What Is This Child Doing in Prison?
With her father incarcerated and her mother addicted to heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol, the girl—who is referred to simply as Jane Doe, to protect her identity as a minor—had been passed among family members since she was 5 years old. They repeatedly raped, tortured and even prostituted her.
At last rescued by Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families, she was placed in a foster care facility, where she was raped by a fellow resident and forced to have sex with a staff member. When she fought back, she was punished. When caught involuntarily performing sex acts, she was punished. Jane was then placed at a residential facility in Massachusetts, but the sexual assaults continued at the hand of a worker entrusted with her care.
Finally, on April 8 the state of Connecticut placed her in a mental-ward cell, for her own protection. She is alone for up to 23 hours a day. Joette Katz, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Children and Families, said in The Hartford Courant that she had no choice but to incarcerate Jane because it was “the only acceptable option to ensure the safety of the other youths for whom I am responsible.”
You see, Jane can be violent. She has fought with other children and with staff members wherever she’s been placed. But given her history, how could she survive by being anything but violent? Where, in her entire life, would this child have ever learned anything except to fight back? And how is placing her in an adult prison—where aggression, savagery and intimidation are the everyday tools needed to survive—going to help her heal?
It’s not enough to recount the torment she has endured. If we want to stop the cycle of brutality, we have to ask why the heavens rained down on this child. I believe it is because Jane is transgender.
Jane was born a boy. She began exhibiting feminine characteristics from age 5, and by the time she was 9 she knew that she was, in fact, a girl. Born into a society where blending gender lines was unacceptable, where God and preachers condemn, Jane didn’t have a chance.
Those with the best intentions felt it was their duty to beat these notions out of her. Those with the worst intentions felt it their right to toy with someone they considered a freak of nature. She was devalued as a family member, rejected by her peers and shunned by decent society. How could she ever survive except by learning that no adult could be trusted?
And yet, against all odds and reason, she has not destroyed herself. And her strength has brought her allies; protesters have marched in the state capital, Hartford, demanding her release. Govervor Dannel Malloy agreed, and at his urging she was moved on Tuesday to a cottage on the prison grounds. This is not a solution. Yes, it is better than a cell, but she is still just as isolated, and still being held against her will in a prison. And she is not receiving what she really needs—demands, in fact—and that is treatment. “I need to deal with the trauma I’ve experienced,” she wrote in an affidavit. “This prison cannot do that for me.”
Ms. Katz, of the Department of Children and Families, says that because of the threat of violence, there is no place else to put Jane. That is simply untrue. Several families have already offered to take her in. Knowing everything they do about her history and problems, these families are willing to foster this child and begin the healing. One of these families is a transgender couple with a unique understanding of Jane’s needs and situation.
But Ms. Katz has been inexplicably unmovable. Meanwhile, Jane remains in prison, and not one of her rapists or abusers or torturers has been charged.
Of all the crimes that have been committed against Jane, the worst may be that of omission: our failure to nurture, protect and teach our children, and to treasure them as unique individuals. The crime is ours. The punishment is theirs to bear.
Harvey Fierstein is an actor and playwright.
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