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Juvenile Justice Youth Remind Us Who They Are Beyond the Labels

20141125_163043_resized“These kids have serious problems at home and in their personal lives. It is really hard for them to see beyond themselves but that night they did,” shared Polly Gregson, a Senior Counselor Advocate who works with kids in the juvenile justice system at Salt Lake City’s Observation and Assessment Program.  “They were able to open up and see a bit deeper, something beyond themselves.”

On a recent Friday night, I spent the better part of two hours sharing the “what I thought I saw” Experience with a varied group of 12 to 17 year-old boys and girls. Though their body language and facial expressions tried to exude “toughness, impenetrableness, suspicion,” it didn’t last.

Through stories—some funny, some moving, some sad—they learned about the “okay-ness” in being and honoring vulnerabilities and differences in others as well as in themselves.  When you are in survival mode—certainly, emotionally if not physically for these kids—seeing beyond yourself is risky. Yet, when we move into another’s story—lean in—it helps us to see and clarify our own story. As a writer, this is what I have found again and again.

“This was one of my tougher groups, lots of sarcasm and exhibiting little empathy for others. But that night, they were unusually quiet. Through our discussion, it became evident that this experience really caused them to pause, to think, and to share. It was one of the best group discussions I’d had with these girls.”          Polly Gregson, Sr. Counselor Advocate


These kids will spend 45 days here, receiving all kinds of support, before it is determined whether they are ready to return home, perhaps with on-going counseling, or to another program.  Typical situations these youth come from may mean a parent is in prison, illegal drug use at home, or kids are about to be removed from parental custody.

“A lot of these kids have no boundaries and are crying out for some—they need and want a fence in their yard, protecting them from the street. They want a fence—a boundary,” explains Gregson, who, along with her colleagues, has to balance the sternness of holding these boundaries while guiding and modeling empathy.

Scared. Enthusiastic. Angry. Caring. Passionate. Nervous. Sad. Yearning. These were all emotions circling in the room with us. Some teens seemed so eager and desperate to understand their place in this world. One heavy-set boy said he knew too many kids that had committed suicide—He searched for words, fumbling but poetic: “They were quiet kinds. Shy like. If only someone had said hello to them…” Through his words, he reminded us of the importance of getting to know people’s backstories—finding out who they are beyond the labels.

So many of these kids are not the labels seemingly assigned to them. In an exercise, they wrote down the labels they feel perceived as, including: Savage, Useless, Disappointment, Thug, Troublemaker, Criminal, Ugly, Fat, Not Good Enough, Slut….They then wrote down at least three characteristics that truly define who they are. It included words so disconnected from the label, for example: intelligent, sweet, strong, outgoing, beautiful, funny, nice, amazing, loving, caring, romantic…There were also some such as “a little bit angry” or “an addict.”



These teens could see the beauty in themselves; but could anyone else? Was the world affirming the label or the true nature of these kids? I wanted to hand them all little white flags, to madly wave them, refuse surrendering to the negative labels, and demand that they chant: “I believe in me. I believe in me. I believe…”


  NOTE: I want to thank “Excuse Me While I Change the World” for bringing the  “what I thought I   saw” Experience as well as other programs to youth in the juvenile justice system.

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