The Prison Pipeline Begins with Trauma – My Son Included

You open your heart and adopt children. Because they’ve experienced more trauma in a few short years than most people in a lifetime.

You offer a stable home. Because they’ve lacked a consistent, positive caregiver.

You want to be their family. Because every child deserves to be safe and loved.

Looking out Jail CellPrison is the last thing on your mind. Mine too, until it happened to me.

For the past four birthdays, my oldest son has been incarcerated in a state prison – after five years in the revolving door of a county jail. Arrest, detention, release.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

From the day he stepped into my home at age ten, he wanted his freedom. Now at 28, he still isn’t free.

His dilemma is all too common for young adults who didn’t have a fair start in life.

In my son’s case, he was neglected shortly after birth. For the next seven years, he was physically and emotionally abused. The resulting PTSD made relationships with others nearly impossible.

He trusted no one with his care – only himself.

That’s a tall order for a young boy.

As his defiance grew, a “once-and-done” psychiatrist diagnosed him ADHD. When the stimulant medication didn’t curb the mal-adaptive behavior, another “once-and-done” psychiatrist over-prescribed an anti-psychotic.

The skinny, irritable kid with PTSD became an obese, angry kid – still with PTSD.

christmas-2003-alexAfter a dozen out-of-home placements and two failed attempts at family re-unification, his anger turned to rage.

Eighteen years ago, I thought my adoption could save him. After all, he was a 10-year-old boy who deserved a fresh start.

But his past continued to haunt him in spite of a stable, nurturing environment with reasonable expectations.

How I tried.

How many in the community tried.

Unfortunately, treating the worst cases of early childhood trauma is extremely difficult. Healing is easier said than done, especially when children go to incredible lengths to control everything in their lives – rather than trust any adults with their care.

In my son’s constant state of arousal and dysregulation, control meant survival. Not being hurt again. Accepting my firm yet compassionate approach wasn’t an option.

Much less my love.

The anxiety that riddled him was intense. He chewed on his clothes without realizing it. Open spaces with high ceilings terrified him for some unknown reason. Within seconds his movements froze – like his emotional development years before.

At our highly-diverse and welcoming elementary school, several committed trauma-sensitive teachers gave him a chance, a clean slate – after years of being considered a “throw-away” kid. With well-defined boundaries, he felt safe. He began to feel self-worth. In turn, he did exceptional academic work.

After a year his test scores placed him in the gifted range.

At home, however, he kept his distance. He couldn’t give or receive a heartfelt hug. Reading books provided escape. Telling jokes with amazing wit interrupted meaningful, connected conversations. 

Family 2002Overall my son was relatively stable.

Yet the chaos of middle school proved overwhelming. Too many teachers all with a different approach. Several backed him into a corner on a regular basis – triggering past shame. He shut down completely and wouldn’t – or couldn’t – respond to rational redirection.

One day he ran out of gym class and hid in a closet for four hours – while every available district police officer combed the area surrounding the school on a sub-zero January day.

Two years of progressive healing quickly unraveled – when he desperately needed to experience success every day.

That’s when a plethora of ugly emotions overflowed at home over the simplest of requests. Sweeping the garage. Taking a bath. Going to bed. Even coming to table for dinner.

Time and time again, he appeared to be sabotaging his own success – because deep down he never felt whole. Not worthy of the good in life.

Labeled a trouble-maker, his anger reached a tipping point.

Stabbing siblings with forks. Running away at least once a week. Amassing a stash of lighters. Then setting fires. Finally killing a family pet.

When my son’s propensity to use his fists landed him in the juvenile justice system, some officials fell for his unassuming charm. They looked for someone to blame – rather than accepting his personal history and confronting the devastating effects of early trauma.

And his many fears.

Pointing the finger at me was easy.

By doing so, they empowered my teenage son in the worst way. 

Soon my son pitted adults against me and each other – convinced that he had won. In the trauma community, it’s called triangulation (open link for more). 

As the false allegations against me mounted, he needed to hear a consistent message from authority figures about responsibility and accountability.

But the mixed signals continued – as did the horrendous violence in my home. 

To keep everyone safe, I installed deadbolts on every bedroom door.

Sons 2014Meanwhile, my son’s progress didn’t just stall. It digressed. Before long he had dug a hole too deep to climb.

And with expensive, intensive residential treatment not producing desired outcomes, no judge would authorize more funds.

The “game” was over.

Off to juvenile prison my son went. There his behaviors escalated amid a culture of disrespect. Appropriate peer role models were non-existent.

In reality, the game never started.

Over a five-year period, not a single mental health provider or residential facility fully delivered state-of-the-art trauma-informed, attachment-focused and family-involved treatment.

Sure, the talk from professionals was impressive – but leaving my son for 10+ hours each day in the care of poorly trained direct care staff with a high turnover rate wasn’t the solution. He could easily outsmart them.

All around him he only saw failure. No true examples of success.

Why not create chaos?

More than a decade later, the lack of intensive services continues.

To heal, teens like my son need to be in a family-like home setting with around-the-clock supports – until they can incrementally transition back to their own home. The same supports readily available until they’re no longer needed.

Instead, society sends them away to a “facility.” A institution with a therapeutic name. A foreign place with countless triggers.

Only to be re-traumatized – often at tax-payer expense.

Today I suspect that my son was also exposed to alcohol in the womb. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and its resulting brain damage would further explain his gross inability to learn from mistakes.

Upon release from juvenile prison at 19, my son remained his own worst enemy. He immediately found escape in the comfort of drugs – any readily available substance to get high. Soon he became an addict. Arrest upon arrest in the small community where his birth father still lived.

At 23, my son and I almost turned the corner. He took a risk and accepted my invitation to stay with me. That’s when he finally opened up to me about his drug problem. We talked for hours.

I mean really talked about his insecurities, mis-perceptions and regrets. And his unrelenting anger while living in my home.

After two weeks of positive connections, healthy interaction and goal setting, he grew indifferent – abruptly leaving one night with two people he barely knew.

No doubt, family remained a scary, unpredictable concept to him. Another fix did not.

Overcoming his co-occurring mental health issues – trauma and addiction – will be extremely difficult.

alex-jailNot surprisingly, his recent prison sentence resulted from a drug deal gone wrong. Thankfully he didn’t have a gun – only brass knuckles. Thankfully no one died.

Prison, however, hasn’t been a welcoming place for a trauma survivor.

For his unruly, out-of-control behavior in the county jail, he was forced to spend nearly a year in solitary confinement upon admission.

One the plus side, he read nearly every available book to stimulate his mind. He found faith for the first time – when he couldn’t be bothered as a teenager. And he wrote me letters – sharing deep emotions I had rarely seen.

Transitioning to the community unit hasn’t been easy. Triggers everywhere. His letters have grown mostly dark.

Now his mental health is hanging by a thread. More sad days than glad. I pray that his release happens soon, yet no one seems to know the facts about my son.

Once again, he is just a number on a file.

Yet I can’t lose hope.

On your 28th birthday, my son, I send you happy thoughts.

Be strong in spirit. Be reflective in heart. Be mindful that the road to freedom begins with you. And for now, let those three choices be the only ones you seek to control.

With forgiveness and unconditional love, I will be waiting.   DCP


Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE

To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love

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To watch Andrew’s amazing ESPN 14-minute documentary, click here. Andrew Peterson ESPN Documentary

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