NEW ORLEANS, LA — When New Orleans began to flood, everyone forgot about the kids they had locked away in one of the nation’s worst prisons.
They had no water, food, or means of contacting their loved ones. As the water level rose, children — including a pregnant girl, a severely mentally ill preteen who could not pronounce his own name, and some who were barely four feet tall — had to clamber onto the highest bunk beds in their cells. Bigger kids had to hold up smaller ones and find mattresses for them to float on.
Ten years have passed since then, but in many ways the storm haunts the city’s juvenile justice system to this day. Young people going in and out of it are still suffering from trauma caused by Katrina.
Shortly before the hurricane ravaged the city in 2005, children under the age of 17, who were being held in pretrial detention in a different jail, were herded into Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) — considered one of the 10 worst correctional facilities in the U.S. — for shelter. They were isolated from other youth detained in the city’s second juvenile detention facility, which was also housed in OPP.
But the group of transfers was completely forgotten about when the prison was evacuated.
“They were put in there, but nobody really knew that they were there,” Megan Faunce, then-program director for the LTI Project, told ThinkProgress. “So when folks were being evacuated out of OPP, nobody really knew that people were in the building. It was an adult inmate who basically noticed and alerted people that these kids were trapped in there.” When the kids were found, they were removed from their cells, shackled, and forced to climb tall ladders leading from the prison to an adjoining bridge.
When they finally left the bridge, Faunce was responsible for locating the kids’ families — scattered all over the country after evacuating the city — after Judge Mark Doherty of Orleans Parish Juvenile Court signed orders to release about 110 juveniles charged with nonviolent crimes. She was also charged with tracking down juveniles who were not released because they committed more serious offenses, and were subsequently transferred to other detention centers in the state, far from their homes.
Faunce, with the help of the state’s Office of Youth Development (OYD, now the Office of Juvenile Justice), talked to all of the children and compiled a comprehensive spreadsheet of their names, the names of their family members, and any contact information they could provide.
“You couldn’t just call somebody and be like ‘hey, we have your son. He’s been released,'” Faunce explained. “These parents and guardians had no idea where these kids were.” With the forms, she cross-checked a public database of names compiled by the Red Cross, in search of family members. The process took weeks. “These were just kids,” she said.
Ten years later, the kids Faunce encountered have aged out of the juvenile justice system in New Orleans, but Katrina still profoundly impacts young people entering the system today.
“The one thing that we hit hard in court and with attorneys is the amount of trauma that our kids have experienced,” Heather Kindschy, a licensed social worker for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR), told ThinkProgress. “And I don’t mean to discount mental illness and other things that would fall under a social worker’s domain. If you just break it down [to] one of the trauma screenings, basically every kid is going to have experienced Katrina.”
The chaos and devastation caused by Katrina is still felt by juveniles who are old enough to remember, as well as those who were babies during or after the storm.
“Kids who were not able to see something and witness and remember are still affected because adults in their life were either coping badly or unable to function,” Kindschy said. When LCCR, the primary juvenile defense group in the city, conducts an intake screening, social workers ask kids if they have “been in a natural disaster in which you felt your life was in danger.”
The overwhelming response is Katrina: “When prompted they say, ‘well we did have to wait on the roof of our house, or I did think we were gonna die, or we were in the Super Dome, or I did see a bunch of dead people, or we did go to the Convention Center and we thought we were gonna die of thirst.'”
Children who were too young to recall the details of the storm with full clarity have heard stories — and internalized them. Others, who were very young at the time, tell wild tales about what they think they saw.
“It’s hard to hear some of the things they think happened. ‘Oh I saw a soldier and he killed a whole bunch of babies in the Super Dome,'” Kindschy said. “But if they think that happened, it is no wonder that they’re scared of the government or people in positions of authority. That is their reality, their point of reference.”
Trauma from the storm even colors the offenses they are arrested for. Some are caught using marijuana, which many rely on to cope with the memories. Others are desperate to help their families, left unstable and impoverished, and resort to stealing. Out of all the juvenile arrests in the city, 81 percent are nonviolent offenses and involve no firearms. More than half of the children in juvenile facilities were sentenced for offenses that were neither gun-involved nor violent. Minor offenses — such as drug possession, disturbing the peace, and theft — account for 44 percent of arrests. And African-American children are disproportionately targeted. In 2014, 97 percent of juvenile arrests involved black youth.
In Louisiana, 17-year-olds are tried in adult criminal courts and receive public defense from attorneys from Orleans Public Defenders (OPD). According to Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton of OPD, most are committing mid-level felonies, “which is a misnomer in Louisiana because just about everything is a felony in Louisiana,” he explained to ThinkProgress. Most of the offenses are “crimes of opportunity.” A lot of drug cases involving possession and distribution come through his office, as do ones about burglaries. Some of the more serious cases involve armed robbery, rape, and murder.
Memories of the storm aren’t the only reason these kids are struggling. For most of them, the chaos continues. Hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians are still grappling with the present-day fallout of the hurricane.
Progress varies “from block to block” and not everyone is faring well. The poverty rate as of 2013, the year for which the most up-to-date statistics are available, is 27 percent. African-Americans’ median household income is 54 percent lower than that of white households. The median household income among Latinos is 23 percent lower than white counterparts’.
And youth are among those who suffer the most, with 39 percent of children in the city living in poverty — 17 percent more than the national average. Scientists link childhood poverty to “exposure to violence, chronic neglect, and the accumulated burdens of economic hardship,” and argue that poor economic conditions have negative and lasting consequences for brain development.
So no matter their age, Katrina has stuck with young people for most — if not all — of their lives.
“It is affecting kids even this long after it happened, and then you add on top of that all of the crime stuff that our kids are witness to. It’s a shocking number of kids who have witnessed violent crime or have had really violent things happen to them,” Kindschy explained.
Nearly three-quarters of youth in pretrial detention report that they have witnessed someone killed or brutalized. One day, when Kindschy was still working at one of the charter schools that sprung up after the storm, she heard a group of students rattling off numbers in a competitive way. When she asked what they were talking about, the kids explained that they were comparing how many shootings they each witnessed.
“[Kids in the system] are having post-traumatic reactions,” said the social worker. “When I was in high school, kids were drinking, smoking weed, and sometimes doing more serious drugs.” In New Orleans, “it’s almost exclusively marijuana, and I feel like it is very much tied to the trauma — trying to cope. Other kids are allowed to mess up and not have it ruin their life. Other kids smoke pot but don’t go to jail for it.”
The over-criminalization of youth — when throwing Skittles on a bus can get you thrown in jail — does not curb future delinquent behavior. In fact, research shows that involvement in the juvenile justice system can turn kids into career criminals, by reducing the likelihood that they graduate high school and facilitating contact with violent offenders in the system. In many cases, the recidivism rate among kids who commit low-level offenses but spend long periods of time in juvenile detention increases.
But the failure to recognize trauma, coupled with criminalizing children for acting like children, is contributing to a festering problem in a city that has experienced so much since 2005.
“People seem to understand that about soldiers coming back from war, but I think it’s hard to understand…when Johnny is acting like that in the classroom, he’s not just being bad,” Kindschy said. “That is indicative of something that happened to him.”