I love documentaries. Just ask Netflix. My “Things Diane Might Like” section routinely populates with new ones. In the past six months, I’ve watched two outstanding, thought-provoking, and emotional documentaries. Blackfish about the death of Seaworld Trainer, Dawn Brancheau and the negative effects of keeping killer whales in captivity. And, Kids for Cash about a scandal in Luzerne County, PA where Judge Mark Chiavarella and Judge Michael Conahan received payments for placing young people in a privatized juvenile detention facility.
Like Blackfish, Kids for Cash outlines the negative impact of placing young people outside of their families and natural ecologies. While I see parallels between these two documentaries, I also see a striking difference in the general response to the films.
Every time CNN re-airs Blackfish or a friend newly discovers it, my Facebook newsfeed and Twitter account blow up with moral outrage. Many entertainers, including Barenaked Ladies, REO Speedwagon, Trace Adkins, and others have canceled performances at SeaWorld after viewing the documentary. My friends and family post on their Facebook walls that they will never go to SeaWorld again. As I scroll through the comments, I wonder where the moral outrage is for “the kids” in Kids for Cash? Why no protest about the way our human children are confined?
Is it because people believe that this is an isolated incident that occurred in a small community in Pennsylvania? The reality is young people all over America continue to be committed for status offenses in the name of “zero tolerance.” In the United States, one and half million kids are arrested each year. Of those, 89 percent are for non-violent crimes. The U.S. incarcerates 5 times more children than any other nation in the world. This is not a small problem in one community. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP, among other groups, have spoken out against what has been coined the “Schools to Prison Pipeline.”
When you watch the killer whale Tilikum’s actions in Blackfish, while not condonable, it makes sense in the larger context of his experiences and ecology. He was removed from his family, placed with others he didn’t know, bullied by larger and more aggressive whales, subjected to dubious behavior management techniques, and disciplined for a miscommunication. But most people view the movie and don't get angry with Tilikum; their anger is directed at the system that locked up the orca.
To me, Tilikum’s experiences parallel what many juveniles face in the juvenile justice system. They are pulled from their families and home communities, placed with strangers, frequently bullied by peers, subjected to the anti-social and criminal activities of their peers, and disciplined by strangers with varying degrees of education and expertise.
My Facebook feed isn’t full of comments demanding that we arm the SeaWorld trainers and encourage them to “stand their ground” when encountering misbehaving whales and dolphins. People aren’t demanding “zero tolerance” for Tilikum; in fact, SeaWorld of Orlando’s isolating Tilikum to a tank fueled more outrage. The outcry is for more humane treatment for orcas; a demand to let scientists inform what works and to stop confining orcas.
My hope is that Kids for Cash would inspire an equal outcry for more humane treatment of our children; a demand for more evidence-based treatment models that work. Treatment models that reduce crime and delinquency, increase community safety, and turn young people into contributing members of society. Those programs exist. We need to demand that our tax dollars support them. We need to fund programs that demonstrate measurable success and de-fund programs that do not demonstrate success or, worse, do harm. As a society, I believe we owe our children the same outrage we afford a killer whale.