When I was 10, my parents went through a divorce. I was so surprised. They had been together for so long that I never thought their marriage would fall apart. I hated that their marriage hadn’t worked out. That made me become angry toward the world.
My dad had always been really strict. When I didn’t have him there to enforce the rules anymore, I took advantage of that. I would go to the park and hang out with my older sister and our friends until 10 at night. I would cuss at my teachers and pop my gum in their faces because I thought their job was a total joke. But I did try to respect my mom sometimes. I felt bad because she had always been a housewife, but now she had to work to support six kids.
About once a week I ditched with friends or my sister and went to kickbacks at my friends’ houses. My mom would ask, "Did you go to school today?" and I would say yes. I liked having my own secrets. But sometimes the school called and told my mom. Then it was a mess. She would yell, "You’re lying." I would say, "What do you care if you’re never home." Then my oldest sister would get mad at me for talking back to my mom. She would scream "Shut the f*** up before I hit you." I’d say "You’re not going to do nothing," but in the end my sister would beat me up.
In sixth grade, I got kicked out of school for fighting and ditching and had to go to another school for a while. I got tickets from the police for shoplifting and hanging out with my sisters and our friends in abandoned buildings and schools at night. One time my mom didn’t let me go to the movies so I ran away for three days and stayed at a friend’s house. It seemed as if getting in trouble was a hobby that I practiced in my spare time.
In seventh grade, I got into a pretty bad fight after school. The girl pressed charges and I was arrested for assault and battery. I was put on house arrest, which means I couldn’t go anywhere but school and back home. But I violated my house arrest after two weeks by getting suspended for cussing out the librarian.
I went to court and the judge sentenced me to six months at a group home in the San Fernando Valley, where I had to live with 50 other girls. I didn’t want to be there so after three months I ran away and went to my friend’s house. That was the stupidest mistake I could make. The next morning my friend’s mom called a probation officer. I swear I’d never seen anybody come so quick just to get a little juvenile delinquent. I was sent to another group home way out in Palmdale, about 60 miles north of Los Angeles. I was there for almost six months when I got into another fight and was arrested again for assault and battery.
I went to court again and was told I was being given another chance. Instead of detention camp, I was being sent to another group home. I thought it was going to be just like the others, that it wasn’t going to do much for me. But the Aviva group home in Los Angeles turned out to be what helped me change.
What—my mom missed me?
On March 30, 2003, at age 13, I arrived at Aviva with no belongings except for the not-so-fashionable jail uniform (black faded pants and white shirt) on my back. I hadn’t been home for nine months. That weekend my mom came to visit. She never visited me at my other group homes because they were too far from our home in Los Angeles. She told me she missed me. Later that night, I thought about being home with my family, and that got me very sad. I missed hanging around with my sisters and being with my mom. I felt like they were used to me being away from home.
Living in the group home was pretty boring. The staff usually planned some boring activity after school. They would take us to the patio to play hopscotch or even make us color. This made me feel like I was in a mental hospital. Sometimes I would say "I f***ing hate this s***" or "This is for retarded a** kids." The staff would get mad when I cussed and whined. They would make me clean up the dinner tables.
The rules drove me crazy, especially the PHONE. That was my life. If I was having a bad day, I wanted to talk to my family and friends to get in a better mood. But I could only make calls during a specific time of day for 10 minutes, and when I called, my friends usually weren’t there.
For the Fourth of July, the group home had a barbecue in the back yard. It was so lame. The girls were cooking! That was a major no-no to me. I didn’t like the burgers because they didn’t taste like the ones my mom made. They tried to warm up the hot dog buns, but they got burned. It was like eating overcooked toast for breakfast.
The next day I talked to my sister on the phone. She told me that my family had a barbecue at the park and that all my uncles, aunts and cousins were there. She said that afterwards, she and my oldest sister went to a party with their friends. I told her that she sucked because she went out while I was stuck in my stupid
Even though being at the group home felt like hell, things were going well for me at my group home’s school. There were only six students per class so the teachers were able to help us when we didn’t understand something. I became more interested in my schoolwork because I didn’t have to do it on my own. I also didn’t feel like messing up because I didn’t have any of my friends there to kick it with. I made the honor roll instead of getting failing grades, like I had at my public schools.
