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Parenting Without A Voice

Posted in 2017, Voices Thursday, 20 July 2017

Parenting Without A Voice

By Michelle Hannemann

When children are charged as adults; their parents aren’t notified of their arrest, or that the police are interrogating them in connection with a crime.  Michelle found it out the hard way, when her 16 year old high school junior was arrested and charged with a felony as an adult.  Based heavily on the statement he provided to the police (without any legal representation), he was waived to adult court and sentenced to 5 years in prison. Michelle’s son was then released on an electronic bracelet, and resentenced in 2016 after appealing his first sentence.. Through this hardship, Michelle has learned a lot about the justice system, and how harmful it is for children to be treated as adults.

In honor of Parents' Day, Michelle tells the story of how hard it is to be a parent when you no longer have a voice. 

Parenting is already the hardest job one will ever have in my opinion.  Imagine it becoming a hundred times harder, as you powerlessly witness your child trying to navigate the adult justice system by himself. You can never relax, feel content or let your guard down. You always need to push, ask and dig for information, to ensure your child is safe in this adult environment that’s unfit for him. It tears at your heartstrings every day, and unfortunately the heartache doesn’t end when they are out of prison, as they now must face the collateral consequences of an adult sentence. They will live with their record and the repercussions for the rest of their lives. Several formative years were taken from our son for a decision he made at 14 years of age.  Because he was sentenced as an adult, he will pay for that decision for the rest of his life.

No voice, no options and no role in our child’s future. Scared, fearful and alone. These are some of the feelings we had and the reality we faced as parents, sitting in a courtroom for 3 years, helplessly observing our then 16-year-old son being treated as an adult for a crime he committed when he was 14. Our privileges were taken away as soon as our son was waived into adult court.  In the juvenile system, the judge would involve the parents: confirm their participation in their child’s activities, discuss progress, put responsibilities on them for the safety of the community if needed, and when the parents were deemed fit for this responsibility, holding them accountable as well. In the juvenile justice system, parents can ask questions, make statements when appropriate, and answer questions when asked. But in the adult system, that relationship is severed. Our 16-year-old son was treated as a criminal with complete disregard for his age, and we had no rights to accompany him through the process. The fear was constant, each time we entered the court room. We were bounced around from judge to judge, going from juvenile to adult court. We had to start the whole process over and build new relationships with attorneys to represent our son in the adult world. Expenses began to build. $5,200 for the electronic bracelet alone while in the court process. What 16 or 17-year-old has that kind of money? Not to mention attorney expenses, due to the fact that a public defender wasn’t an option since we needed an attorney that understood juvenile law and all of the idiosyncrasies while representing a child in the adult system. To add fuel to the fire, due to bracelet restrictions and his public record (children’s records are public when in the adult system), he was not able to work. A child in the adult system incurs the fees of an adult. The child pays for supervision or goes to jail. Of course, as parents we paid.

Our son was a junior in High School, an A/B student who needed to graduate. Education is key, yet it was almost taken away from him. The court process took three long years until sentencing. Hadn’t we been able to pay, he would have been sitting in an adult jail that whole time instead of graduating from high school and completing his first semester of college. How can we, as a country, continue to let this happen? Our children are our future.  What if he did not have the family to support him financially, emotionally and spiritually? Many youth don’t, and have to sit in jail, being influenced by incarcerated adults and wait for their sentence, while missing out on the education they need and deserve and their voices never being heard.

Join the movement to end the prosecution and incarceration of youth as adults, so that what happened to our son never happens to anyone else's child ever again. 

Michelle Hannemann is a spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice and lives in De Pere, WI.