Let Us Open Our Eyes

Copyright 2006 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy S. Apodaca

    “Why don’t you want to go home?” I asked the boy. His hands and legs were shackled, a common occurrence in juvenile proceedings.

    The desperate look on his face alone provided the answer even before he uttered a word.

    “Because . . . ,” he said, pausing, as if hoping that one word would suffice but knowing I expected more.

“It’s not good for me there,” he finally added, wincing.

    The youth appeared before me in Children’s Court, accused of several delinquent acts. When I asked the youth’s public defender where the boy’s mother was, he hesitated and then asked permission to approach the bench for a conference with the state’s counsel and the juvenile probation officer (JPO). He informed me that the mother, a party to the proceedings, couldn’t be found to be served with notice of her son’s hearing. (She was finally located in a “crack” house, in no condition to appear in court.) I sensed the young boy suspected as much. After all, in his eyes, she hadn’t been there for him all those times he needed her, and this day would be no different for him.

    This case was one of many that I handled during my almost two-month tenure. There were others just as sad, and I’ll get to them.

    But first, let me digress a bit. A daughter of mine taught kindergarten at Washington Elementary School in Las Cruces, and it was through her experiences that I became aware of the terrible impact poverty had not only on a child’s physical and mental well-being but also on the quality of what they learned in school. The constant disruptions and instability of these children’s lives created living conditions that would guarantee not only societal failures but also problems with the law. My daughter’s tales of the disadvantaged children in her classroom didn’t quite have the impact or force at the time. That would hit me several years later when I presided in juvenile and abuse and neglect cases.

    One of the cases I heard involved a young girl with a sweet face who was so cute and petite that she seemed out of place in shackles and the blue jumpsuit that was standard dress for detainees at the county’s juvenile detention center (JDC).

    I called out the girl’s name for her to come forward. As she walked from the jury box to join her public defender at the lectern, she rolled her eyes, as if saying to herself, “Here we go again. Do I really have to take part in this circus?” Otherwise, she appeared unaffected by the proceedings. Either that or she was feigning apparent indifference.

    She could have been anyone’s daughter, even a member of an affluent family used to the finer things in life. But she wasn’t, as I learned from reviewing the file before the hearing and now as I listened to opposing counsel.

    She belonged to a single-parent family, living with her mother and other siblings, and for reasons not readily apparent to me, had suffered from violent and traumatic thoughts of killing her mother and an older sister. She fantasized one time of killing her mother while she slept. Because she harbored such thoughts, she obviously couldn’t be permitted to return home, even if the proper medical/psychological treatment was offered. Until the JPO assessed an assortment of available treatments, I ordered that she be kept in detention.

    She seemed bored as she listened to the various comments from the state’s attorney, her own public defender, and the JPO. Not until I began speaking to her, suggesting to her that she think real hard about her situation and about cooperating with the JPO once a proper treatment plan was developed for her, did she register a reaction. What I said to her must have triggered some deep-rooted emotion, for she appeared to be getting anxious and edgy. She fidgeted, and her arms swayed. She couldn’t hide the look of desperation in her eyes. As I concluded my remarks, she got teary eyed. She appeared distraught and uncomfortable as she was led out of the courtroom.

    A few minutes later, as I was hearing another case, a loud, desperate cry followed by outright bawling came from the jury room. Concerned, I asked the deputy sheriff to check out the commotion. He returned a few seconds later to report that the young girl was all right; she was apparently undergoing a delayed, emotional response to what had taken place moments before in the courtroom.

    Her outburst in the jury room didn’t surprise me, for I had suspected that her nonchalant, indifferent attitude had been a cover up for the pent-up emotions she was undergoing but wouldn’t, or possibly couldn’t, release as events unfolded in the courtroom.

    Following “indifference” came silence. That was the next case—a youngster who wouldn’t say a word while others around him were stating their recommendations about what to do with him pending a final disposition of his case. After hearing comments from the state’s attorney, the boy’s attorney, and the JPO assigned to the case, I asked the boy if he had anything to say.

    “No,” he said.

    But I persisted, vowing to get him to participate. After all, he had a stake in what was going on in the courtroom and what was going to happen to him immediately after the hearing but more importantly, in his future. Equally important, I wanted to give him a chance to express himself—to unload his feelings while he had the chance. But he continued to insist he had nothing to say.

