Kai Wright: Hey everybody. I'm here with our executive producer, Veralyn Williams and we're dropping into the feed ahead of Sunday show to share something special with you. This past weekend as we were preparing for the show, the New York times published a deep dive into the life of Ma'Khia Bryant and Ma'Khia, as you may remember, was shot and killed by police officers in Columbus, Ohio at almost the exact same moment that a jury declared Derrick Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis.
She was 16 years old and the time story was one of the first detailed reports that at least I've seen about her life and Veralyn, I think it just to me, it just said so much about the violence that came way ahead of her death. What stood out for you.
Veralyn Williams: That for sure. Particularly the moment where the mother lost custody of her and she went to live with her grandmother and she so desperately wanted to be with her grandmother. Her grandmother really fought to have her and her siblings and there were other children in the house. She had to literally let her go into foster care because her landlord wouldn't allow that many children to live in the house because we have a system that would pay out a stranger versus your own family member to raise you.
Kai: Just to clarify those details, Ma'Khia and her three sisters were removed from her mom's home for neglect. When her grandmother took her in, the state doesn't pay, they pay foster homes way more money. She couldn't afford it and then the landlord, when they found out that she had brought four kids into the apartment evicted her. That is how Ma'Khia and her sisters ended up in foster care.
Veralyn: This system that we have that's not based on real people, just continually doesn't see black girls, black children as children. The way that that trauma of living in that reality repeats itself. There were so many adults along the way that just failed her. There's still casual way that happens to two black girls, quite frankly in community like the one that I grew up in, that's the part that really breaks my heart because it sometimes feels monumentally impossible to really grapple with.
Kai: It does. This is where it's just focusing on the cops is not enough because there was all this systemic abuse that led up to the moment where Ma'Khia found herself outside at a fight wielding a knife and ultimately getting shot to death by those cops.
Veralyn: Just for clarification because there was so many different reports out there. It was her sister that called the police for protection against a threat that was happening to her and Ma'Khia.
Kai: A few years back, we made a podcast called Caught that told the stories of young people caught up in the juvenile justice system and ever since learning about Ma'Khia's life, I've been thinking about one episode of that podcast, which is about another young woman and her journey through the foster care system and how it shuffled her into the criminal justice system. We wanted to share that episode here. It starts with reporter Cindy Rodriguez talking to the young woman whom we call the Desiree.
Desiree: I want to be in movies. I want to act. You ever watch like teen movies like what's that? That mean girls. I want be like one of those.
Cindy Rodriguez: Desiree is 17 and what she craves most is the carefree life of a spoiled teenager. You want to experience that?
Cindy: Even if it's just in a movie?
Desiree: Even if it's just the movie. If I could just act it out and pretend it's happening and I could watch myself over and over again, I'm fine with that.
Cindy: Material you'll things are part of the appeal. Nice car, nice house, good clothes, but it goes deeper than that.
Desiree: The schools is just so nice. They got everything they want in their school.
Cindy: Desiree wants the basics. A decent school, a home friends and maybe most of all a nurturing mother.
Desiree: I can bring home company and they mom would cook for the company, cook for them, wash the dishes, wash their clothes, get the clothes out. I would want something like that. [chuckles]
Cindy: Have you ever had any of that?
Desiree: No. Never did. I once [unintelligible 00:04:46] like that though.
Cindy: What Desiree has is something much different. A group home in the Bronx, the last stop on the two train where she lives with 11 other girls. Let me just sign this book really quickly. The group home is two stories with a pitched roof and a small balcony. From the outside, it looks like a large family lives here. From the inside, the living room feels more like a waiting room.
Desiree: It's a 24 hour facility. Somebody comes in three shifts.
Cindy: Desiree's lived here since last July. This is the place?
Cindy: It's her latest placement. She's moved more than 20 times since she was 10.
Desiree: I wouldn't call it a home, but like I would call it-- It's very independent. This house is not basically for me.
Cindy: I've been getting to know Desiree for seven months. That's not her real name. We gave her a pseudonym because she's young and we wanted to protect her identity.
Desiree: You want to take a walk?
Speaker 4: No, she can't take a walk. She has to go out the door.
Desiree: I'm talking about up the block.
Speaker 4: Okay.
Desiree: How long have you been doing this for?
