Eulice Washington speaks for many when she critiques the juvenile justice system. The Omaha mother of four has a 26 year-old son, Anthony Washington, serving time in adult corrections but his contact with the criminal justice system began at 14.
She feels she lost her son to the system despite her best efforts to keep him out of it. Her family’s “extremely torturous journey” started earlier, when Anthony began getting in trouble. Skipping school. Acting out. Hanging with a bad crowd. She was concerned enough to try and find prevention-intervention assistance.
“I reached out to get some help because I saw something was about to happen I was trying to prevent. I went to probation officers, police officers, different programs, his school. I asked what can we do so he doesn’t go this route. They told me to my face, ‘We can’t do anything unless he’s in trouble. We don’t have any of those resources.’ It was like a child can’t be helped until he’s already in the door with the law.”
Having worked in human services, she knows other parents with kids in the system share “the same story”and “as parents we’re judged for not doing our job.”
Anthony’s problems with the law stemmed from Illegal possession of firearms. robbery, making terroristic threats. He yo-yo’d between detention centers in Omaha and Kearney. Then he entered Boys Town, but he ran away. It became a revolving door in and out of facilities.
She lost faith in the system.
“We just have lockup and demeaning of our children. The kids land in the system and they get pushed through and they’re right back in the system again. It’s like a recycling bin. They don’t get the help they need. They don’t learn social-life skills. They get hardened.”
Worse yet, she feels the system dismisses parents.
“Your child gets locked up and it’s like you don’t have any information because the people aren’t communicating with you. That’s not going to work. We all have to work together for the best of the individual.”
Today, her son, who served time at Tecumseh, is on work release in Lincoln. His mindset is much improved.
“Very focused. He’s hungry for more and to do better.It’s like so much regret of a wasted childhood. He’s just ready to live a life .”
At his May parole hearing she hopes he gets paroled to Colorado Springs so he can make a fresh start there away from the negative environment he’s known here.
Washington doesn’t want other youth and parents to go through what her family’s endured. She said it’s vital youth and parents be given a voice in the system.
“We have to hear their needs and wants so we can figure out how to help them. As parents, you must be there every step of the way. Don’t let the system discount anything. Get the right answers, show up and use your voice to speak up.”
Whatever you do, she tells parents, don’t ignore signs of delinquency.. Demand community-based help. More support exists now, she said, than 12 years ago. She doesn’t wish any family experiences what she did.
“I have grandsons who don’t know their uncle. They just know him by the phone. ‘When you coming home, Uncle Tony?’ they ask. ‘Soon.’”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.