I had to go to therapy every week with my mom. My mom and I had never communicated very well. We had to work on listening to each other. I told my mom, "We have to change to make our relationship better." She said, "You’re just going to have to accept me the way I am."
That made it hard for me to want to work on our relationship. But my therapist wouldn’t let us get angry or frustrated with each other. She made us talk about our problems. My mom stopped cutting me off and I actually felt like she was listening.
I was allowed to visit my mother on the weekends. We missed each other so we would spend time together. We’d go shopping at the mall and eat at the food court. That meant a lot to me because we had never hung out like we were friends before.
Back at the group home, when I got in trouble for stupid stuff like cursing or not going to bed on time, the staff member who I got along with the best, Adriana, would give me these speeches that killed me. She would tell me that I was causing my mom a lot of trouble. She would say, "You need to get your act together if you want to go home." I practically memorized that sentence I heard it so often.
But after I had been there eight months, I got my wake-up call. One night I was bored, like always, and my friend Maria told me she had alcohol. We went to the bathroom and drank it, but we got caught. They took away our home visits for two weeks.
I talked to Adriana about why I did it. She said, "Just because you’re bored, you don’t have to get into trouble. There’s different ways of entertaining yourself." She told me to write in a journal, listen to music or meditate. I started writing in a journal twice a day. That made it easier to follow the rules because it gave me something to do in my spare time. I knew I needed to start doing better in order to go home. My time was up but they hadn’t sent me home because of my behavior.
Soon after, there was an opening at the graduate house, where six of the best-behaved girls lived. I was tired of living with 36 girls so I applied. There were two other girls trying to get there, too. I had to wait two weeks to find out. It felt like two years. I couldn’t sleep at night because I was thinking about it constantly. When I found out I made it, I ran to my room and packed my things.
A fresh start
I was so excited to be at the grad house. I didn’t have to hear a whole bunch of girls gossiping. I liked the staff. They asked how our day was and noticed when something was wrong. I cussed less and didn’t give them as much attitude. I could eat whatever I wanted for breakfast and listen to my radio when I wanted to. It was easy to behave better because I liked it there. Plus, I didn’t want to risk going back to the main house.
My teachers became my friends. There’s this one teacher, Mr. Gerhardt. He seemed really dumb when I first got here. He would always say stupid things like, "When I was a young boy blah blah blah…" He made us serve detention for having a "potty mouth" or being "truculent" (Whatever that means!). I used to call him Mr. Gay-fart during class. But now I think he’s funny. Sometimes when the new girls write notes in class, he takes them and they give him attitude. I just look at him and laugh because that’s the way I used to be. I won’t talk back to my teachers anymore. I don’t see why I need to disrespect them.
I left the group home right before Christmas. I kind of worry about getting in trouble again, but I think I can manage because I care about consequences now. Like if I’m at a gig and want to stay longer, I’ll call my mom and ask her instead of just breaking my curfew. If she says no, I’ll come home.
I still have problems with my mom, but nothing out of the ordinary. We argue over things like me having a boyfriend or her not letting me go out with my friends with no adults around. I still get mad when I don’t get my way, but I just suck it up because whining isn’t going to change things. I feel my mom deserves to be respected because of all the things I’ve put her through.
The thing I regret the most is making my mom go through all the years of staying up late when I didn’t come home or missing work because I got in trouble at school. But I don’t regret making mistakes because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It took getting arrested and being away from my family for three years to knock some sense into my head.
Getting good grades has motivated me. I want to go to college and be a lawyer. I want to make my mom proud. Before, I didn’t appreciate what I had. It wasn’t until I got sent away that I learned to treasure my family.
Why do some juveniles get sent to jail when they are arrested while others get sent to group homes?
When juveniles are convicted of a crime, they can be sentenced to a variety of places. They can be sent to a detention center, such as juvenile hall or a camp. Or they can be sent to a group home, which is less strict than a detention center but worse than being on house arrest. None are as bad as being in the California Youth Authority, the youth prisons where more serious offenders are housed.
Where juveniles are sentenced is based on several factors. Those include how serious the crime was, if the juvenile has a criminal record and if the attorneys and judge think the minor can be rehabilitated (meaning they will no longer break the law once they are released).