    When I saw him get a bit anxious, I finally asked, “Do you want to scream as loud as you possibly can?” My question caught him by surprise.

    “No,” he answered softly, perhaps slightly embarrassed at the thought of screaming to the rooftops in the courtroom.

    “I’ll give you permission to,” I finally added when he said nothing more.

    There was a slight hesitation as he considered the remote possibility that he might choose to yell at the top of his lungs.

    I actually wouldn’t have been surprised if he had because I’d been studying his face all along. I could have been wrong, but I thought he might be repressing not just anger but rage at someone or something.

    Then he began to speak, softly and only a little, saying nothing revealing, except to say he realized he’d have to make some changes in his life. And then he stopped, as if there was nothing more to say that would make a difference.

    In the end, I ordered that he remain in detention until the JPO came up with a treatment plan, which might include a residential treatment center or treatment foster care, among other alternatives.

    The last case was an abuse and neglect proceeding in which the father of two children, beautifully named Cherish and Angel, wept as I announced my ruling that the Children, Youth, and Family Department’s (CYFD) permanent plan be changed from one of reunification to one of adoption (with only a secondary plan of reunification). The father had just testified concerning what he believed he had accomplished during the past two weeks as he came to realize the reality that he might soon be losing his two kids forever.

    I don’t know if he thought his eleventh-hour efforts might be perceived by CYFD as too little, too late. As the case stood, I believed at the time, such a perception would be premature. But it wouldn’t hurt if the father thought that; it might be the motivation he needed.

    Some parents, unfortunately, were like that. They’d drown their own sorrows in drugs and alcohol, making them incapable of properly caring for their children. Their flagrant neglect eventually would come to the attention of CYFD. If the parents were lucky, the case might be handled informally. But if they persisted in their unhealthy behavior, neglect proceedings were filed by CYFD.

    I reminded the two parents, who were at the time living apart because of a court’s restraining order, that it was up to them to turn their lives around and become the caring parents their two children needed. The choice was theirs, I told them, knowing as I spoke that because of their circumstances, it was a constrained choice.

    I tried hard not to sound negative, explaining that I truly believed they loved and cared for their two daughters with such lovely names. All they needed to do was to participate in and complete successfully the treatment plan CYFD had developed for them to become better parents—parenting courses and family therapy or counseling.

    Earlier, the social worker assigned to the case had testified that the mother had shown indifference when confronted with the possibility that CYFD might recommend adoption to the court.

    “Whatever!” the social worker testified the mother had said in response.

    Now as I spoke, the woman nodded, as if to communicate to me that she understood my admonishments and finally agreed that she had to improve as a parent.

    It somewhat lifted my spirits that my consoling words had done some good, for the man, who had continued sobbing into his hands while I spoke, now wiped away his tears, looked up at me, and nodded his understanding of what I was saying.

    I was attempting to convey to them that not all hope was lost. They still had some time to mend their ways. But it was up to them, no one else.

    I came away from my last week of hearings thinking that something more needed to be done aside from what we were already doing for all of these children so desperately in need of help. Someone, I concluded, needed to reach the ones who felt alone, and worst, lost in a world foreign to them.

    In the early morning hours after my last day in court, minutes before driving back to my home in Austin, I sat having breakfast on the patio at the home of two dear friends of mine. Their house in Picacho Hills overlooked the greenery of the Mesilla Valley and Las Cruces below with the majestic Organ Mountains in the background.

    As we ate, my hostess spoke of the children in war-torn Iraq, Lebanon and Israel. These were innocent children, she was saying, who didn’t cause the turmoil to which they were subjected.

    While she talked, the sudden thought came to me that one needn’t look to other countries or even beyond the borders of our own community to find these deplorable conditions.

    As the sun rose over the Organs, shedding the day’s first light on the city, I thought some poor children down there would wake up hungry. Their only meal of the day might possibly come from eating scraps of food off the floor in unsanitary conditions not even fit for pets. These children would be forced to fend for themselves while their parents slept late or were in a drunken stupor or on drugs, unable to take care of them because they were barely able to take care of their own needs, much less their children’s.

    I imagined a youngster down there in some dilapidated dwelling he called home getting verbally, physically, or sexually abused or assaulted. This might be, in years to come, the force that would propel him into Children’s Court, much like the youngsters who appeared in my courtroom during the past few months.

