Working in residential, you’re supposed to get use to the “shackle shuffle.” As kids are brought from the detention center, dressed in scrubs or a similar jumpsuit, their legs and hands are shackled causing them to shuffle their feet in order to move. Like I said, you’re supposed to get use to it, seeing it often, but I never have. My mind can reason that it is a consequence of their crime and choices; it’s to keep them and others safe. But, there is still a minor hiccup in my spirit every time I see it.
Maybe I cringe because this person in front of me is no longer a case on a page, but a living, breathing, and usually extremely likeable kid with their own story to tell. Although I may not agree with their choices, I now understand them, or can at least follow the irrational thought process that led to them.
This week, I found myself in the court room waiting area, not just waiting for our name to come up on the docket, but also waiting to see her shuffling toward us. This one was going to be especially hard, because…well…I especially liked her. I distracted myself by noticing the drooping pipes hanging from the ceiling, the drab carpet worn from the many years of youth shuffling their feet across it, and the chairs wedged in uncomfortable positions to make the necessary space for the case workers and families that would also be waiting for their name to be called.
And the hiccup came, and it was stronger than I anticipated. Her face was sad, but she mustered a small smile just big enough to show her child-like dimple for a second. I’m not sure why these moments continue to affect me, after all I’ve seen it enough. Maybe, this one was hard because she’s a mini version of my best friend complete with crazy hair, a feisty attitude that thinks she’s about a foot taller than what she actually is, and a chattiness that can jump from one conversation to the next without a breath in between them. Or, maybe it’s as simple as I genuinely just like her.
Regardless of why, the sadness was still there.
We waited patiently listening to the clinking of the heavy metal doors open and close and made small talk. We laughed as she would give a description of each passerby, at one point saying, “Mm-m-m, the things you see in the juvenile justice court system.”
The light-heartedness changed as soon as the court was ready for us.
Walking into the court room is always a free for all, with each party having to attempt to find the proper seating. The DJO points one direction, the bailiff another and all you’re secretly praying for is that the judge won’t ask you a question. Anxiety completely engulfs the room.
She is quickly directed to remember to stand up when the judge enters the room, even if it’s awkward with the shackles. Once the judge enters the room, the formalities begin. A list of all her wrongs are systematically read and the judge begins to question her for her plea and her understanding. She pleasantly and politely responds with, “yes, your honor,” after each question. Her anticipation and anxiety shows when her “yes, your honors” start coming at a quicker pace and at unnecessary times. We hold our breath for the judge’s response, and that’s when it happens. A small smile creeps onto his face and that’s when I know, he sees it too: that undeniable likability of this young girl sitting in front of us.
She must have seen it too, because she relaxed, and then we all relaxed. Encouragement replaced anxiety and plans began to take place.
We left the court and I no longer noticed the drab carpet or bland walls. I no longer cared that the chairs were placed just a little too close together. Instead, I saw this girl in front of me with a glimmer of hope.
As we sat in the waiting room, talking about her safety plan and what she will do when she feels like running, she looked at me with a serious look on her face and said, “You don’t have to worry about that (holding up her handcuffed hands). I’m going to learn to just read a book.”