By SCOTT WEISSER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
GOSHEN — Nicola Tracy said he would like to think of himself as a normal 17-year-old. The problem? That’s not true.
“A normal 17-year-old doesn’t have a rap sheet thicker than the Bible,” Tracy told his audience at Goshen’s Maple City Chapel Thursday.
Suffice it to say that Tracy has a history with the juvenile justice system. He’s also a young man making the most of an opportunity.
The Elkhart youth told his story during the Community Summit on Children, an annual event geared toward youth care and juvenile justice workers, educators, law enforcement personnel, case managers and others who work with young people. Close to 350 of them turned out for the summit, which was sponsored by Elkhart County Juvenile Court personnel.
Tracy was locked up last October. If he hadn’t been, he indicated, he would have gotten in trouble a couple of his friends — friends arrested on murder charges.
“This is kind of like my second chance,” he said.
Tracy said that while incarcerated, he slept on hard beds and ate bad food. It wasn’t fun, but the teen feels the experience gave him the guidance, self-control and discipline he needed to regain control of his life. He’s earned his GED, and will start classes at Ivy Tech in May.
Adults working with youths were the Summit’s target audience Thursday. And Tracy had praise for just those type of people — the staff at the Juvenile Detention Center, JDC teacher Maureen Lorman and juvenile Magistrate Deborah Domine.
“She’s like my second mom,” Tracy said of Domine. “I’ve seen her on multiple occasions.”
Making a difference
Summit attendees heard praise for their efforts throughout the day from various speakers, including Indiana Supreme Court Justice Stephen David.
“You make the difference in your community,” David said. “You make the difference in your county.” In concluding remarks, he encouraged his listeners to go out and do great work for children.
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the children you can, for as long as you can,” David said.
Terry Barker, superintendent of School City of Mishawaka, lauded the audience’s work, too. He also urged them on.
Barker, himself a onetime foster child, called on them to equip children with a sense of faith. He encouraged teaching the values of education and perseverance. Barker said children must be taught the value of family — and “family” isn’t always about blood. It’s about relationships, and knowing there are people who care.
And “care” was one of the C’s cited at the Summit by Magistrate Domine.
Domine indicated that in Juvenile Court, cases of abuse and neglect, delinquency and termination of parental rights are down substantially. There were 2,300 cases filed in Juvenile Court in 2008, she said. There were 986 cases last year, a 60 percent drop.
“It takes an entire community to make change, and the reality is there is enough credit to go around,” Domine said. “Everyone in this room is responsible for these numbers, because we collaborate, we communicate and we care.”
Justice David also pointed out that Elkhart County is one of only eight in the state participating in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). The program brings together stakeholders including prosecutors, public defenders, the courts, probation staffers and churches. The results, according to David, and fewer children in secure detention and recidivism rates heading downward.
Impact of trauma
Another presenter at Thursday’s Summit was Kris Buffington of the National Traumatic Stress Network. She cited research and statistics. She also challenged attendees with a “What if?”
Imagine an official announcement about traffic signals: Red lights would now mean “go,” and green “stop.” Motorists would be anxious for years in the wake of trying to unlearn behavior.
So it is with coping with childhood trauma, in Buffington’s view: Kids can’t just snap out of it.
Buffington said it’s no coincidence that children who’ve been exposed to trauma — physical or sexual abuse being examples — are part of the juvenile justice system. She said some studies indicate children who are exposed to chronic violence and trauma have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than soldiers returning from combat.
Buffington said youths exposed to chronic trauma often have to learn to function in a state of constant alertness or preparedness for danger. This survival ability conflicts with the focus and self-control needed to succeed in school, she said. People who’ve been around a lot of hostile behavior may also misread social cues, and sense aggression when it’s not being directed at them. There are problems with and distrust of authority figures, since the children have a history of being hurt be the adults who were supposed to be caring for them.
Trauma assessments for troubled children are key, according to Buffington. She also indicated the people working with those kids should foster a sense of safety.
“Know when authoritarian responses are needed and when they’re not,” she said.
Buffington also feels working to keep children in school is vital.
“If you want to create a hopeless case for people, rob them or get in the way of them getting an education,” she said.
‘Don’t ever stop’
Furthering his education is exactly what Nicola Tracy has in mind. He told his story Thursday, and stood onstage at the Community Summit on Children as an example of what can go right after much has gone wrong.
Domine joined Tracy on that stage, and asked him what the people gathered at the church could do to help other young people like him.
“I’m hard-headed,” Tracy said. “A lot of us teenagers are. We always think we’re right.” His advice? Give them guidance.
“Don’t ever stop,” he said. “Don’t ever give up. ... Just be there for them.”