Beyond television, Hollywood, the whole advertising world, magazines and mass media, we come to a yet darker underbelly of commercialization and trafficking of human beings for profit and a skewed short-sighted view of pleasure.  Pornography, and more specifically, teen porn.  I am not even getting into what most people agree is child pornography, because that has not become mainstream enough to become widely socially acceptable – yet.

There is an increasingly blurred line between the so-called “adult” industry and the current push toward the edges of whatever is out there, in an attempt to waken the dulled senses of the already sated, numb and bored masturbators.  One of the pushes is to lower the age into teen porn.  I have a lot of concern about the desensitization that porn creates, and the way it changes how consumers feel and think about others who share their planet.  But I am especially concerned about grownups of all ages “getting off” on images of young girls and boys.

If a 15-year-old girl or boy has what looks like “consensual” sex with a person 21 or older, even in a dating relationship, under the law there is no consent.  By statute, it counts as rape.  Why?  Because there is a presumption in the law that a 15-year-old is not mature enough and powerful enough and doesn’t have the authority to make such a decision.  But somehow it has now become okay for that same girl or boy to be performing or participating in sexual acts for mass consumption, with no control over those images, their pay or future use of their work.

Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that all the teen porn workers are really 18 and older and they just pretend to be younger. “They are not real,” as one porn user told me; a statement that cut me like a knife.  The sex workers are adults and I am just a whiner.  What is my problem?  For one, the documented fact that the vast majority of workers who end up in the sex industry have been and continue to be exploited and abused.  I don’t need to give examples or scenarios and I don’t want to.  But I do want to ask a question to any porn consumers:  Why is it okay to look at young people who have survived severe abuse in their families and communities, in order to arouse yourself sexually?  Is it the abuse that excites you, or just any image of any young body, as if there were not a real person living within that body?  These are not cartoons.

I submit that if you are going to pleasure yourself with real images of real people, you should give at least some little bit of a shit about how these very real, very human, likely abuse survivors felt while they were making it – or being made to make it.  And if that really doesn’t matter to you, you have a bigger problem than boredom, numbness, or sex addiction.  You are losing your ability to be fully human.  So you might as well, in my humble opinion, be dead.  Because you are already half-way there.  You have checked out of your life.

Seriously, for those few of you porn users who might still care.  Please consider not only how you are participating in hurting the sex industry workers, but also how this desensitization is hurting your own life.  Can you still see people clearly, or are you starting to train yourself to see young teens as sexually available to you?  Are you appropriate in your thoughts and actions?  Or are you mentally becoming one of those creepy guys that used to hang out in parks in a trenchcoat, before people had the sad convenience of vicariously abusing children in a lower risk environment?

Ultimately, you have  to be able to look at yourself in the mirror if you want to be a fully integrated human being.  Ask yourself, please, before it is too late, is this who you want to be, even if no one else knows it?  I hope not.  Because that is a pathetic waste of your very short life.  So why not decide to try, just for the heck of it, to face yourself in the mirror, and look into your own eyes?  Try to do some self-reflection, and see how that feels.  And if you find that you feel nothing, because you have become that disconnected from your own life, then let me tell you.  You have a problem that jacking off to teen sex workers is not going to solve.  Get some help.

WHY CAN’T THEY JUST SPEAK ENGLISH?

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of this state to secure the rights, constitutional or otherwise, of persons who, because of a non-English-speaking cultural background, are unable to readily understand or communicate in the English language, and who consequently cannot be fully protected in legal proceedings unless qualified interpreters are available to assist them.”

This statement is a direct quote from state law where I live.  A question that comes up at times from people who “don’t get out much” is why refugees don’t go back to their home countries, or learn English.  I would like to explore ways to respond.  I don’t expect anyone reading my blog to be asking them, but you may be called upon to answer them some time.  Answering them with some compassion for the ignorance of the questioner goes a lot further toward opening hearts than a slap or a scolding.  So what are some kinder, more effective responses?

Let us take a typical language service recipient now residing in a country with more stability or economic opportunities.   To find out where these refugees come from, one could draw a geopolitical map of war zones, social unrest, and economic devastation.  Throw in a few natural disasters, and you end up with a solid list of countries of origin for language service recipients in our courtrooms and hospitals.  But who cares about them, right?  They should just go home.  This is our place, and they have theirs.

When people share that sentiment with me, I invite them to try and put themselves for a moment in the refugee’s place, on a small scale:  Your house just burned down and is now a dangerous charred remnant of itself with bared electrical wires and leaking pipes.  These things sometimes happen.  No question that you would do your best to find somewhere else to sleep.  And of course it would add insult to injury if anyone suggested you just “go home”.   So I ask the “let’s deport them” crowd to educate themselves so they truly understand the state of that home (country) before they would condemn refugees to return to it.  One needs a viable home to return to.  That is only human.

