It’s hard to comprehend that a kid returning to society from out of home placement has a longer journey than Al and Jessica’s 1350 mile excursion across the nation. However, this is the case for over 200,000 youth who return to society nationally every year who share this in their stories and daily struggles. Many youth that are returning to society face obstacles such as homelessness, lack of education, no employment, and no family or community support. This period of time when young people (age 10-24) transition back to their families and communities is called reentry. These kids face not being welcomed back home, as I am reminded by one of my clients who so eloquently stated “We just want to be wanted.” Isn’t this what we all desire?  Society seems to shun this population thus helping facilitate their return to a life of undesirable actions.

“As soon as you get out, life hits you in the face and it’s like you’ve entered a different time zone.” Youth think about the day they will reenter society but as I have seen first-hand there is a major deficiency in actual reentry planning. More times than not these youth are dropped back into the world, and more specifically they often return to the same environment that caused them harm in the first place.. I’ve experienced quite a few culture shocks in my time, most recently moving from Oxford, Mississippi (which is undoubtedly the greatest town in ‘Merica) to Cincinnati (which has been nothing short of amazing, except for the weird chili!), but even after working with youth for years around the nation I still can’t imagine the shock of returning home and picking up the pieces of their lives after spending time in secured facilities.

I recently attended a breakfast in Cincinnati where one of the speakers said that 80% of the national prison population has spent time in the foster care system. According to other national statistics, 40 to 50% of foster kids won’t finish high school and 66% will either be homeless, in jail or dead after they age out of foster care at the age of 18. Sadly, I am not surprised as 60% of the youth I work with at Children’s Law Center have been in some form of foster care and 90% have encountered the juvenile justice system.

Another issue with this population is public perception. If I’m being honest here the major problem is most of the youth are beyond the stage where they are considered “cute” and so there is no poster child for America to support. I sat a few feet away from a young lady a couple weeks ago who is set to leave a facility and return home. She is a brilliant young woman who struggles with addiction and family support. She looked at me and asked “What is it they expect to happen to me? I’ve been here and clean for a year and now they want to drop me right back in the epicenter of my past life.” This conversation was heartbreaking for me, not just on a personal level because I have grown fond of the potential of this young lady to do amazing things with her life, but because there are 40 other people in the facility facing that same struggle and I had no way to help them.

So how do we fix this, how do we find a remedy to this cycle of kids being failed by the system? We support causes like Al and Jessica’s Pedaling Justice, we are the support system these kids can’t find anywhere else, and we take the place of absent family members and become an individual who influences positive choices for these youth. This work is hard, this work is emotional, this work is rewarding and every single day we wake up and put on our capes to fight for justice-for youth! To Al and Jessica, keep up the good work and don’t forget your capes as you enter the home stretch!

-Garien Gatewood

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