At 16, Teanna was arrested, for the first time in her life, in suburban Philadelphia. She was held in a juvenile detention center for several months, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while the District Attorney decided whether to charge her as an adult. If her case was moved to adult court, Teanna could face a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Teanna’s attorney first reached out to YSRP’s Supervising Attorney Emily Robb, seeking YSRP’s expertise working with children charged in the adult justice system, to support her. Although Teanna’s case was in juvenile court, the District Attorney had been threatening to move her case to adult court. Teanna’s attorney knew that mitigation could positively impact her case remaining in the juvenile court system. If the judge and District Attorney knew more about who she was as a person and what her life had been like up to the time of her arrest, Teanna might have a chance at a very different future. Yet, her attorney lacked the resources to build the mitigation in the way he knew that YSRP could. YSRP quickly engaged with the attorney on Teanna’s case, and became part of her defense team.
YSRP’s Mitigation Specialist Annie Ruhnke first met Teanna while she was in the juvenile detention center just outside of Philadelphia, in June 2020. Right away, Annie could see that Teanna was a thoughtful, bright and caring teenager with clear goals for her future. Even in the high-pressure environment of juvenile detention, amid a pandemic and facing tremendous uncertainty about her near- and long-term future and health, Teanna was, as she says, trying “really hard to be the best version of myself.” Her efforts were evident in how she kept in touch with her childhood friends in letters she wrote from detention, and in how she engaged with deep self-reflection in her conversations with Annie. Navigating the evolving quarantine visiting procedures at the detention center, Annie began to build a partnership with Teanna rooted in YSRP’s values of mutual respect and candor, that honored that Teanna was the expert in her own life experience.
Annie began to create a mitigation report that documented Teanna’s early home life and family history, including some traumatic experiences that she had endured during her childhood and adolescence. Annie and YSRP’s Seldin-Kuester Summer Fellows Kate Uyeda and Maddy Guerra reviewed numerous medical records and educational records. And, they spoke with Teanna’s family members and teachers to craft a full, nuanced story about who Teanna is, what her home life was like, and what her future goals are.
“YSRP’s team, and particularly Annie Ruhnke, was an invaluable asset on Teanna’s case. Annie provided much-needed context for how and why Teanna’s situation arose, while also building up Teanna’s strengths and resilience, which could not have been replicated by the attorney. Without YSRP’s dedication and hard work, the outcome would have looked a lot different for Teanna. It was a pleasure to partner with them.” Teanna’s attorney
By August, while still awaiting the District Attorney’s decision about whether he would prosecute her as an adult, the court agreed to temporarily send Teanna to a residential treatment facility to complete therapeutic treatment. At that time, however, no nearby facilities had space available for her. As the court waited for space to become available, Teanna was released to her father’s house on house arrest, while her court case continued to progress.
Annie continued to visit Teanna at her father’s house as the wait wore on. They would sit on his porch, wearing masks and talking at a safe social distance. Teanna opened up about her childhood and her experience with mental health challenges. Annie came to know her as a brilliant, self-aware and deeply resilient teenager with big dreams for her future, who was committed to working hard to achieve them.
Teanna dreams of being completely independent, and doing what makes her happy. She talked with Annie about her plans to attend college and get an advanced degree as a veterinarian. Her desire to take up veterinary study comes from her love of cats, and especially big cats.
Annie shepherded Teanna’s story with care and compassion, and packaged it into a comprehensive mitigation report that was shared with the District Attorney’s office. The report showed the prosecutor that Teanna was much more than the charges she faced on paper. It concluded that Teanna was a prime candidate to receive therapeutic treatment and support within the juvenile justice system, and grow from it, in order to pursue her dream career path as a veterinarian.
“YSRP wasn’t just there for me when I was in detention, they continued to support me when I was on house arrest, and then when I went to placement. They helped me feel less alone, and like everything was out of my power. When I first ended up in my predicament I felt lost, alone, and powerless. Annie and Juwan helped me feel like I had control of my life again, like I could make decisions and choose how my life would go. I finally felt like someone was on my team, rooting for me again. It was something that I needed to get out of the mentality that nothing ever mattered because nobody cared anyway. But they cared, and then so did I.” Teanna
YSRP’s concerted advocacy enhanced Teanna’s legal representation. This ultimately resulted in the District Attorney agreeing that if she pled to her charges in juvenile court, they would not charge her in the adult justice system, thereby avoiding the risk of Teanna receiving a lengthy prison sentence. By the end of August, space opened up in a nearby suburban treatment facility, and Teanna moved in to complete her court-mandated course of treatment.
After several months, Teanna was released from the residential treatment center, where she continued her education, and by all accounts, did well in school. Today, Teanna is home.
Because her case remained in the juvenile system, Teanna is on track to graduate high school within the next two years. Plus, she received the therapeutic supports that she needs to heal and grow from her past trauma. YSRP will continue to make sure that Teanna receives the necessary treatment and continuity of care in her home community to pursue her goals, finish school, and go to college. Furthermore, Teanna does not bear the burden of having an adult criminal conviction attached to her name.
Recently, Teanna has been introduced to Juwan Bennett, YSRP’s Reentry Coordinator. He has been working to identify programs and supports in the community that will keep her on track to go to college and ultimately pursue an advanced degree as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. Juwan and Annie check in regularly with Teanna, and support her motivation to address her past trauma, and continue following her dreams. Annie and Juwan will walk alongside Teanna as she navigates her reentry, and continues her work to heal and grow. We know she is destined to achieve her goals, and we plan to do whatever we can to help make that happen.
* Teanna is a pseudonym used to protect the client-partner’s privacy.