Cindy: A long time.
Desiree: A long time?
Cindy: For nearly half her life, Desiree has been considered a foster kid and did juvenile delinquent. Both systems have run her life. She has no trust in either and feels wronged by both.
Desiree: I want to write a letter to the commissioner and I want to [crosstalk].
Cindy: The system doesn't work for her and she says it doesn't work for most kids, but they're too scared to speak up. You're not?
Desiree: No. I'm not scared because if Martin Luther King, was sitting in front of that whole crowd did a speech on black people and like try to help segregation and stuff. You think I'm going to really be scared to try to help people out that don't have a voice for they self.
Kai: I'm Kai Wright and you're listening to Caught. Girls can be an enigma for policymakers that's because research on juvenile justice typically focuses on boys since they dominate the system. The studies that do exist have found that within the system, girls experience higher rates of trauma than boys, especially sexual trauma. Policy experts call this the sexual abuse to prison pipeline.
They say it's why incarcerating a young girl perpetuates more negative behavior. It makes it hard to exit the system. In this episode, we're going to tell a story that will involve depictions of sexual abuse. You should know that in advance WNYC reporter, Cindy Rodriguez takes it from here.
Cindy: When we talk about the "system", we're talking about a lot of different players. There's caseworkers, group homes, probation officers, police, judges, psychiatrists.
Desiree: Every time I go to a psychiatrist, I got a different diagnosis.
Brian Zimmerman: No, but you going to keep it real. I don't know whether you need to be in medication. I'm not a doctor.
Cindy: That's Brian Zimmerman. He's what's called an 18B. A private attorney the state pays to represent indigent clients like a public defender only in family court. He and Desiree are talking after a check-in with her judge last fall.
Desiree: I still feel like I could do better, but right now, I feel like I'm doing very good.
Brian: You've lasted pretty long without a real staff altercation. That's actually-- I'm proud of you for the fact that you're holding that part together.
Cindy: Brian has seen Desiree go from a tiny 10 year-old to a 5'9 nine young woman. She probably has four inches on him. Where she's quick and impulsive, he's slow and deliberate.
Brian: I think you shouldn't fool yourself about the connection about your past and why you feel the way you do sometimes.
Cindy: Desiree's past starts like this. When she was four months old, her mother stabbed her father to death and was sentenced to four years in prison for manslaughter. Desiree and her sister were sent to live with relatives in Rochester, New York. Eventually their mom got them back.
Desiree: First month was fine. She was on her medication, she was taking her meds. She was treating me like a daughter. It was fine. She wasn't even hitting me, nothing.
Cindy: That changed and Desiree says it was like her mom needed an excuse to quote beast out. In other words, release a lot of pent up anger. She ended up with cuts and bruises.
Desiree: I had a busted eye and stuff.
Cindy: The teacher call child services. That's what landed her and her sister in foster care at Geller house.
Desiree: Most of the kids that was in Geller house with me, they had a lot of clothes, they had people that was always calling them. Their family making sure they okay and things. I wanted all that, but I couldn't have it.
Cindy: Geller house is a facility for adolescents with serious emotional problems. Desiree and her sister were 10 and 11 and were young compared to everyone else. They stuck together. When it was time to go to sleep, Desiree would sneak into her sister's bed.
Desiree: Then we used to get in trouble in the morning time when they wake us up. It was one of the rare times she would act like a little girl.
Desiree: I would tell the psychiatrist, I really can not stay without my sister. I have to play with her ear. I was still like a big behind baby. [laughs]
Cindy: Desiree felt alone and she started to have angry outbursts to get noticed.
Desiree: When I first was having my episode, my tension they was coming. They was like, "Oh, she's a little girl. Just talk to her." They would talk to me. As I'll do it consistently, it's like, "Oh no, she's too bad. She's doing too much. She needs counseling. She needs this."
Cindy: She got the desperately needed attention, but not the kind she was hoping for.
Desiree: They put me on medication thinking that was going to help, but I was still being bad and stuff. They just ended up hospitalizing me, put me in a hospital because like every program that I went to, they didn't want me. They would kick me out.
Cindy: How was the hospital experience for you?
