JDC’s Got Talent!

The view from my seat. I wish I could have captured the fun and enthusiasm of the show, but privacy is a cardinal value of the juvenile justice system, a value I deeply respect.

On Friday, November 20, I motored north to the Collin County Juvenile Detention Center (the JDC), where my wife Linda works as a juvenile-court judge. She invited me up to a talent show produced and presented entirely by participants in the center’s program for teen sex offenders. You probably have an image in your mind of what those young men are like. But if you came along with me that day, you would have had that image turned around, for three reasons. First, the program, led by a tireless and (to me) saintly woman named Terri, is incredibly effective, based on the way justice providers measure, which is repeat behavior. I knew that fact before, but it was nicely reinforced. Second, these kids, despite their county-mandated “buzz” haircuts and orange jumpsuits, look just like the kids you see hanging out at the mall, or waiting for the school bus. Third, in their choice of performance act, their tastes mirrored those of the broader youth culture, what older folks like me would see as the good and the bad.

It’s also important for you to understand that nearly all of the children who performed (or sat in the back of the room and cheered) that day were themselves sexually abused earlier in their lives. They were victims of unspeakable acts. Thus, if Terri and her team of caring souls can break that cycle, we will all benefit.

So what did we see? We saw dancers and singers, including a fellow who opened the show with a nice rendition of the national anthem. We saw a young man play the violin with skill and grace. We laughed along with “commercials” for Coca-Cola, GEICO and eTrade, inserted for realism and fun. We listened to two emcees who were poised and supportive of every youngster who performed. And we heard a kid read a poem he had written, based on Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, touching in his hope for justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation. That child was eligible for release the day before the show, but he asked to stay another day so he could perform with and be there for his buddies.

It was hard to hold back tears. These were also our children.

At the end, we gave them an ovation, cheered, whistled, and yelled. I introduced myself as Judge Britton’s husband, shook hands and thanked many of the boys, and saluted their talent and their pluck. These were kids who likely have not received much praise in their young lives. To see them beam was to feel better about our world, and to appreciate the incredible commitment of the men and women who work in juvenile justice, doing their best, often against long odds, to try to get children on the right path.

When Linda invited me to the show that morning, she said she could not vouch for the talent, to which I replied, “quality does not matter to me; what matters is that those kids are in the show, that they joined.” Belonging matters.

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