In the last few weeks I watched as two young people left our facility. Both had been through our psychiatric residential treatment and had been there for over a year. As each walked out the door, on two different days, I felt completely different. With one, I felt elated. I knew that as a juvenile mental health provider, each of us, as well as the organization, had given everything we could to make a difference in this girl’s life: therapy, structure, stability and caring. She had come to us with a background of extreme abuse. She completed our live-in program and had moved into a practice family. Now she was headed home. I felt confident that this would be one of our great success stories. On the other hand, I watched another young man head back to his home state scheduled to enter a step-down program while he continued to work on returning to his home. I held my hug a little longer but couldn’t shake my feeling of despair. We had given everything we had and I hoped it was enough to have induced some brain change so that this young man no longer perceived the world through his lens of trauma including physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as, neglect. As I struggled with my varying emotions on these two departures, it made me stop to think about how we, as juvenile justice professionals, maintain our hope when faced with so much pain, trauma and uncertainty. Here are five tips for keeping the faith while dealing with children who often have been written off as lost causes.
Hold onto your successes
Not every child is going to succeed. When I say succeed, I don’t mean a six-figure job, fancy car and a vacation house in the Hamptons. I mean happy, with strong relationships and a functional member of society. To help them succeed, you can offer them everything in your professional and personal toolbox and for whatever reason they continue to get into trouble. Often they are faced with environmental factors, such as family members or community circumstances that do not encourage healthy, law-abiding citizens. Some children are resilient enough to move past even the roughest situations. Some can even put aside backgrounds of extreme abuse and then their own criminal behavior. Some are shining examples of rehabilitation and retributive justice principles. Notice, I say some. Hold onto those. Realize that we cannot help them all. All we can do is continue to put our effort into each child, hope for the best and rejoice with the ones that succeed.
Let go of perceived failures
On the other hand, we have to let go of the ones that don’t succeed. The ones who continue to make bad choices and hurt themselves and others. The ones who go in and out of juvenile facilities until they finally make the leap to prison. Even those who just go through life miserable and refuse to connect with anyone around them, especially those people who offer them love, support and stability. It seems like there are a lot of these, but we have to keep things in perspective. Just like the ones who succeeded, we gave these children everything we had available. For whatever reason, they were unwilling or unable to make changes to be successful. We must let go of the burden which is not ours to bear.
Don’t take things personally
This sounds like the first two tips but has a slight nuance. It doesn’t matter whether a child is a success or failure. Because we did everything in our power to help, their outcome is not our business. Like our own children, we cannot take credit for their successes nor take responsibility for their failures. We maintain our stability and offer the same type of tools for each child. What they do with them rests on them. Not taking things personally is essential for continuing to do this work day in and day out for an entire career. Letting go of the thought pattern that what happens is your fault will make those years much more content. Just do your best and leave the rest up to the universe.
Support each other
Hugely important! I can’t emphasize this enough. Just like the children we serve, we need other people. We need relationships. We need to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. We also need to be able to share feelings and vent to someone who understands what we deal with on a daily basis. Someone who can hear what we have to say without trying to fix it, us or the children. The ability to actively listen and offer empathy and support. We need to be able to give this to each other. Whether you are in juvenile corrections, law enforcement, mental health or child welfare, each of us plays an important role in the well-being of children and society. We need to be able to understand our varying but singular mission and help each other be successful, professionally and personally. We can only do that as a team.
Judge Thomas Edwards, Juvenile Court of Santa Clara County, recently stated, “We also need something more important. We need the involvement of the community in what we do with their kids. All we’re doing in here is trying to deal with the problems facing our community’s children, and I need their help. I need their experience, I need their concern, I need their love, I need their talent, and I can’t do it with the door locked. So I would like to throw the locks away and open the door and bring the sunshine of the community into my courtroom. That’s what I would like.” I couldn’t say it better.
Maintaining our hope while we are surrounded by pain, trauma and chaos can be tough no matter what role you play in juvenile justice. Following a few key tips like those mentioned here can help us do our jobs effectively, efficiently and keep us healthy, happy and serving children to the best of our ability.