We must move beyond seeing youth offenders as merely criminals. They are victims in need of love as well.
A little over a year ago, I wrote about an experience I had speaking with young male survivors of child sex abuse. It was called Help the Children Heal. Last week, I spoke with a group whom, one might assume, is the opposite end of the spectrum: young male offenders who were mostly minors. They had all been mandated to be in this program by the court. I was told that 3 – 4 of them were survivors as well. It was made clear to me that all of the boys had a history of some type of abuse from sexual to emotional and/or difficult lives including homelessness and actually being abandoned by their families.
I found myself in the same place as I had when I spoke to that group of survivors a year ago; I was unable to prepare a “talk.” My preparation became one of centering myself to share my story and to be present in the room with the boys. I had faith it would go where it needed.
As I shared my story of struggle and denial and all the distortions that manifested in my life, I could see understanding in the eyes of the boys. I told them about my addictions and how they replaced my relationships with other people. I would choose getting high over being with those I loved. I explained how I thought I was tough, but in reality I was scared. My “toughness” was just a cover for my fears.
My drive to control everything and everybody around me was based on creating a false sense of safety for myself and my family. Some survivors like me, can to feel that if we exert enough control over our lives, then nobody can get close enough to hurt us or our loved ones. I want to make it clear that, at least for me, this comes from a place of fear, which only became clear after extensive therapy.
We talked about the lifetime impact of child abuse and factors of why boys in particular tend to not tell. I also shared what got me started on my healing process and the amazing changes in my life since I faced my abuse. That led to how much choice they could have on becoming a different person by addressing all of what had happened in their lives and the consequences of their actions. They could take responsibility and change their lives or they could grow old with regrets, as I have done.
The damage done by abuse is immense, but the incredible thing is that change and recovery are entirely possible. And it is available to each of us whenever we are ready to address our innermost fears. I told them that if I could take my life in a new direction, they could certainly do so with theirs.
One of the boys had just been arrested the day before, but the group leaders felt he would benefit from our visit, so he was brought in, in leg-irons. My emotional reaction to him was overwhelming. He was probably 17-years-old, give or take, and at least to my eyes, his soul was bleeding out from where those chains touched his skin. No con here, just a tired and broken child. That is how I saw most of them, broken and hurt children, children broken by society, us, you and me. We failed them. This group of boys “felt” the same to me as the young survivors I had spoken with earlier. I thank God that I had enough loving family around me that I never ended up in jail for some of the things I did, although I certainly could have.
I was moved almost to tears as I said goodbye to them. I had an uncontrollable urge to give the young man in leg-irons a hug, which I knew was not possible. I did the only other thing I could think of; I went up to each of them, took their hand in mine, looked them in the eyes and wished them success on their journey.
As I walked away the tears did come. I had gained so much perspective from the time spent with these boys. It does not justify their behavior (nothing can) but each of those boys was a victim as well—a victim of not enough love and of having not received the kind of attention that every child deserves and needs.
Randy Ellison is a speaker, writer and author of the book Boys Don’t Tell: Ending the Silence of Abuse, is a child sexual abuse victim’s advocate and an activist promoting cultural change working with local, state and national organizations. He addresses abuse prevention and healing for survivors from a survivor’s perspective. Randy is a member of the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force. He is a founding member and former board president of OAASIS, Oregon Abuse Advocates and Survivors in Service. Randy recently received the Diane Sandler Award for his work in education, awareness and prevention of sexual violence in Southern Oregon.
Posted by 1in6, Inc. More information available at www.1in6.org.
The mission of 1in6 is to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthier, happier lives. 1in6′s mission also includes serving family members, friends and partners by providing information and support resources on the web and in the community.
–Photo: Spyros Papaspyropoulos/Flickr