Welcome back, cellmates!
This week, Thursday night at 10PM on A&E, Beyond Scared Straight visits Fulton County, Georgia. It's an emotionally riveting episode that may bring you to tears more than once. It shows the power of family to build and, sadly, to debilitate lives.
This week, we meet brothers Travis and De'Aunte. Travis, 17, is a thief who thinks he's a future NBA star. He also skips school to get drunk on cough syrup. De'Aunte, 15, is a homophobic gambler and fighter who has beaten up some of his gay classmates. De'Aunte follows in his older brother Travis' footsteps and is sure he'll never get caught by the authorities--even though he has already been arrested three times. A visit to the Fulton County Jail's "alternative lifestyle" unit may just open his eyes.
We also meet Arnisia, 15, a former school athlete and honor roll student who admits to hanging out with bad influences. After she stole a car, her lawyer said that the jail tour is the only thing that may keep her record clean.
Chirsten, 13, has been posting inappropriate pictures online and connecting to men she does not know. Chirsten recently lost a sister, someone she calls a "second mom," in a car accident, and this tragedy seems to have ignited Christen's downward spiral. Now Chirsten's single mom is alone, and terrified, in raising her at-risk daughter.
Though their background stories differ, each teen featured on this episode has one thing in common: they all come from single parent homes, with desperate mothers trying to find a way to put their children on a better path, at an age at which the teens refuse to be controlled.
I am often emailed by parents and even teens who are desperate to be on our series. These are people who feel they have reached the end of their rope and have nowhere to turn to except Beyond Scared Straight.
For all those parents or teens out there who think a TV show is the answer to their problems, I have a confession to make: it is not. We just document an event. Though we care and offer words of encouragement, we have very little to do with teens actually changing. It's all up to the jails, the deputies and what happens at home after the jail day ends. We only document programs already in existence. We do not create them.
If there really is nowhere else to turn and they think a juvenile diversion program is the only option, I urge parents to contact their local sheriff's office, county jail or state prison to see if they have programs like this in their area. There are many more programs in addition to the ones we have documented. There are also social agencies, school counselors, law enforcement professionals and religious organizations that offer a shoulder to lean on and a direction to follow.
First and foremost, however, change comes from within ourselves--and within our families.
We have met so many different kinds of families on our series. There are teens who come from impoverished and crime-ridden backgrounds and teens who come from a world of affluence. We have teens of every race--and some who are a mix of several. We have quiet teens and rebellious teens. We have intelligent teens and teens who have little ambition to form an intelligible sentence.
So many of our teens do come from broken homes. Though not every single-parent home produces a jail-bound teenager, more than anything else, losing a parent seems to be the most common factor among the teens we have met. It's an understandable phenomenon that when a teen loses a parent to divorce, incarceration or violence, this loss will have a deep impact on the teen's sense of self and place in the world. The teen will want to find something to control and conquer on their own.
After divorce, the frequent animosity between parents spills into the family home. Children are caught in the middle, having to share their love, respect and devotion. They feel guilt over possibly being part of the reason for the breakup. Children are intuitive, scared, sensitive and often incapable of comprehending the intricacies of adult relationships. They wonder how two people who they love and are loved by can't love each other.
When family is missing, sometimes gang life fills that role, offering a twisted (and fictional) family structure that promises protection, riches and power. Teens buy into that hype and join up.
I am a single parent and wonder every day if I am making the right decisions for my three-year-old, giving her the confidence and strength she needs to one day make the right decisions in life. I'm pretty sure I'm doing a good job, but lke all parents on our series, I can only do what I think is right: to discipline and encourage, to give her positive role models, to show her how to recognize and respect love and to always allow her to feel secure enough to come to me if there is a problem. I will make mistakes and so will she, but I'll always be there for her when she falls. That's my commitment as her father.
I will also teach her to eat spaghetti with a fork and watch movies from the 1940s.
There have been many successful people who have come from single parent homes: Halle Berry, Mary J. Blige, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Mariah Carey, Bill Clinton, Sean Combs, Jay-Z, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, Jamie Foxx, Al Pacino, 50 Cent, Jodie Foster, Samuel L. Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Jon Stewart, Shania Twain, Kanye West, Barbra Streisand, Madonna and Demi Moore all grew up with only one parent.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both lost their fathers in car crashes. Clinton never met his father and Obama only met his father once.
I believe what matters most is the quality of life and love in the home, and the amount of trust and communication shared by parents and teens. Parents need to educate, inform and compromise. Yet sometimes, a parent will fight persistently to keep their child safe from bad influences without success. The street is a powerful opponent once it takes hold.
I always put myself into the shoes of the single parents on our show. It can't be easy. Hopefully, with the help of places like the Fulton County Jail, and the supportive love of concerned parents, the road ahead may become a bit smoother for the troubled teens and their families.