On the shelf
Children of the State: Stories of Survival and Hope in the Juvenile Court System
By Jeff Hobbs
Scribner: 384 pages, $29
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Children of the State, Jeff Hobbs’ new book about children involved in juvenile justice, contains some history. There are some revealing statistics and debates about public policy. But in the end, these are all small things: For Hobbs, whose “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” won a Los Angeles Times Book Award, storytelling is about the people. Above all, this sensitively written book offers finely crafted portraits of the teenagers in juvenile detention center and the educators and counselors who try to help them find a safe way back into – and through – the real world.
“My focus at work is on the small scale, on the individuals and on the relationships,” Hobbs said via video from his Los Angeles home. That was the approach he took with his book about Robert Peace, in which he followed a bright young man from Newark, NJ who managed to flee the streets and attend Yale but remained an outsider and was murdered at 30 would.
With “children of the stateHobbs zooms out to find that a quarter of a million children are ministering in some form of detention every year: “The impact on their lives is profound and long-term.” He knows some of these kids need confinement, at least briefly — “if you point a gun at someone, there must be consequences” — but he passionately believes that their lives still have value, and he hopes to inspire readers to volunteer or advocate for, or at least care for, the children in these closed buildings.
Hobbs’ tale transports us into the minds of his subjects in the middle of the night when he was clearly not there. “I always ask people how they feel,” he explained. “Sometimes I want to go too far, but if you want readers to care, you need to go there and get those details.”
“Children of the State” is broken into three sections, which sees Hobbs delving into various programs across the country over the course of seven months. In the first, set in Delaware’s only juvenile detention center, Hobbs focuses on the story of Josiah Wright, who is serving a year in prison for a violent crime.
The middle part, set at the Woodside Learning Center in San Francisco, emphasizes the educators, particularly the director, Chris Lanier, and an English language teacher, Megan Mercurio. Hobbs examines the way the program seeks to educate these children, but also the toll it takes on the adults. “I was really surprised at the level of care and investment in the classroom that causes a lot of burnouts,” he said. “You’re really close to a tragedy in there.”
The last program, Exalt Youth in New York, prevents children from being incarcerated; They go to their own high school and then come to Exalt to learn life lessons and receive paid internships that will help them prepare for the life that is available to them if they can avoid difficulties. Here we are introduced to Ian Alvaro and the program’s teacher, Alex Griffith, who is struggling to help Ian progress.
Hobbs’ personal research has been disrupted by the pandemic; He continued to follow the stories but felt the lockdown robbed him of an opportunity to focus as much on the guards and counselors at all three facilities as he had planned.
To the reader there is no sense of such limitations; We always feel in space. There are scenes of heartbreak (a program graduate is murdered shortly after returning to the streets) and more mundane frustrations (you have 30 minutes to write an essay, some students jot down a sentence or two while most leave their pages blank to let). But there are also just enough bright signs to justify the book’s subtitle, “Stories of Survival and Hope in the Juvenile Justice System.”
“Hope is a tricky word,” Hobbs admitted. “I definitely see it in these stories. Still, if you look at the juvenile detention center, it’s about erasing potential. I wanted to show how hard it is to get out the other side.”
For those youth who can respond, a good program with caring educators and counselors can be a “reboot point,” Hobbs said. One teacher notes that kids who graduate from juvenile detention center or at least graduate from high school, even if they do well by many societal standards, get a “spectacular” result.
Hobbs notes that nearly all children who end up in juvenile detention center are poor and from communities of color — and many of them are also burdened by loss, violence, and other trauma. As a result, Hobbs writes, they live in the present and are haunted by their past, but can rarely imagine their future.
“Some of those traits — not being able to look down, being told what to do by adults who don’t take your ideas seriously — are pretty much universal to teenagers,” he says. But for students with trauma and little support at home, it threatens to become permanent. “There’s often a deep despair about, ‘What’s next for me?’ The kids in the class mumble about it all the time, so they might as well fight someone or make life difficult for the teacher.”
While Hobbs is reluctant to assume sufficient expertise to write prescriptions, he says these schools are severely understaffed and need more counselors. “It really felt like the moments of progress happened when it was just a child and a caring adult sitting across from them, looking them in the eye and listening,” he said.
He believes government-funded programs could guarantee that vocational training and graduate jobs would help these kids envision that elusive future. That kind of support “is the big dream of a lot of the people I’ve worked with on this book,” he said.
One reason he’s reluctant to ban is because he knows he’s an outsider, a privileged “white man” whose children went to a preschool where even parents discussing time-outs gasped. (“You’d get the stinky eye for weeks,” he said.)
“I definitely can’t say for a second that I understand anyone’s perspective here,” despite all the time he’s spent talking to his subjects. He knows that some readers may even insist that these are not his stories.
“I don’t have a clear answer to that because there isn’t one, and I’m struggling with the question,” he said. He remembers facing the same problem while writing the book about Robert Peace.
“One day I was driving around with a close friend of Rob’s and I was chatting about this very question,” Hobbs recalled. “We were at a stop light and he said, ‘Jeff, I’m not going to give you permission and I certainly can’t give you absolution. But if you listen, maybe I can help you understand. And then, because you’re white, maybe you can help other people understand it.’ He just wanted to shut me up. But I’m sticking to that as I do this work.”