Home News Center YJLI Fellow Rebecca Burney Helps System-Involved Girls Find Their Advocacy Voice

YJLI Fellow Rebecca Burney Helps System-Involved Girls Find Their Advocacy Voice

February 25, 2021
Courtney M. McSwain

What got you into doing youth justice reform work? 

Growing up as a Black person in America, I witnessed the impact that the juvenile justice system had on my family membersand my brother and cousins in particular. I remember one instance when my brother was expelled from high school for talking about the Columbine school shooting with a classmate. A racist white teacher overheard them and told the principal that he was planning a school shootingSituations like that were common growing up in a predominately white suburband I remember at a young age feeling powerless to help my brother deal with numerous police interactions and justice system involvement.  

Seeing the toll that it took on my brother, how he would be arrested and criminalized for things that his white peers weren't - it was hard to watch.  I knew that I wanted to make a difference and stop feeling powerless to stop the injustice I was witnessing, so I decided to become a lawyer. In my mind I thought that if youth of color had better legal representation and people fighting for their rights, then these inequities wouldn't happen as frequently.   

Prior to law school, I worked with homeless women fleeing domestic violence situations and individuals who had been sexually abused in Lansing, MI.  As a sexual assault counselor, I was often called to the emergency room to support survivors of rape and sexual assault and was horrified by the number of young girls I saw escorted to the hospital by police officers and placed in handcuffs while undergoing a forensic exam.  I found the pathway of sexual abuse into the juvenile justice system alarming and tragic and didn’t think girls should be criminalized for their responses to sexual trauma. I knew I wanted to do advocacy for these vulnerable young people as well and reform the system 

How do you view change from the legal standpoint versus organizing or other type of advocacy?  

In order to change such an oppressive system there need to be people from various perspectives and viewpoints working together to dismantle it. With the defund the police movement, for instance, there were people in the streets protesting while others worked behind closed doors talking to lawmakers and working to reform the criminal legal system and change the laws. I think there's a role for everyone on the path towards justice. 

For me, I chose to advocate using the legal pathway. I see my role as someone who can hear from survivors and people with lived experience and translate their views into laws and policies that lawmakers, police officers, judges and attorneys will understand. For example, in my capacity as a lawyer, I’ve been able to train judges on the law and how to recognize signs of domestic child sex trafficking in their courtrooms so they can respond differently to survivors of abuse and trauma and stop criminalizing exploited youth Trafficking is a major pathway into the justice system for girls of color and particularly Black girls, so this is one way to advocate to make change.  

Can you tell me about your advocacy YJLI project? 

My advocacy project is in partnership with an amazing organization called Courtney's HouseThey are the only survivor-runAfrican American-run organization serving youth survivors of domestic child sex trafficking in the Washington, D.C. area. Nearly all of the youth who are trafficked in D.C. are people of color and my project involves helping these remarkable young people understand proposed legislation and how it may impact their livesThe policy group at Courtney’s House also equips youth with tools to advocate for policy changes that they would like to see and helps ensure that their voices are heard amongst members of the D.C. Council, and in some cases even members of Congress. 

In the policy group we discuss various issues and policiesthen assist the young people with giving testimony before Council and meeting with lawmakers.  Their testimony has been instrumental in holding agencies accountable during budget and oversight hearings. The ultimate goal of my project is to create a policy brief with survivor recommendations around a variety of issues, ranging from policing to child welfare to the incarceration of trafficked youth 

How has the process of getting trained in legislative advocacy impacted the young woman you work with on a personal level?  

When you think about the population that we're working with and how vulnerable and marginalized these youth are, you realize that their confidence was often shattered as a result of exploitation. Having supportive space where they can speak openly and honestly and share their perspective without judgment can help increase their self-esteem. The policy group is a space where they are validated and encouraged; where they are told how brilliant and amazing they are. This is a unique space where they're able to dictate what the policies are and what the conversation will be Young people who are system involved constantly have adults telling them what to do and not respecting their agency. Having a space where they are surrounded by adults who are asking what they think – and paying them for their expertise – is beneficial to their self-worth.  My hope is that the participants in the policy group will have gained much more than technical skills by the time the project is finished. 

What motivates you in this work? 

It's such an honor to be able to work with our young people and that they trust me enough to convert their experiences and opinions into policy—and that they trust me enough to share their lived experiences in the first placeThis trust that they have in me gives me an extra drive and motivation to do a good job and continue working my hardest. They've been failed so many times by so many adults and so many systems that I don't want to be another person that lets them down, so that's very motivating for me. 

What would you say your dream youth justice vision is? 

I don’t believe that children should be incarcerated, so my long-term vision is that we stop incarcerating youth. Ithere’s a concern around violence or mental health, we should address that in a different way, not incarceration.  We must invest in underserved communities, mental health services, employment opportunities, youth leadership, etc. and divest from systems that were designed to oppress and control children of color.  

In the short termI would love for us to stop incarcerating young people for nonviolent offenses and universally decriminalize status offenses such as running away, curfew violations, and truancy. At the end of the day, I just want poor Black and Brown youth to be treated with the same respect and dignity that wealthy white kids are treated with.

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