I grew up in the California foster care system, which I entered when I was a baby. I have suffered many horrors at the hands of the system and others within it.
When I was 3, my birth mother was murdered. From 3 to 5 years old, I was the victim of repeated sexual abuse by a 13 year old teenager who was also in the system. The family that adopted me a year later saw only a pretty little girl. They did not see the luggage I was carrying or did not anticipate the behavioral issues that resulted from my traumatic start in life.
When I was 15, my adoptive mother died in front of me, her husband and their son. Within three months of his death, my adoptive father put me back in foster care. I was then admitted to a mental hospital for young people for threatening to kill myself. The facility was located on an oceanfront property – a beach we were prohibited from visiting without supervision. One day, a group of us organized a sit-in to protest this restriction. Of the 15 children who participated, only two of us – the only black girls in the group – were arrested. The girl arrested with me was released a few hours later in the custody of her parents. Without anyone to claim me, I had to spend four months in the juvenile room. Basically, I was criminalized for having no parents.
I spent the rest of my teenage years walking through foster homes and group homes. When I was 17, my only brother died in a car accident.
I emancipated myself from the system at 18 without an adequate support system. A close friend of mine was introduced to the underground sex economy by a married couple. It may sound incredible, but I envied it. Her way of life seemed to give her a family and a stable living situation, which I missed. Finally, I also got involved with a trafficker, who taught me that life on the streets could be dangerous and gave me a weapon to protect myself.
There were plenty of other girls like me on the streets, and I could see their vulnerability. Armed with the rifle and accompanied by my trafficker, I thought I could protect them from the dangers we all faced, and took them under my wing.
Within months, I was arrested and charged with kidnapping, pimping and pimping, with gun enhancements. When I was 19, I was sentenced to 20 years and eight months in prison. My 27 year old co-accused and trafficker has not been convicted of any charges related to mine.
It would be easy to judge me on what I did during this period of my life, but without taking into account the almost uninterrupted trauma that preceded it, you don’t get the big picture. This is true for the majority of survivors of human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence – who are predominantly black, brunette and indigenous women and queer and trans people. We are criminalized, rather than assessed as a whole person, punished for surviving exploitation and abuse.
Assembly Bill 124 – Senator Sydney Kamlager’s Justice for Survivors Act – would change that. This would allow courts to take into account a person’s age, history of trauma and victimization at the hands of human traffickers or intimate partners, potentially reducing criminal penalties. It would allow people like me to be seen not as criminals, but as the survivors and the humans that we are.
AB 124 does not exonerate anyone from their responsibility or accountability; it creates more meaningful paths to justice. It has the potential to disrupt the abuse pipeline in prison and give survivors of violence a chance to recover from trauma and live as valuable and active members of society.
None of the systems that are supposed to be designed to support troubled youth has ever helped me. I look back and wish that a therapist, police officer, prosecutor, or judge identified me as the victim I was and gave me resources to deal with my trauma and rebuild my life.
I urge Californians to support AB 124, not only for the benefit of survivors of violence, but to reduce the unnecessary and enormous costs of incarceration, and to increase healing and reunification in society.
April Grayson is a political associate at the Young Women’s Freedom Center in Sacramento. Email: [email protected] Distributed by CalMatters.org.