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Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil
I. Okolo
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Every time I’ve been to family court, I’ve felt helpless, because a judge was making decisions about my life, and I was not able to make decisions for myself. But I felt even more helpless that I was not given the opportunity to speak.

In New York City, where I live, in cases of abuse or neglect, a teenager can only be present in family court with the judge’s permission. Usually, a lawyer speaks for you.

The first time I went to family court, two women came and introduced themselves to me. They stated that they were helping my lawyer, and one woman said that she was my social worker. But each time I returned to the courthouse, there was always someone new talking to me. I kept on seeing different faces. I never saw the same face twice. I never knew who my lawyer was, either.

Every time I went, I seemed to hear them say the same things: “We are sorry…We are still waiting for the judge to call your name…Come back after lunch…The judge postponed the case for another three months…The judge is out for lunch.”

I just sat in the waiting room getting more and more upset. I had no idea what was happening in the courtroom. I started to see craziness in people, people yelling, lawyers and social workers pacing. My head felt like it was spinning, as if my life was not moving forward.

Desperate to Be Heard

I went back to the courthouse five or six times. All the changing faces made me feel like I was not really being heard. Eventually I decided it was best if I spoke to the judge myself. I told one of the women that I wanted to be present in front of the judge. I begged her several times. She said she’d see what she could do, but it never happened.

If I had been able to be in the courtroom and see the judge and hear what my family had to say, I can’t honestly tell you what I would have said or done. At the time, I wanted to tell the judge to leave my family alone. Back then, I was under too much pressure from my father, who was telling me to say that my stories about the sexual and physical abuse were made up. Because I love my family so deeply, I didn’t want to see them in any pain.

My case was constantly being postponed and the more time passed, the more I felt pressure from my family to deny the charges of abuse. I became so unsure and confused that in the end, I even wrote letters for my family and made a tape recording stating that my stories were made up.

One reason I did that was the guilt I felt for getting my family in trouble. But I also wrote the letters because I was sick and tired of coming to court and not knowing what was going on. I was sick and tired of the judge constantly wasting my time, having me wait in the courtroom all day for no results. I was sick and tired of begging to speak to the judge and not being heard. I felt sick and tired of being sick and tired. So I decide to close the case by lying.

But in my heart, I think I really needed someone who I trusted to listen to my story and believe me. I needed someone who I felt understood me, from the heart.

An Ocean of Pain

image by Shaun Shishido

Deep down, I wanted to tell my side of the story, to talk about the abuse, because I wanted the judge, or anyone, to understand that I was in pain. But I never even got to see my lawyer or the judge, so how could I know if I could trust them enough to tell them the truth?

I thought to myself, “How can this judge make decisions about my life when he has never seen me, knows nothing of me? All the judge knows is what he has heard about me, but he has never heard anything about my life from my mouth.”

I felt that in that courtroom, where everyone was speaking but me, my feelings were like a tiny drop of water. I felt that if I had a chance to speak, then my words and feelings would be like a deep ocean, an ocean of my pain and anger, that would overwhelm the judge and make him understand.

It’s been about three and a half years, maybe more, since I’ve been in family court. I still think about it.

What I had thought I wanted was not really what I wanted. I thought I wanted to go home and let my family win the case. But now I can see that if I had gone home, I would have still been in the same predicament that I had been in before (the sexual and physical abuse, the drug abuse). So I think that the judge’s decision not to send me home was right and I thank him for that.

But even though I think the judge made the right decision without me being present, I still think the lawyers and the judges made a mistake by not allowing me to be in the courtroom and know what was going on, and for not giving me a chance me to speak up for myself.

I found out what went on in the court several years after the hearing, three months before I was about to be discharged. I finally met my lawyer when I was about to turn 21, and he showed me the records from my case. That’s when I found out what my family and others had said about me, how they’d portrayed me as a liar, a manipulative child, and how my father had said that he loved his family and would never do such things.

The day I read those records, I felt angry, upset, betrayed. It seemed as if my father won the case, and I had never had a chance to tell my own part of the story. Reading what they’d said about me so many years later, when I no longer had any chance to defend myself, seemed much worse than if I had heard what they’d said there in that courtroom.

I Want to Speak for Me

If I had been there, I know that maybe instead of standing up to my family, I would have been overwhelmed by what they were saying about me. Maybe I would not have had the heart to drown my mother in more pain. In the past, when I had spoken with her about the abuse, she would cry and ask me how I could do this to my family. After that, I never had the courage to keep on with my protests. When my mother would condemn me as a liar, a devil child, I would just agree with her, because deeply, I truly love my mother and it hurts me to see her in pain.

But even if I’d been silent in court or agreed with my family’s charges, I still don’t think that it would have hurt me more than I’d already been hurt. And even if it did hurt me more, I still would want to have been present. Because my life is my life, and I want to be in control of it. Since I couldn’t be in control of whether I was staying in care, at least I wish the lawyers and judges could have let me see and hear from the people who were deciding how my life would be, and for them to have seen and heard from me.

In the end, I believe that having no knowledge of what was going on in that courtroom—and finding out the truth about what happened there years later—hurt more deeply than anything I would have heard from my family then. I wish I’d had more support to speak up for myself rather than just having someone speak up for me.

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(FCYU-2001-01-06)

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