    As I drove the long, ten-hour stretch home later that day, I had a lot of time to think about my recent tenure as judge pro tem of the Children’s Court. Somewhere midway, as I pondered what would become of those parents and youngsters who had appeared before me, tears (the ones I had apparently repressed as I sat listening and watching the sad stories unfold before me) came pouring out.

    “I knew this might happen,” I said to myself as I tried wiping the tears away. But I couldn’t hold back the stream of emotions I was feeling, and so the tears continued.

    The one image I couldn’t erase from my thoughts was of the sobbing father who sat lost, alone, and full of despair as I announced that he might lose his children to adoption unless he began to work to become a better parent by leaving his world of drugs and alcohol.

    I found myself wishing I could relive the moment I announced my decision. I saw myself walking down from the bench and going to sit down by his side to hug him. I had felt deep empathy for him as I made my ruling. At least, I reminded myself, I offered this couple some consolation—they hadn’t lost their children yet.

    As I continued to wipe away my tears, I tried blocking the sad visions with positive images. I reminded myself that for every ten or possibly 100 children, there were those who were fortunate enough to be born into healthier environments. These were the children that would be given the coping tools to succeed in their lives. They stood in stark contrast to the misfits who appeared before me and might continue to appear in the same courtroom long after my departure.

    Through the years, I’ve come to believe that life is a gift we regrettably take for granted. I’ve also learned that we don’t own life, no more than we own our children. It and they are only on loan to us from God. Life is here today and may be gone tomorrow. It should be treasured as something sacred.

    That’s part of the reason why my third term in Children’s Court seemed to have drained every ounce of energy from me when the end of the work day came. I saw youngsters and parents who, having taken their lives for granted, traveled along wrong paths and made unwise choices in their own lives that would cause them much misery.

    Among them were youths who were on the edge of an abyss, on the brink of destroying any chance for fruitful lives in their futures. They were children crying to someone—anyone—for even the slightest guidance or direction. Sadly, though, there was no parent around to offer it.

    Those of us who have succeeded in our careers pride ourselves in our accomplishments and in what others would perceive as our distinguished lives. When I find myself getting carried away with my own notion that I’ve done well for myself and my family, I remind myself that I was lucky to have had the opportunities my own circumstances in life had to offer.

    The broad question we must ask ourselves is whether, given the living conditions and lack of opportunities that many of our youths must endure, would we, in the same dire circumstances they find themselves in, fare any better than they. None of us chooses the family we are born into. We have no more say in that accident of life than we do in choosing our eye or hair color.

    Yet, we stand ever so ready to criticize and even condemn those among us who haven’t attained what we have, instead of reminding ourselves that in so many ways, life is pitifully unfair for not affording all of us equal opportunities.

    But I still think back in frustration, wondering whether I made a difference in the lives of the children. When I have these doubts, I remember a story a psychologist friend of mine once told me when I explained my frustrations to him over lunch.

    A young couple, the story goes, was walking along a beach. They came across hundreds of starfish that had mysteriously been swept ashore and lay helpless, dying in the hot sun.

    The woman picked one of them up and threw it as far into the ocean as she could.

    “That’s not going to make a difference,” the man said with a smirk on his face.

    The woman turned to him with hope in her eyes and said, “It will to that starfish.”

    As in that story, I console myself by hoping that I may have made a difference in at least one life of a parent or child who appeared before me, out of the many. I’ll probably never know, but the thought alone that I might have gives me hope that any one of us can make a difference in the life of a child at risk.

    I tell myself one thing with certainty—I’ll never forget the faces of those desperate individuals who appeared before me with their sad stories. The images I saw and heard in the courtroom have been etched in my mind. My experience as Children’s Court judge on three separate occasions has awakened me. It has changed the way I view life and the world around me, and I’ll never lose sight that there are those among us who are less fortunate.

    I vow to do my part to try making a difference in the world. I will do so with the knowledge that one person can’t by him or herself eliminate poverty and alone create an appropriate standard of moral fiber that is regrettably lacking in our free society.

    Yet all of us, acting together, might accomplish a small part of that goal, if not all.

    It is poverty that is a major contributing cause of the tragic stories I’ve related in this piece. I ask that you consider helping in this effort by volunteering to do your part in improving the conditions in your community, our nation, and in the world. I ask that you take time out of your own busy, often hectic, lifestyles to see what you can do for those less fortunate than you.

    But before you can do that, you must —as I finally did—open your eyes.

Copyrighted August 2006