Desiree: It was very sad to me. It was very depressing because it was like, "Look at me like as I'm your daughter." Yes. I'm a little girl, but--
Cindy: Desiree talks fast. I asked her to explain. It turns out what she wanted was something simple and not so simple. She wanted someone to reassure her and give her hope that things would get better, but she wanted it to come from someone who loved her unconditionally.
Desiree: I'm not going to put my trauma to be like, "Oh, that's an excuse to be bad or whatever." I've been through things. I just wanted attention. I just want somebody to love me. I don't care if it's for a second. That's basically it.
Cindy: This need for attention is about to expose Desiree to the police. One day she, her sister and a friend tore apart the Geller house library.
Desiree: I threw all the books off the library shelf. I flipped over the air hockey table. We always just-- You know how little kids, silly moments, but we took it out of hand. We wanted to be cool, we want it to be older because me and my friend of my sister, who was the youngest, so we wanted to be older, we wanted to be cool. We decided, "Oh, if we get arrested, we older, we did something, we grown."
Cindy: She says the home called the police and just like that, they went from being seen as little girls recovering from trauma to juvenile delinquents who destroyed property. Did a police officer actually come in and put handcuffs on you.
Desiree: No, we ran and they finally caught us. Then they put us in handcuffs and we went down to the precinct and then we got arrested and we went to juvenile justice because of our age.
Cindy: You were like a little girl. 10 is really--
Desiree: Really little.
Cindy: How did that feel to have handcuffs on you?
Desiree: Once again, it felt like I'm older. Again, I made handcuffs. You can't tell me I'm not grown because I'm in handcuffs. Only grown people go in handcuffs because you don't see no little kid going in handcuffs, only grown people. We felt like-- Excuse my language, that we was the shit.
Cindy: Since that day at Geller house, Desiree says she's been arrested more than 20 times, but those arrests no longer make her feel strong. They do the opposite. They make her feel constrained, powerless and misunderstood. The trajectory from the foster care system to the juvenile justice system is very common. Researchers working with the city found more than half the girls who get arrested, have an open child welfare case.
That means one of their parents has been accused of abusing or neglecting them. One system feeds the other for Desiree, being in both means she's moved around a lot. There's been detention centers, mental health treatment centers, group homes, foster homes. How many foster moms have you?
Desiree: I can't even count. The ones that I can think of, I had one, two, three, five that I can count, but I know I had more than that.
Cindy: In each setting she's on the defensive. Desiree has gained a reputation as a don't mess with me kind of girl, but she's delicate and that makes her vulnerable in a way that may be hard to see. In her book, Girls like Us, Rachel Lloyd, who's an activist wrote this line about girls that have been sexually exploited. It goes something like this. Girls weren't drug addicted, they were love addicted. That I'll learned is far harder to treat. Desiree does long for love. That craving makes her a target. Now, what am I getting you? A double cheeseburger and what else?
Desiree: A McChicken.
Cindy: I didn't know Desiree had been sexually exploited until she told me about it sitting in a McDonald's. The girl she met in one of the facilities she was placed in, introduced her to a man in his 20s. She considers him a friend.
Desiree: She said, "Oh, here's a way you can go on a date with a men and get some money."
Cindy: He took provocative pictures of her and made an ad on back page, which he paid for in Bitcoin. Desiree says her ad got a lot of attention. She was 13 years.
Desiree: All these guys like white men, African, Spanish, all different races, probably 60 years old, 50 years old, 40, 30 older guys.
Cindy: Wow, and you would go to their house.
Cindy: Just last year, a Senate subcommittee accused Backpage of facilitating sex trafficking. A source told me when girls run away from a juvenile detention facility, one of the first places caseworkers look is Backpage. Having sex with grown men was hard for Desiree.
Desiree: I would have to be under drugs to do it because I can't do it sober because I'm like, "Yo, what am I really doing?" I would get high or drunk and I would do it. Then after I come also drugs and stuff, I'll be like, "What did I really do." Or, "I'm going to have to stop doing this."
Cindy: It became a cycle. She felt bad about herself because she was doing it and she was doing it because she felt bad about herself.
Desiree: I would feel nasty, like, "Yo, why am I doing this? What made me and my mom do this?" How can I say it? I used to have nightmares. I used to be mad at myself. I used to be angry, because it's like, "Yo, nobody know what I have to do on a regular daily basis just to get money."