The refugees we meet from across the globe for the most part would absolutely LOVE to have a viable home to go back to.  They would love to have their whole family intact, everyone alive and healthy.   They would love to have a safe and peaceful, economically stable place to live.  They prefer, as we all do, to live in a place with clean air, clean drinking water, and no border disputes.  They would love to do simple things we take for granted, like have their kids go to school.  Sleep in their own home without the risk of being bombed or having a child recruited for war.  These are things we all want, on the human level.  For some of us, fate has placed us where we can get all this.

Let’s move on the language.  Okay, they are here, but why can’t they just learn English?  Let’s take two typical workers.  One is a hotel maid.  She has a boss who speaks her native language.  She works alone and is actually not supposed to talk to the other maids.  She is also prohibited from chatting with hotel guests.  She is only allowed to give a quick greeting, such as good morning, or call out “housekeeping” as she enters a room.  Her job is harder than it was a decade ago because the hotels have increased the old 8 rooms per day to 13 or 14 rooms a day, so she runs all day.  She gets home tired and cooks for the family and no, she does not make it to community college for those English classes.

Meet her husband, a prep cook at a local restaurant.  His boss is a native speaker of his home language, and so are the other kitchen staff.  He does not serve or wait on any customers, so he does not practice English as work.  He takes second shifts whenever he can, so he does not make it to English classes either.  And these two workers had only a couple years each in elementary school.  Then it was time to work in the fields or in the home.  So if they somehow manage to sign up for English classes, they are not well equipped to study.  Even when their growing children try to teach them, it can be hard for them to learn more than very rudimentary phrases.  Or to learn to pronounce things well enough.  Let alone become fluent enough to understand doctors and lawyers.

It is hard for people who have not traveled to have a sense of what it is like to move about the world.  The world is so overwhelmingly huge, and we are so infinitesimally small.  If we have only traveled for fun, we may think of language learning as a joy rather than a daunting or impossible task.  Try to imagine that you HAD to relocate, though.  As hard as it is to wrap your mind around it, imagine your country at war and your children going hungry, and having to relocate by hiding in a ship’s hold to China (or another country) where you are going to work in a factory and send money home. Good luck teaching yourself Mandarin or another new language in your spare time.

I know, you don’t believe it can happen to you, or to us.  It is hard to imagine, right?  Many refugees did not expect to be in their situations either.  Yet it happens.  We don’t like to think about it, but our house can burn down.  Our economy can tank.  Our country can be at war on home soil.  If it does happen to me, I can only hope that I will have the opportunity to learn enough of the language to converse with people.  And if I am able to struggle forward into their language, amidst all my grief and loss and worry, I hope the locals don’t tell me hateful things – like wishing me back to a war zone.  I hope at least some of the locals will take the time to get to know me, and welcome me, for as long as I have to stay.  And so I try to do the same, while I am fortunate enough to offer a safe harbor instead of having to seek one.

 

I SALUTE YOUR LIGHT

I cannot remember which post it was when I mentioned a clerk telling me that in each offender or suspect that she serves, she starts by silently saying to him, “I salute your light”.  Her words have stayed with me.  I try to employ them each time I find myself getting hooked into judging the person in front of me, whose full life experience I can never know.  It is a reminder to myself to stay neutral.

“I salute your light” is a silent recognition of the other person’s humanity.  A reminder to oneself that we are each more than the sum total of our mistaken actions.  We are more than our addictions.  We are more than our limitations.  We live the consequences of our mistakes, addictions and limitations – this is demonstrated on a daily basis in the criminal justice system.  But that is still not all we are.

I like the idea of a quiet and gentle court clerk, about to hand a prisoner paperwork (your bail was set at 5000, you must surrender any weapons) looking at him through the bulletproof window with a little pass-through for paperwork in it, with a wordless look of recognition emanating from her eyes.  Not to approve of his actions or be dismissive of the pain he may have caused.  But merely to say, I see you.  I recognize the fellow human in you.  I salute your light.

We do not know about other people’s futures.  We do not know how much their past will be a predictor of their future.  Life has surely surprised each and every one of us, in our own near misses, our lucky breaks and close escapes.  We have surprised ourselves after painful situations with our own resiliency and ability to learn and change.  And licked the wounds of our vanity, in those situations where were were rightfully regretful of our own behaviors.  We mustn’t forget this in our rush to judge others as wrong, so that we can continue to feel right and good and safe.

For some, their inner light may be a dim spark, or covered deep in the ashes of a decades-long trail of self-destruction.  For others, it may be the roaring blaze of a drug-induced candle that is burning at both ends and seems destined for early burnout.  Yet for a few of our prisoners, theirs may be burning into a purer flame.  They may be destined to learn from their mistakes and to become in their turn a bearer of hope to others, lighting their way out of the darkness.  We cannot know who will become a source of hope for others.  But we can surely be that source of hope where we are able.

