Adults argue, children lose

In my former role as a Children’s Advocate at a local rape crisis center, I learned some valuable lessons about what the legal process means to a child victim. Even though each child, each case, and each understanding is uniquely informed by individual experiences, there were a few common features that stuck out to me. One example is the belief that the prosecuting attorney is “my lawyer.” Regardless of information offered, age of the child, or what he or she knew, this is how they felt. With this belief came the inevitable risk of “losing the trial” if the jury returned a not-guilty verdict.

In my pursuit of feminist justice, I stumbled into a conversation on the role of the justice system in a child’s healing process after experiencing sexual violence. (Thanks to my jawing partner, I have this great post title!) Much of the information on children in the justice system describes “protecting” children. The idea that children have rights, roles, and a voice in the legal process is relatively new. Adults spend a good lot of time figuring, fumbling, and mandating their way toward protecting children. Sadly, these well-intentioned efforts can easily overlook the wants and needs of the child. Our culture puts an awful lot of stock in the outcome of court proceedings. Popular shows and movies represent the criminal justice process as a neat story line. There is a crime committed, rising action through investigation and prosecution, and a climactic finish in a ruling. This storyline approach offers some resolution and closure for an attentive audience and fits neatly within a 43 minute segment. In reality, the court case—if there is one at all—is but a small snapshot along the journey to healing from sexual violence.

I think there are two key issues at stake when discussing justice and children. First, keep in mind that a criminal court proceeding is not the full story. In fact, the “main character” in that process is the person on trial. Healing from sexual violence is something that happens over the course of a lifetime. It’s a journey that belongs to the child (or any person) who lived through the violence. Advocating for a justice system that values and supports a child is critical. We can spend all the time and energy on the justice process that we want, but the next day that child is probably going right back to school. This brave person still has life to live, challenges to face, and may not have much sense of resolution at all. The real focus for adults who care about children is the ongoing healing journey. The trial is a stop along the way.

The second key issue is adultism. Adultism is a form of oppression that systematically devalues, denies, or limits the wants, needs, and experiences of young people. Any justice system advocacy we do should be evaluated from an anti-adultist lens. When adults argue over services or funding, exercise power or coercion, or impose “protections” without the input and consideration of the child victim, it perpetuates an adultist, oppressive system. Thanks to a fantastic workshop on adultism at the Oregon Sexual Assault Task Force conference, I’ve committed myself to developing an anti-adultist lens. Through this conversation and others with a staff attorney at Day One in NYC, I’ve come to recognize that our desire to shield and protect children is in place because I fear the violence, exploitation, and harmful actions of other adults and the systems we establish.