When policies destroy childhood

by Denisha Jones

Some of my readers might not know this, but in 2014 I decided to return to school as a part-time law student. I always wanted to be a lawyer, but when I was 12, I decided to be a teacher and put aside my dreams of being a lawyer, doctor, and a writer. Back then I had no idea that you could earn a Doctorate in Philosophy and be called a doctor. After I earned my Ph.D. in 2013, I realized I had become a teacher and a doctor, so why not go for the third and become a lawyer? As a public education activist, I believed that becoming a lawyer would be the only way I could effect change. Perhaps if I sued Teach for America and the districts that gave them contracts I could put an end to the
de-professionalization of teacher education.  The realist in me always knew that there was too much money in privatization to stop it, but I hoped with a law degree I could at least disrupt the neo-liberal assault on public education.

I planned to focus on education policy with the goal of enacting legislation that protected the democratic idea of public education as a right for all children.
I enrolled in the legislation clinic at my school, so I could learn more about public policy and gain experience becoming a legislative lawyer (I had no idea that was a real thing until I took the clinic). While studying the history of curriculum ideology in American public schools, I learned how policy could begin to even the playing field or create even more barriers and pitfalls, making everything worse. Some policies, could even do both at the same time. But teacher educators with Ph.D.’s are not invited to make policy, so I hoped having a law degree would change that.

Some people asked me if I saw a connection between my early life as a kindergarten teacher and my future as a lawyer. At first, I thought my focus on education policy was the nexus that would bridge both worlds. But after some deeper reflection, I realized that becoming a lawyer was another way for me to protect childhood.  Whether through education policy, family law, or the juvenile justice system, ultimately, I would use my skills and knowledge to protect childhood. The reality is that bad policy can destroy childhood. When we separate children from their families after they undertook a harrowing journey to seek asylum at our borders, we destroy childhood.

During my last spring break, I spent the week assisting families seeking asylum who were detained in Berks County Pennsylvania. Berks is one of the smaller family detention centers with room for only 96 people. Our clients were mostly fathers who fled their home country of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, or Brazil with at least one child and the hope of having a better life. During that week I spent a lot of time observing the children. After hearing the heartbreaking stories from their father about how they walked for days to reach the border,
I worried that the children would suffer emotional scarring for the rest of their life. Most of them seemed to be okay. They clung to their dad at first, but eventually they played with the toys and each other. Some did not speak or smile until our last day. The entire time I remember thinking that their saving grace was that at least they were with one of their parents. Many of the fathers had no idea how their wife and other children were doing back home, and they asked often if they would be able to eventually send for them.  I knew it must be hard on a
five-year-old boy to be without his mother, but at least he had daddy to help him survive.

That seems like a lifetime ago, given that the new policy of our government is to separate children from their parents at the border. How can we implement something so horrific when we know we are destroying children? To flee your home seeking asylum at a young age is traumatic enough. But now you are separated from your parent, detained in a foreign country,  and forced to defend yourself as an asylum seeker. You do not have to be a lawyer to know that this policy is destructive to childhood. But you do need a commitment to protecting childhood to make it your mission to destroy this policy.

If you are interested in joining the fight to end family detention, learn more and support ALDEA- The People’s Justice Center.