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This year in review: Lawmakers can do better for NC families, kids

Meléndez’ daughter Isabella Pabon (Provided by the Pabon family)

The end of the year is near, and as we reflect on the biggest news, it’s also important to highlight what stories were near and dear to our heart.

There were two meaningful stories that I covered this year — one about the struggles that people go through in North Carolina while trying to start a family, and the other about children caught up in a justice system that often doesn’t have their best interest in mind.

I started working on “Modern families unprotected by outdated NC laws” after receiving a tip about same sex couples who weren’t being treated the same as heterosexual couples when going through an adoption process at a local clerk’s office.
I was surprised at how quickly people opened up to me about their experiences starting a family, but I was even more astonished at just how archaic North Carolina’s parentage laws are.

“Who is defined as a parent has already changed,” said Jennifer Tharrington, a Raleigh attorney at the law firm Haas Tharrington. “The model of two married heterosexual parents living with their genetic offspring applies to less than half of the families living in the United States right now, yet all of our statutes were drafted to primarily accommodate that family model. We need to shift.”

There’s a certain privilege that comes with not only being in a heterosexual relationship and considering having kids, but with also being a person who doesn’t have fertility issues. We tend to not think about the things that don’t affect us until they do, but recognizing other individuals’ plights helps us in making this world a better place for everyone. It can also connect policy makers to a world that they may not be educated about to make the shift that needs to be made.

The bravery, vulnerability and honestly shared by those people who spoke to me about their experiences stuck with me, and hopefully with others.

For example, Giselle Meléndez shared with me that she had five miscarriages, went through three In Vitro Fertilization cycles and had to wait five years before finally becoming a mother. And that was only half of her battle — the legal struggles that came with using a surrogate were expensive and agonizing.

Meléndez said it was well worth the struggle for her family, but such legal issues are unnecessary in these modern times, and likely prevent a number of people from actualizing their dreams of becoming parents.

A step in the right direction in updating the laws would be for North Carolina lawmakers to adopt the Uniform Parentage Act (UPA), which was updated last summer and provides states with a uniform legal framework for establishing parent-child relationships.

*****

The other story that really tugged at my heartstrings this year was one about how state law enforcement officials don’t have any idea about how many children are in adult jails.

I started looking into the issue after attending a gathering outside the Durham County Detention Facility in honor of Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, who hanged herself last year from her cell window. She was 17 years old and had been housed with adults for more than a year after being charged with murder.

Youth advocates and community members gathered last week outside the Durham County Detention Facility to remember the life of Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, a teen who committed suicide while housed there last year. They also called for policy changes to prevent such a situation. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“We are here today as a group, as a unit, to celebrate and remember the life of Niecey,” said Ethan Ashley, who is a board member for the National Juvenile Justice Network. “But the truth of the matter is that no young person – and the data is very clear, the research is very clear, the lived experiences of young people is very clear – should be in adult prisons.”

When I tried to find other kids like Niecey who were locked up in adult jails, I hit roadblock after roadblock. It turned out the last year that statewide information was made available about kids in adult jails was in 2013, when the N.C. Department of Public Safety (DPS) still kept track of county detention facility data.

The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association is tasked now with keeping those statistics, including how many jails still house juveniles and adults together, where they are located and how many children are locked up every year with adults. Policy Watch requested the information from the Sheriffs’ Association, but Executive Vice President and General Counsel Eddie Caldwell said his group would not gather it because it is not staffed at a capacity to do so.

This came as a shock to me, but not those who worked in the juvenile justice world. Ultimately, it became an opportunity to educate the general public, and particularly lawmakers, because if we can’t do better by our kids, what are we doing?

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