The Agony of Attending My Son’s Probation Violation Hearing

    As I entered the federal court building in Manhattan with my son on the morning of Nov 19, I had no idea what to expect. It turned out there was a metal detector, with several men in uniform yelling to people on line, “Take off your belts, watches, phones and jackets!”

    My nerves were shot. We were running late after traveling down from the Bronx, first hitting traffic in an Uber, then switching to the subway. Of course there was a sick passenger a couple trains ahead.

    I kept texting with my son’s attorney, updating her on the delays until we made it to the building. Then they took away my phone and watch, placed them on an open shelf and gave me a token-like object as my receipt.

    As I watched my son taking his belt off, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this would be the last time I would have him next to me for a while. A tear began streaming down my face. But I wiped it away quickly, so he wouldn’t see his mom not be strong when he needed me the most.

    We were there because he was on pre-trial monitoring and had been summoned for a violation. He was arrested in 2018 for charges that are still pending. He was on pre-trial probation for quite a while before he began using and testing positive for cocaine, and was ultimately mandated to a drug treatment program. But he didn’t last two months before they found a reason to kick him out.

    Understand, I didn’t raise my boys to be momma’s boys, but I would never for one second not support them. Good, bad or indifferent, these are my boys. As they grew up in the Bronx, I witnessed the NYPD harass them to no end. I once picked up my other son from the precinct when he was 18 years old. He had been arrested by undercovers for riding his bike on the sidewalk. These cops are hunters, and our Black and Brown boys are their prey.

    My son who was at court with me is 25 years old. He has five children, and that’s a lot of pressure for a young man. He stood by his partner’s side through every pregnancy and every birth, and is a daddy to all his children. He did what he could to provide for his family and make sure his kids never went without. He is loyal, and everyone who meets him loves him because he’s a kind old soul.

    He was living as a full-time father whom no one would hire because he didn’t finish high school.

    When he began using cocaine last year, it was as a stress reliever and an attempt to self-medicate symptoms of what he has only more recently been diagnosed with: anxiety and panic attacks.

    Whether this program was a good fit or not didn’t matter. They had an empty bed, and my son’s warm body could fill it.

    At an earlier hearing, my son’s pre-trial officer suggested to the judge that he be mandated to an inpatient drug treatment facility. I won’t mention this program’s name for fear of retaliation against my son, but the program is a bad joke. I have heard many complaints from people not involved in this story about how horrible it is, and I soon found out for myself.

    The pre-trial officer didn’t suggest that my son meet with a few different providers to find the right fit for him. No, he just asked the judge to order my son be sent to this particular one. We all know there’s a financial incentive for these places to fill beds and meet the quotas in their contracts with the courts. So I guess whether this place was a good fit or not didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. They had an empty bed, and my son’s warm body could fill it.

    From the beginning there were many issues with this program. I brought these issues—not the question of my son’s enrolment with the program itself—to the attention of his Probation Officer. Nothing changed. The PO went to visit the program, but took everything they said as fact.

    You would think if a client is allegedly causing problems or being unruly, the first person the program would call is that person’s PO. That’s not what happened. Instead, it got to the point where I had to call the program and the PO, who weren’t communicating with each other, on a regular basis because I was so concerned about what was happening.

    My son suffered two panic attacks while he was there. And one month in, he had yet to even meet a doctor or a psychiatrist—not until I called and made it an issue.

    It’s no surprise that after a couple of weeks of me calling and making them do their jobs, and alerting his PO to their shenanigans, they kicked my son out of the program. Their reason was that he kept looking like he was under the influenceregardless of the fact that he continued to test negative during his time in the program and when he came home. He had been out exactly two weeks before having to appear in court for the violation.

    As I sat on the cold bench behind my son and his attorney in the courtroom that day, I was forced to hear the probation officer’s version of events about my son’s alleged drug use and behaviors in the program—a version my son and I know to be false. The judge listened intently and hung on his every word.

    Then came the PO’s wing man from the program, who stated that he had 29 years of experience in drug counselingand apparently has the ability to tell when someone is under the influence just by looking at them. That helped seal the deal.

    All that they said went uncontested. My son’s attorney tried to explain that this program was clearly not a good fit for my son. She proposed several alternative options, including another inpatient program, but to no avail.

    I turned to my left and saw the marshalls sitting there patiently, waiting to wrap the steel bracelets around his wrists.

    The judge made a point of mentioning that the program has a contract with the courts, is in good standing and would never jeopardize that contract. Am I the only one who thinks that this line of reasoning is absolutely preposterous?

    I wanted to stand up and scream. I wanted to tell the judge how they were lyinghow the executive director of the program was upset because there was a parent who cared enough about her child to keep them in check and made sure they did their jobs, or at least the bare minimum. 

    But court doesn’t work that way.

    Instead, I turned around and hugged my son. At that moment, in my eyes, he went back to being a five-year-old who was lost.

    I turned to my left and saw the marshalls sitting there patiently, waiting to wrap the steel bracelets around his wrists.

    So I began to pray. I prayed that this judge saw my son as a young father with a lot of responsibilities on his plate and stresses no parent could bear, let alone a parent of five.

    It didn’t work. But the system worked exactly as it was intended to. Less than 30 minutes later, my son was handcuffed, stripped of his shoelaces and jacket. Bail was revoked and the defendant was remanded in custody until further notice.

    I cried the entire ride home, holding my son’s belongings in one arm and my work bag in the other.

    In my job, I fight every day for people’s freedom, for their rights to autonomy, equity and genuine justice. But this week, I couldn’t fight for my own son.


     

    Photo (modified) by George Hodan via PublicDomainPictures.net.

    • Dinah Ortiz

      Dinah is a writer and activist who has dedicated the majority of her time advocating to end the stigma surrounding PWUD and PWID. She has devoted over eight years advocating for marginalized parents in a variety of contexts, and contributing to Rise magazine, The Chronicle for Social Change and other publications. She has appeared on dozens of panels nationwide to discuss the racial disparities in the child welfare system.

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