Cindy: The administration for children's services found out she was being sex trafficked and put her in different programs, but she says nobody could convince her to stop.
Desiree: When I first started doing it, I was like, "All right, I could stop." Then as I started getting into it and more money started coming, it was like, "Yo, this is addictive." Once you're in it, it's hard to get out.
Cindy: Girls and boys under 18 are no longer prosecuted in New York for prostitution. They're supposed to be seen as victims, but attorneys say sometimes if girls have nowhere else to go, judges put them in detention for small infractions to keep them away from their pimps. That never happened to Desiree, but prostitution did expose her to a lot of danger.
Desiree: I almost got kidnapped.
Cindy: What do you mean?
Desiree: I was high. I went on a date with a guy, whatever and come to find out, he was a pimp.
Cindy: It's an intense conversation to have at a McDonald's. She got a bad feeling about the guy the moment she stepped in his house.
Desiree: Then as soon as I said, something is not right to turn back around, he pushed me on the bed. Mind you, it was just a mattress on the floor. No furniture, no TV, no refrigerator, no nothing, just an empty house. He was like, "You're not going nowhere I'm taking you to--"
Cindy: She says he wanted to make her work for him in Florida. He screamed in her face. She tried to act like she wasn't scared until several other men came out of nowhere.
Desiree: You would've thought it was just him and me in the house. They hold a gun to my head. If you scream or if you do anything, then I'm going to shoot you. Then I'm not going to hold you. I started crying me like, "Yo, what do you want? You want money? Whatever you want."
Cindy: But then one guy felt bad and yelled at the others to let her go. He opened the door and she took off running down the stairs and down the block, shaken and terrified. But with the wherewithal to take care of herself and go to the hospital.
Desiree: I had a dress on, whatever. He tried to rape me or whatever, but then I guess the guy-- He felt bad for me. I was crying and stuff like that because I was scared.
Cindy: The police got called and they tried to convince her to cooperate with an investigation.
Desiree: I'm not going to go through with it. He got my whole ID. He has my information. When am I going to go through [unintelligible 00:18:51] and die? Oh, I can put you in protective custody. No, you can't. What are you going to do for me in protective custody? You can't do nothing, so I'm not going through with nothing.
Cindy: Desiree was scared, but she also has no trust in public systems, especially the police.
Desiree: I didn't call the cops. I just came to the hospital just to get tested and to get medicines because I don't know what you had or anything like that.
Cindy: Wow. That is really scary. I'm so sorry that you went through that.
Desiree: It's okay.
Cindy: I think most people would be pretty destroyed by that.
Desiree: They do worse things.
Kai: When we come back, Desiree finds ways to speak out for change to the system.
Kai: When we last heard from Desiree, she was telling a terrifying story about nearly being kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a man she says was a pimp who was trying to force her to work for him.
Cindy: Desiree brushes off the experience like she's had to brush off other sexual abuse in her past, but sexual trauma cuts deep. There is an impact and it comes out when she punches, kicks and bites the staff who try to restrain her and in the angry fights she has with other girls and adults who try to control her and in the way she abuses drugs and alcohol. These private details of her life all get exposed back in family court.
Brian: Well, I think the judge was mostly concerned with what I told you and--
Cindy: Brian sitting on a bench inside Brooklyn Family Court talking to Desiree on his cell phone.
Brian: She really she was waking up on the subway and drunk. She knows about that. You know they're going to report that [crosstalk].
Cindy: Weeks earlier, police found her on a subway train so drunk, she had to be hospitalized for several days. It's troubling behavior and there's no parent to decide what to do. Brian and her judge Amanda White, will handle it. She's been overseeing Desiree's case since 2015.
Brian: She's worried that you're using substances to deal with the traumas and the pain. Remember, I told you that's how you would be thought of.
Cindy: Desiree on the other end of the line explains how alcohol helps her forget about things.
Brian: I know, and that's exactly the point. That's how you get your minds off of things. It's because you're not addressing the things that you need to address.
Cindy: The judge wants Desiree in therapy. Desiree thinks therapy is useless. Brian tells her judge White is concerned.
