For two years, Vanita Allen was filled with guilt and frustration over the behavior of her granddaughter, Asia Mitchell.
Allen shed her addictions 12 years ago so she could care for her six grandchildren after her daughter was murdered.
Because of that, Allen blamed herself when Asia ran away from home several times and was fighting and failing at school. Nothing Allen tried seemed to work.
“So, I took her to court and then I met Linda,” she said.
Allen filed a “beyond control” order against Asia at the Court Designated Worker CDW office and the case was referred to Linda Harvey, director of Juvenile Restorative Justice, for mediation and resolution.
Not only did the family have sessions with Harvey, but Allen joined a mothers’ support group and Asia took part in a “circle group” of discussions with other middle school girls.
Now, nine months later, Allen is a support group leader and Asia has opened up, calmed down and learned how to deal with her anger.
“It helped me be a better person,” said Asia, 14. “I don’t get into trouble every day and I’ve learned how to keep calm, laugh and just walk away.”
Not only have the mediation tactics worked with juveniles in the family court system, but they are working in middle and high schools throughout Lexington and other cities nationwide, before an issue reaches the court system.
“My vision is to get the schools to use restorative justice rather than suspensions,” Harvey said.
Now entering its third year, JRJ was created in 2010 at the request of Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct-Action. BUILD was seeking ways to help juveniles in the court system who were using drugs and alcohol. The group turned to the Family Court judges and Harvey for the professional help needed to explore family dynamics, individual needs and reasons the juveniles have taken a wayward path.
The program has evolved since then. JRJ not only conducts circles in middle and high schools, it also conducts mediation conferences that bring together victims, offenders and their parents for reconciliation when public or criminal offenses occur, Harvey said.
“We have done 100 status (non-criminal) court cases since January, 2010,” Harvey said. “That is not including public offenses, school cases or CDW cases.”
This is where we all should be on our feet, applauding the government’s wisdom in funding such a valuable program. But don’t bother.
Harvey pays the $200 a month rent on the crowded, one-room JRJ office and a nearly depleted grant pays for space at The Plan-tory for peer circles and mediation sessions. Neither Harvey nor any of the 18 interns who have worked at JRJ have ever received a paycheck or stipend.
“We are serving the court for free,” she said.
Fayette Family Court Judge Lucinda Masterton said Harvey is almost her own worst enemy.
“She does the work so beautifully without getting paid,” Masterton said. “Every day she gets up and solves problems. I worry she will wake up and say I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Harvey fills the gap between the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the Department of Juvenile Justice, Masterton said. Harvey, who has worked in the restorative justice field for two decades, is respected worldwide for her work in alternative dispute resolution, but is relatively unknown in Lexington, she said.
“What we really need to do is recognize what she is doing is saving families and coincidently saving us money by keeping kids out of the system,” she said. “We ought to figure out how to pay for this. She is not going to be able to do this on her own forever.”
Mariam Levy, who has been doing her practicum at JRJ while earning her master’s in social work from the University of Kentucky, leads many of the circles because of her previous experience in Boston.
In the all-girl or all-boy circles, the youth are given an opportunity to say what is on their hearts without fear. Only the person holding the “talking piece” is allowed to talk and the others listen respectfully. Some of the circles are held at the CDW offices and some at The Plantory.
“We try to create a space in the circle where they can come together to be their authentic selves,” Levy said. “That is really difficult to do in middle school.”
“It is like an empowerment thing,” Harvey said. “It is not counseling. It is not education. It is just a group for them to feel safe.”
Levy said the student participants are equally divided between rich and poor, black and white.
“Before we started circles, there wasn’t any way to get these kids together. It is an interesting mix.”
In the mediation sessions, the youth learn there are consequences for their actions and they learn to have empathy for those they have injured. Victim and offender are face-to-face, unlike the anonymity afforded by cyber space.
“They don’t really realize what they have done until they see that person in front of them and they have to pay medical bills,” Harvey said.
Sometimes, though, the families have problems that can’t be resolved through mediation. Sometimes there are financial emergencies or transportation issues or other individual needs and reasons the juveniles have taken a wayward path.
Harvey initiated Make A Difference, an email list of individuals and religious organizations that Kabby Akers maintains with donations to fulfill the needs of families that pass through JRJ and the family court system.
“Everything we do is holistic,” Harvey said.
To Masterton, it is further evidence that Harvey “can build an airplane while it is still flying.”
But that plane is running very low on fuel. Somehow, some way we need to ensure JRJ continues to fly. Families need it. Our troubled youth need it. This community needs it.
How we treat our youth is a direct reflection on us, and Harvey is trying to make us look as good as possible.
“The thing about Linda is she is always a decade ahead of everyone else in the community,” Masterton said. “Mediation is now an enormous part of our justice system. When she first was talking about it, no one understood. She is always doing something cutting-edge.”
Allen would agree.
“Asia is in a stable place right now,” she said. “She has been such a sweet child. I am so thankful. Linda is just a darling. She really is.”