Columns 2013

Our system guarantees the horrors will continue

I made a comment in last week’s column that when we read about a crime as horrible as the one allegedly committed by Jerry Active on May 25th, we almost hope to find horrible abuse in his childhood to explain the monster he seems to have become.

I know nothing of his family so I have no idea whether he had an idyllic childhood or not. Some commenters who seemed familiar with the family felt that he had not had a good start in life. They questioned, as so often seems to be questioned, how the state can leave children and young people in homes that are clearly dangerous to their physical and mental health.

It’s a question I’ve certainly asked over and over again during my years as a social worker and guardian ad litem. I watched children bounced like basketballs between foster homes, group homes and their family home.

The question of why we return these children time and time again is not easily answered. Even though our legislature passed a law restricting the amount of time children could spend in out of home custody before permanent plans were made for them, kids are still bouncing.

I think part of the answer rests in the fact that as a society we are somewhat loathe to enter another’s home and make value judgments that could potentially severe all family ties between parents and children.  We seem to have no problem with the invasions of government listening to our phone calls, companies mining our purchasing habits or strip searches in order to get home for the holidays. Heck, some don’t even have trouble mandating what tests a doctor performs on a woman even when it means invading the most personal part of her body. But messing with a family still give us pause.

The isolation of Bush villages in Alaska means that services are either sporadic or non-existent. Before a family problem rises to the level of being reported in a small village, it has to get pretty bad. Even after the report, the services provided are extremely limited by the amount of funds available to get them to an isolated location.

In this particular case another legitimate question being asked is why he didn’t get the treatment he needed for alcohol and sexual abuse while he was incarcerated for the crimes he’d already committed. The answer to that is much simpler than trying to untangle the dynamics of a troubled family. When state revenues started declining a few years back, some of the first things on the chopping block were substance and sexual abuse treatment programs. Once they were widely available in many of our penal institutions. Not anymore.

In fact, despite the amount of alcohol and sexual abuse in this state, funding for programs to treat those problems has steadily declined over the years. The theory seems to be we should just lock up everyone who commits a crime and throw away the key. Mr. Active, unfortunately, is a poster boy for that theory.

Keeping someone locked up for life costs society both in the expense of the incarceration and the loss of productivity that individual may be capable of offering if treated. Treatment might prevent a tragedy like that allegedly perpetrated by Mr. Active upon his release. Removing kids from terrible home situations and giving them a chance in a sober atmosphere is perhaps an even better solution. If we don’t stop the problem at the source, we’re merely ensuring a steady flow of damaged individuals filling every jail cell we can build.

So whatever the reality of Mr. Active’s childhood, the reality for many prisoners is that they never stood a chance because they were raised in a dysfunctional family that received sporadic treatment at best while the child was like a yo-yo on a string being jerked up and down between foster care and family. That system guarantees there will always be people like Mr. Active in our midst.

We can either bite the bullet and fund successful programs for troubled families that do not allow the child to be the bouncing ball in the middle of the mess or we can continue to fund more jail cells to hold more offenders who will do horrible things before they are jailed. Either way, we pay.