There is a card in the the tarot deck with a wizened old person holding a lantern in the darkness.  He seems to be be saying, where you are, I once was.  Where I am, you may be some day.  It is called the hermit card.  To me, it represents the need to be introspective in our search for wisdom.  The need to search our own souls and our own dark places instead of shining the light on the mistakes of others and pointing the finger, while not seeing ourselves clearly enough to create meaningful change within.  The hermit goes off, not to judge or blame others, but to take a good look at himself.  It is in the quiet of that space, that solitude,  that wisdom is found.

If we cannot rise to the occasion of saluting the feeble light of those who seem to be in darkness, perhaps we can at least reach neutrality.  Without predicting, judging or guessing how someone will turn out, or where their life will take them after their jail time, we can at least acknowledge that we can never know everything about another person.  We can at least take one step back from judgment.

We cannot know all the factors that led a person to stand before us in prison clothes and handcuffs.  We cannot know what tools and skills they were given to deal with their lives.  We cannot know where they are going or what future good they may embrace.  So we really do not have all the information we would need in order to judge a fellow human and make a final decision on their sum total worth or value.

Instead, without a word spoken, without approving of any base or violent action, we can do what the gentlest of court clerks does, and offer an inward greeting: I salute your light.

FOR WANT OF A MAGNET

Sometimes, I am left shaking my head at the way things are done.  A drunk driver is put on some kind of monitoring to make sure the court can easily discover if he begins drinking again.  Great idea and very useful for public safety.  It is also a great support for the individual because close monitoring is one of the best supports for establishing sobriety.  In serious cases, we  have a multi-million dollar monitoring brand that provides a couple thousand dollars worth of equipment to each individual – a complete set of everything they will need to be continuously monitored at home – except for the magnet they need to activate this equipment.  All the rest of the cords and plugs, straps and monitors are provided.  Just not the magnet.

Clients sign all kinds of paperwork swearing they will not tamper with or alter the equipment.  They watch a video on how to use it, and are personally instructed.  By definition, they have suspended licenses at this point in the process, so most of the people I work with are taking various buses to get around.  They tend to live in the suburbs because it is more affordable.  So they do not live in walking communities or have lots of stores nearby.

Did I mention they are not from around here, familiar with the area, or English-speaking?  Many of them also work very long hours at several low-paying jobs.  Fitting in treatment and court and keeping their jobs is a challenge.  A challenge they deserve, you might say, as they chose to drink and drive.  Fine.  I still argue that there are enough difficulties inherent in the system without setting them up for failure.  They will be inconvenienced and punished throughout the five years of their probation.  There is no societal benefit to creating a risk of failure based on something that is not related to drinking or driving.

Offenders are fitted with an anklet that will remotely and continuously monitor any alcohol intake through skin perspiration.  It is top of the line and highly sensitive.  They are warned not to use any bodywashes, aftershave, perfumes, or even teeth-whitening toothpastes, as these and many other products contain alcohol.   They are instructed on where to plug in the unit’s base so they can download their data via a telephone line.  And how to shower without damaging the anklet.  There is a lot of tension in the room during these sessions, because there is a lot at stake.  If they cannot figure out how to use the equipment correctly, they could go to jail.  They will certainly be called in for a hearing.  And if they miss their hearing, a bench warrant will issue.  Even if they have not been drinking.

The equipment is very high tech.  The latest and the best.  Each set of equipment costs several thousand dollars, and each offender signs an agreement to replace it if it gets damaged.  The company apparently makes their money by leasing the equipment and getting paid for the monitoring.  I do not know how much the court pays, but the individual at this time pays a startup fee and then pays 12 dollars a day in order to be monitored.   That adds up to around 360 dollars a month per offender.  I also looked up the company website, and if you click on wanting to become one of their sales people, you are asked if you have $50,000 dollars in capital to invest.  So I have a strong feeling that they are making a good profit.

Clients are sent directly from court to set up monitoring.   They meet with a monitoring representative, who carefully trains them, takes their first payment, sets them up with all their equipment, and then tells them the following.

“So you’re all set!  This is everything you need to go home and get monitored.  Except, see this magnet?  You will need to find one of these.  No, we don’t have one for you.  It is not included.  No, we cannot sell one to you.  You have to go find it on your own.  No, I don’t know where they sell them.  Maybe a drug store?  Or maybe not – no, it is not like a refrigerator magnet.  It is a special magnet.  I don’t know what it’s called.  Just try to find one that is shaped like this, a rectangle, and this size.  Maybe try a hardware store?  It has to be strong.  I don’t know how strong.  No, I don’t have a picture or it or the name of it or the size or anything.  Sorry.  But it looks like this.  You’ll have to go around and find one somehow by today because you have to get hooked up and download the readings today.  Otherwise you will be in violation and we will have to report you and you could go to jail.  Oh, you’re on the bus?  Gee, that’s too bad.  Too bad we don’t have the magnets.  But here’s all the rest of your equipment.  Good luck!”