From Problem to Promise

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By Joseph L. Giasullo

It isn’t every day that a child of fifteen can walk into a J.C. Penny and claim whatever she wants. For Suhailey Oday that moment came once and she sought to make the most of it. With her friend as backup, Suhailey entered the department store armed with nothing but an empty bag. She would see something that caught her eye and immediately tuck it away without concern for the price. When she was through browsing and concealing the items, she tried to make a quick and easy getaway. That was until she was stopped at the entrance by an undercover mall security guard, who had been following her every move from the perfumes to the shoes and through to the lingerie section.

“I was so scared,” she remembers. The security guard escorted her to J.C. Penny’s secret interrogation room, where photos are taken of notorious perpetrators with the items of their fancy for the unforgiving J.C. Penny database of banned customers. Suhailey thought her life was over in that room. J.C. Penny contacted her mother because she was a minor, and she knew there was little hope for getting out of the situation unscathed. The prospect of being in police custody comforted her more than the custody of her own mother, who would undoubtedly give her the verbal lashing of her lifetime. “The car ride home was death!” She throws her head back, remembering that moment of utter terror.

Despite all that, for Suhailey the next phone call was worse. While driving home, her mother contacted Omar McDew, Youth Advocate and Coordinator on the New Britain Juvenile Review Board (JRB). Omar has known Suhailey since she was in 7th grade. Their relationship has no secrets. She trusts and confides in him. There is little that can break such a bond – not even the call that one of his “best kids” in the youth leadership program had just been indicted for shoplifting. At the time, Suhailey was heartbroken that her mother called Omar – “What am I going to do now? Coach O. knows!” But Omar reassured Suhailey and her hysterical mother that everything would be all right and he would handle the situation.

Omar’s job diverts juvenile offenders away from courtrooms and police custody. The organization where he is an advocate, New Britain Youth and Family Services, works with the New Britain Police Department to decide which cases are handled by the JRB through a provisional process that considers the child’s previous offenses and the severity of the crime. Rather than facing a judge at a juvenile court, where costly legal fees, probation, and drug testing are likely, children’s fates are decided by a group of local professionals with rehabilitation in mind. The JRB’s work is contingent upon a two-way conversation between child and advocate. Omar uncovers the underlying issues that may be the driving forces behind a child’s actions, and then the JRB recommends a punishment fit for the crime with a mentor to follow up with the child and the family.

Omar immediately had Suhailey’s case diverted from juvenile court to his desk, where many minor delinquent cases like larceny, fighting, and truancy pass. While Omar presented her case to the JRB and arrived at a decision, Suhailey had to go on with her normal life. She was forced to reflect on what she had done, which was punishment enough.

“When they took the picture of me at J.C. Penny was when I realized I made a big mistake. They even took pictures of all of the stuff I took.”

Ultimately, the JRB sentenced Suhailey to community service and a written letter of apology. She got off easy to say the least, but had Omar not taken the initiative to see Suhailey through the JRB process, she could very well have found herself in front of a juvenile court, with the stigmatizing label of “juvenile delinquent” against her record until she turned 18.

Omar sat in his office as Suhailey relayed her story. The walls were lined with pictures of kids Omar has helped over the years, trophies of teams he has coached to success, cards from families who are forever grateful, and a large poster folded at the middle as if it had been transported with him wherever he has gone. It carries all of Omar’s distinguished attributes as written by his co-workers, students, and JRB kids alike. One of them announces that Omar is the best, another professes his disdain for swearing, and the rest are forced into every nook and cranny of the poster. Omar looked on as Suhailey spoke. He occasionally chimed in to clarify an acronym or help her recount a specific moment, but for the most part Omar looked on as the interview commenced. The things Suhailey admitted of her past were tough to recall, especially in front of a stranger. Omar’s presence alone gave her immense strength and fearlessness.

“Omar is my motivation,” she says.

Now at 21 years old, Suhailey is pursuing a degree in social work. She hopes to someday help children in an office right beside Omar’s with her own pictures, cards, and posters on the wall. At home, Suhailey’s 11 younger cousins look up to her. Her experiences have guided her into the role model position for her family.

The success of the JRB is a direct result of Omar’s success with children like Suhailey. Although the New Britain JRB has existed since 1977, different initiatives to divert minors from the justice system have been popping up across Connecticut and the rest of the country this past decade in response to the disparaging number of children who have found themselves in trouble. These initiatives boast outstanding numbers of how many kids have avoided police officers, courtrooms, judges, and the delinquency title simply by inserting an intermediary between children and the law. Omar alone has seen a significant reduction in the amount of children who come to him from schools in New Britain due to the high school’s Right Response team, a state funded grant program that makes the effort to handle situations at school with students and parents.

Advocates of diversion initiatives in the state consist of the Juvenile Justice Alliance, the Child Health and Development Institute, Court Support Services Department, and many law enforcement agencies. Their success is due to the use of JRBs, Memorandums of Agreement between education systems and police forces, competitive grants for schools and communities that participate in the initiative, and other tools Connecticut has at their disposal for giving children like Suhailey a second chance at living a healthy and successful life.

In reference to why she chose social work, Suhailey looked at Omar and said, “I want to be the person kids don’t have. I want to be somebody for them. I want to be somebody they can talk to.”

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