Brian: She's not your parent. It's just like me, you're stuck with me as a parent. You have to know that I'm not going to say it's okay. Moderation. You know what moderation means? It means don't do too much to the point where you're not controlling yourself. That's not good. That's when bad things would happen.
Cindy: This is the system as parent. Judge White is the top judge in Brooklyn Family Court, and she's held dozens of hearings about Desiree. There was a period when Desiree kept getting arrested and the system was about to send her upstate to the most restrictive detention center for juveniles. It houses kids charged with felonies. Desiree never committed a felony, but here's what she did do.
In 2016, she was arrested for allegedly throwing a candle and spitting on a worker at a group home. She was sent to a juvenile detention facility where she got arrested four times in about a month for biting, pushing and slapping workers. Her charges, assault, menacing, harassment. Lashing out at workers and other girls kept happening. Desiree says in at least one case she was attacked by other kids and had to defend herself. After a fight she says she would feel regret.
Desiree: Was it that serious? Even if she started it, you don't know what she's going through outside of here. You don't know nothing. She doesn't know what I'm going through.
Cindy: Brian didn't want Desiree to go Upstate and thought that would only make things worse. He argued to judge White all Desirees' arrests were for behavior inside detention facilities, where being physically restraints that are off. He said it wasn't like she was out on the streets robbing and assaulting people. He asked that she be removed from the juvenile justice system and placed back in the child welfare system. Meaning, treat her like an abused child again instead of a delinquent. Judge White agreed, which is why Desiree is living in a group home today.
Brian: You've heard what she said. She's concerned about--
Cindy: Recently she and Brian had a check-in with Judge White where it was revealed that when Desiree doesn't want to go to school, her group home calls the police.
Brian: That's not the way they should be handling--
Desiree: Just for now. That's so dumb. That's going to make me get even more upset because now you're calling the police and I don't even wake up yet.
Brian: I know. You haven't put on your makeup yet to be seen by the police.
Cindy: Exposing her to the police ups the chances Desiree will be arrested again and she's 17 now, so when she gets prosecuted, it's as an adult.
Brian: No, it's not right, because someone like you who doesn't do well with authority, who's with the trauma stuff might react. You don't want to catch another charge because you're upset. It's one of the reasons I ask those questions, because it bothers me that they would put you in that position, because this has always been a problem. They put you in this position where that doesn't excuse you over reacting. You have to keep controlling yourself because there's high stakes if you don't.
Cindy: Desiree has been trying to control herself. Once she left the juvenile justice system, she went nine months without getting arrested. She also got a job at Denny's and an internship at Vera Institute of Justice, a non-profit that focuses on criminal justice reform. How was Vera today?
Desiree: It was good. At first, I really wasn't in the mood to come. They actually got me working now as a fellowship there. Now they're going to set me an email, a desk. Now I must really be officially working at Vera instead of working-- Not just coming to help with anger and incarceration.
Cindy: It's pretty cool.
Desiree: Yes, they surprised me with that today.
Cindy: That's pretty exciting.
Desiree: I'm like, "Vera." Got me an internship at Vera? That's good.
Cindy: It's an unseasonably warm night and we just left Vera's offices at the Woolworth Building. The Woolworth Building is beautiful, right?
Desiree: Yes. I like being down here at night because it's pretty.
Cindy: Vera first recruited Desiree to speak to a city taskforce working to end detention for girls. Now, as part of her fellowship, she's actually helping to create a set of questions that will hopefully get used by the city to assess foster homes for girls. Through her work she also got introduced to a researcher, Shonda Chapman, who's become a mentor.
Shonda Chapman: Call me then. If you want somebody just to show up there and be there and support you, I'm down, I'll come through. I'll be with the kids.
Desiree: I'm going to call you tonight. I might be a little bit [crosstalk].
Cindy: Shonda encourages Desiree to keep up with school so she can graduate. Desiree wants help with math.
Desiree: You know how to do trigonometry and stuff? I do statistics. Trig is outside of my wheelhouse, but I can get you some support around trigonometry.
Cindy: Shonda was also in the juvenile justice system.
Shonda: There's this tendency to do this thing where it's like, you need to take accountability for your actions, blah, blah, blah. Being able to say, "No." Every fucking thing around me was messed up and everybody who was supposed to protect me did not. Every institution that should've been able to intervene thought that I was worthy of being just thrown in the trash. Then you wonder why these kids are out here punching folks in the face.
