My Story Starts Here: Voices of Young Offenders
My Story Starts Here: Voices of Young Offenders
Children should obey us, trust us and amuse us. They should be grateful to us. They should allow us to feel dignified, wise, competent and powerful.
They should not defy us.
And they better not laugh at us.
This is a grim view of how we grown-ups see the creatures we used to be. I believe this grimness has, at least in part, formed our public policies on young offenders. . . .
Could it be that when we grow up we forget we were ever young? Do we forget how powerless we felt to create productive change in our lives? Do we not remember being confused about who we were and what we wanted? Were never quick to make a dumb move without a thought for the consequences? (Pp. 9-10)
Deborah Ellis has won numerous awards for the books in the “Breadwinner” series and is well- known for her activism and advocacy on behalf of children and young adults. In My Story Starts Here: Voices of Young Offenders, she offers a collection of 23 interviews with “young people who have interacted with the criminal justice system.” (p. 10) The youngest of her subjects is 15 and the oldest is 21, although the majority are 18 and over, at which time they will age out of the youth justice criminal system. Other voices also tell their stories: parents who wonder what went wrong with their kids, incarcerated adults who have criminal records “as long as a skyscraper is tall” (p. 56), social workers in diversion programs designed to assist young offenders in rehabilitation, and, in one particularly heart-wrenching case, the victim impact story of the sister of a woman who was murdered by a 16-year-old.
Each of the personal stories begins with the subject’s name and age, followed by an informational pull quote that is relevant to the narrator’s life situation. For example, the statement that “Twenty percent of Canada’s homeless are young people”, (p. 13) is followed by 19-year-old Kevin’s story. He has been living on the streets for the last two years. Many of the young people in this book experience episodes of homelessness, couch-surfing, and the impermanence of foster homes. The foster care system is hit-or-miss, both in terms of the abilities of foster parents who take charge of these kids and in providing a sense of stability. Ian has been in five different foster homes, his current period of residency being three years and four months. This placement is a good one for him; he tells Ellis that his foster mom “is wonderful. She brought me here today to talk with you and she shows me all the time that she cares about me and about what I do and what happens to me.” (p. 29) After reading through the entire collection of stories, one realizes that Ian’s situation is unusual.
Most of the young narrators come from families experiencing some type of dysfunction and, often, a cluster of problems: parents who have split up or are in abusive relationships, or who experience chronic unemployment, alcoholism or drug abuse. Some of these young people are immigrants or the children of recent immigrants; some are gay; some are the children or grandchildren of residential school survivors; and some come from apparently stable homes and a few have made some gross error of judgment which led to an unexpected encounter with police and the justice system. An example is 15-year-old Beth, who, with some friends, enters an abandoned factory and, on impulse, the group starts spraying the interior with fire extinguishers. It may have been a fun-filled prank, but Beth was charged with break and enter and mischief under $5000. Beth is one of lucky ones in this collection of stories; she participated in a diversion program, one that allows for an “opportunity to recognize... behaviour and address it in a different manner. It can help youth understand what they did to themselves and their community.” (p. 83) It certainly worked for Beth who learned two important lessons: one is to listen to the little voice in the head that counsels against doing something and the second is to see a mistake for what it is and not repeat it. Beth’s parents stood by her, and she’s lucky to have them. For so many of the young people in this collection of stories, foster care is their source of parenting, and it’s rarely a positive experience.
Being in foster care or living in a group home typically leads to interrupted schooling. Moving from place to place leads to a real sense of disconnection, and school is rarely a place where these kids fit in. As well, a foster or group home is rarely an environment conducive to academic success; often separated from their siblings, these young people are living with strangers, all of whom are struggling with their own issues. Living conditions may be sub-optimal, as well, with quiet and privacy being non-existent.
It’s hard not to become angry or discouraged, and anger management is a common difficulty. Dwayne, 19, was beaten up by his father, and, after he was placed in foster care, anger becomes his way of dealing with the world. He admits that he “was a really angry kid. The Children’s Aid got to the end of their list of people who would take me so I got sent to a group home. I wasn’t beaten there but I ended up in restraints almost every day.” (p. 1) For many, self-medication through various drugs becomes the coping mechanism. Drugs figure largely in many of these narratives, either as self-medication for emotional pain, or as a way to make ready cash in an otherwise precarious existence.
If you knew little about the social service systems into which at-risk youth are channeled, this book will give you plenty of insights. Kirk states that “once you get into the system it’s really easy to stay in it. They give you conditions to follow and if you miss even one of them you get charged with breach of conditions and that’s more punishment. You start to think you’ll never get out of trouble so why try?” (p. 43) It sounds pretty hopeless, but for many, that becomes the norm. Still, every once in a while, a foster parent, a group home worker, or a social worker offers hope that things can change and get better. Finding meaningful work or unexpected success at school offers the possibility that things may finally turn out all right. Nearly all of these stories end with the narrator’s understanding the circumstances which led him or her into trouble, and the realization that they must continue to struggle with the consequences.
My Story Starts Here: Voices of Young Offenders was a hard book to read, not because the content was in any way inaccessible, but because the stories were profoundly sad in so many ways. Despite their personal differences, these young people shared common experiences: abuse of all kinds, fractured families, rootlessness, and poverty. Counterpointing the personal stories are sections of informational content on such topics as restorative justice, the importance of obtaining a high school diploma, foster care, domestic violence, to name but a few. Following each story is a set of two-part prompts; one prompt asks the reader a series of reflective questions, focusing on himself or herself, and the other prompt suggests an activity or idea to be undertaken with others. The book ends with a Reference List of fiction, nonfiction, and electronic resources which can be consulted for further reading and research. Black and white photos and graphics illustrate the opening of each story and, occasionally, the text.
Although the advance publicity for the book indicates a readership of ages 12 and up, I think that this is a book for older readers. I wondered about the context in which the book might be read as I don’t think that the stories of young offenders is a subject area to which students will typically gravitate. I can see the book being used by guidance teachers and youth counselors to encourage students in similar circumstances to see that others have dealt with similar situations and that their situation isn’t completely a foster parent, a group home worker, or a social worker hopeless. This is an ambitious work of youth advocacy, and Ellis is to be commended for taking on the hard task of finding these young people and recounting their stories. She certainly maintains the authenticity of their voices, and, although there is some profanity, it isn’t anything you wouldn’t hear in any high school hallway. While 180 pages is not excessively long for juvenile or young adult nonfiction, I think that this would have been a more powerful collection if there were fewer stories. However, at-risk youth rarely have an opportunity to have their voices heard, and My Story Starts Here provides it.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Treaty 1 Territory and Homeland of the Métis People.