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Just A Child

Incarceration doesn’t just punish individuals. It causes harm to entire family systems.

Christina was sixteen when she made a poor decision. The outcome was something she could never, at the time, have imagined. Facing incarceration in the adult legal system, YSRP began working with Christina to move her case to the juvenile court.

But, these processes take time. And, during COVID, they took far too long. So, Christina sat at the juvenile detention center waiting to hear what came next. Then, she waited more, sitting with the possibility of spending decades in prison.

Her mother kept saying the same thing, “But, she’s just a child.” The truth didn’t change Christina’s reality. She faced decades in adult prison. ”But, she’s just a child,” Christina’s mother repeated. Sometimes, the legal system makes things more complicated than they need to be.

For months, Christina and her mother, who she describes as her “annoying best friend,” could not even see each other. COVID protocols would not allow it. Charged as an adult and held in a juvenile detention center in Philadelphia, it would take almost two years for Christina to get her day in court – this, due to the pandemic, changes in the assigned prosecutor, and a clear lack of urgency from the system.

And, to Christina, it seemed that life was moving on without her. Finally, in a major victory, Christina was sent to a longer-term juvenile facility. And, eventually, her family could visit! But, when that happened, her two-year-old sister was four. Her ten-year-old sister, now twelve, “thought she was grown.” Her mother was planning to get married and was making plans for a move to Delaware.

Christina’s life moved forward, too. She found faith. She finished high school, though her family could not join her to celebrate her graduation. They were proud. But, both mother and daughter felt the absence on that day.

Christina will likely have the opportunity to return home on or before her 21st birthday. The alternative – decades in adult prison – was so much worse. But, to those that know her as a daughter or sister, none of this ever made sense.

They again repeat what we should all remember: “But, she’s just a child.”

And, though she will have the opportunity to return home to rebuild her life one day, it never felt like the system actually recognized that; it never admitted that she was just a child. Christina will show them. Now, an actual adult, she wants to be described as something different – funny, committed to justice, focused on her future.

And, when she’s experiencing liberation, when she’s showing leadership in her community, when she’s growing her legacy, she’ll talk about her past in a way that we always knew to be true: I was just a child.

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