Cindy: The idea that girls are being violent because they've been abused, ignored and misunderstood, is part of the reason why the city taskforce wants to end incarceration for girls, or at least reduce their arrests and find services they respond to that will keep them out of the system in the first place. Last year, girls in New York City were put in detention 415 times. Those are short-term stays while a judge decides what to do with them.
49 got sentenced to a more long-term placement. 90% of the girls in the juvenile justice system are Black or Latina. Lindsay Rosenthal is a researcher at Vera. She says the charge that gets girls detained the most is assault in the third degree, the least serious assault charge. These fights mostly happen at school and at home.
Lindsay Rosenthal: We're really trying to pinpoint specific schools and neighborhoods that might be struggling with family violence the most and having the most simple assault cases coming into particular precincts. Vera is running the city taskforce. Rosenthal hopes that what comes out of it will become a national model for ending incarceration for girls. Desiree is critical of the system, but she's also an expert on it.
Vera has invited her to a national conference in Washington DC. It's about empowering girls in the juvenile justice system. It's a chance to travel and to get away from her group home.
Brian: It might be good to have a few days away from them, but that's not to-
Desiree: To live the rich life for a minute.
Brian: That's not the only reason you're going to the program in DC. It's to talk about the issues of--
Desiree: Women incarceration?
Desiree: No. I know that because that needs to be addressed and also to get away.
Cindy: The administration for Children's Services says her mom has to approve the trip. They won't let her go without it. Brian steps in once again and says he'll get a court order if necessary.
Brian: You need to be responsible and I will do my job to-- Kept it on the calendar so I can get orders if I need to.
Cindy: He gets the court order and Desiree makes the trip.
Desiree: Hi, Cindy. I'm walking up the escalator. I'm on my way to my room. We just came back from [inaudible 00:30:02] with the Women's Initiative. I like it here so far. It's really good, the workshops and stuff. It's really good. Really, really good.
Cindy: She leaves me this message from the conference. Desiree isn't just an attendee. She's on a panel and there's dozens of people sitting in front of her waiting to hear her speak.
Desiree: Hello. Good afternoon, everybody. I've been working with the Vera on ending girls' incarceration in New York City. Girls come into Child Welfare as innocent kids, but as they go deeper into the system and are moved from home to home, it messes with them mentally. Taking psych assessments over and over, it's re-traumatizing to have to think about your story, getting verbally assaulted and physically abused.
With their trauma and everything, the Child Welfare does to them, girls are unhappy. They have all this anger inside them. They go into the community and commit things. Then the juvenile system gets involved and sends them to these placements for God knows how long where you don't know who is going to hurt you. You are forced to become older. You are disrespected because of your history and you are not able to be a kid no longer.
Cindy: Desiree has a 79 point plan to make things right. The core of it is this, bad behavior is rooted in a child's pain and they don't deserve to be punished for that.
Desiree: When I went to [unintelligible 00:31:22] I wanted to be a child. I was forced to be older. I had to take care of myself at the age of 11 and it was really hard. I was out there doing things that I didn't want to do, but I was basically forced to do it. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I just feel like they just need to treat kids like kids and not basically based in off their history because everybody been through stuff. They just want to-- How can I say? Look at your paperwork instead of looking at the person you are, because when everybody interview me, when they see my paperwork, they'd be like, "Oh, dang, I don't want to interview this person." Or, "She's crazy, she needs to be locked up."
But when you really get to know me and really see me, I'm not that person on paper. I'm not that person no more. I try every day to be a new person and not to go back to my old ways.
Cindy: Five months after she returned from the conference, Desiree was picked up by police in the Bronx. She had warrants for failing to check in with her probation officer and for missing court dates. Her public defender told me her group home did nothing to help Desiree keep up with the requirements imposed by the criminal justice system, like helping her find transportation to court.
She is now in Rikers Island, a violent, chaotic jail for adults. The city is still coming up with ways to end incarceration for girls. Unfortunately, any change to the system comes too late for Desiree.
Kai: That was an episode of the podcast Caught, which we released in 2018. You can check out the whole series at caughtpodcast.org. There's a link to the first episode in the show notes here. Thanks for listening.
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