Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Jan. 28, 2006

A young woman who I’m very fond of was sentenced to four months in jail this week, and I cheered at the news. I high-fived my co-workers, who’d been hoping for jail time as well. It could have been a jubilant moment if it all wasn’t so damn sad.
The young woman is 23 going on six in some of the ways she relates to the world, and jail isn’t the right place for her. What she really needs is to be taken in by a warm, motherly woman who’d keep her fed, loved and busy for as long as it takes for her to get a grip on her life, even if she never does.
But there’s nothing like that in this world of ours for people like my young friend. She doesn’t quite fit in anybody’s box. And so it’s off to jail on a trafficking charge and the inevitable breaches, and me happy about it just for the chance to see her get a couple enforced months of nourishment and shelter - and hopefully, a break from cocaine.
If you knew her story, you would not be surprised at how it’s come to this, as her wounded life begins with a mother who drank while pregnant and carries on through poverty, family tragedy, her own early pregnancies and addiction. She has been homeless for the better part of two years now despite all the best efforts of local service agencies that support her, because the services that might help her in a more meaningful way simply don’t exist.
Life tends to teach most of us through trial and error. We do something that turns out badly and as a result, resolve not to do it again. But for people whose mothers drank while pregnant, that’s often not true. The part of the brain that governs judgment and impulse control is permanently damaged, as are other essential body systems. The children of drinking mothers are forever different, and in ways that don’t fit well in an uninformed and impatient society.
In an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter much. A problem would be looked at as a problem regardless of its root, and solved accordingly. The ongoing dilemma of my young friend’s life need not be her inescapable fate - all she needs is suitable services flexible enough to accommodate the person that she is.
Were her IQ below 70, there might be more help for her. Or if she was under 19 and could still be considered a child. The damage done to her brain by her mother’s drinking may one day be her ticket to services when the province launches its anticipated strategy for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, but right now there’s barely a thing going on in terms of direct help.
And so there’s nothing for this young woman beyond the Band-Aid care of street-level social agencies, which can do little except to pick her up after every fall and pray that she survives the next one. If it weren’t for her street community and a network of pals at the agencies she visits, there would be no one in her life.
How can it be that I’m rooting for jail for her - me, the bleeding-heart liberal who can barely stand the way we use our jails at the best of times?
But that’s what it comes down to after you see someone you’re very fond of risking death every night on the streets, via any number of means. When the option is having somebody steal your cold, damp blanket right off your back while you’re shivering outside with the fever of staph infections ravaging your body, jail doesn’t look so bad.
Years ago, I talked to a woman with a brain-injured son who was trying to explain her immense frustration with a system that would have helped him had his problems been caused by a mental handicap rather than a brain injury. The services he needed existed - just not for him.
The same is true for my young friend, who I suspect would thrive in some foster home on a farm, with lots of animals. But there’s no foster homes for grown-up girls like her.
Too young. Too old. Too high of an intellect. Not enough of a drug addict. Too loud, too crazy, too disastrous. The walls go up - ostensibly as a means of sorting people into the right boxes, but in reality a blatant denial of services to certain populations. Like my young friend, whose simple need for a home and a sense of belonging should not be beyond our capability to provide.
At least I know where she’ll be sleeping at night for these next few weeks, although my heart hurts to think of her there. She needs support, not imprisonment.
But sometimes jail is all there is.

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