From Uganda to Nebraska, A Bumpy Road: Emmanuel’s Story

As a child, Emmanuel’s mother died in a refugee camp in Uganda. He came to America with his father and brother. They were placed in Nebraska.

Since he could not speak English very much at all, living in Nebraska was difficult for Emmanuel. Through his school days, he struggled in classes, and eventually received negative attention from his peers as he grew older. This was exacerbated by a challenging life at home with his father.

His first experience with the juvenile justice system was at age 14, when he was arrested for possession of drugs. Emmanuel was put on probation with electronic monitoring.

Near the end of his sentence, he was out with a friend who got into an altercation with the police. When Emmanuel stepped in to try to diffuse the situation and calm his friend down, he was charged with obstruction of justice and was committed to Douglas Youth Center for four months.

Those four months were a miserable time, but after his time in Douglas, he was sent to Boys Town, a residential treatment alternative to detention that follows a family model -- young people live in a highly structured home with an adult couple who act as “parents.” At Boys Town, he took advantage of all the campus had to offer. Emmanuel got involved with sports, he stayed busy with chores and learned a lot of decision-making skills in school and at home.

His teachers and family model provided him with a healthy support system.

“It was good for me to be in a structured family environment,” Emmanuel said; it was a community he had never been a part of before. He became a leader in his home, and still spends time with his Boys Town family on holidays.

When Emmanuel was ready to go home from Boys Town, his case worker learned that his father had gone to Uganda and had not returned. Rather than go into foster care, Emmanuel stayed with his Boys Town family for another year before heading straight into community college. He will graduate in the spring of 2017 with a degree in Criminal Justice, with a paying internship at the Douglas Youth Center, where he wants to help other young people who are looking for opportunities.

Boys Town is one of many community-based alternatives to incarceration proven to be effective in helping young people get their lives back on track. As growing number of states are reforming their juvenile justice approaches to connect more young people to the type of supports Emmanuel received.

The federal Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) enables states to provide alternatives to incarceration that save taxpayer dollars and lead to safer communities and healthier young people and families. It is long overdue for reauthorization in Congress and must be fully funded in order to ensure that more young people get access to the treatment and opportunities they need.

You can help: contact Congress, ask them to pass the JJDPA.

*Emmanuel has asked that we not use his full name, given the sensitive nature of this post


SparkAction compiled this profile based on Kim’s interview with Lisette Burton, the director of national advocacy for Boys Town.

Boys Town is a member of the Act4JJ Coalition, which advocates for the reauthorization and funding of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

This blog was produced as part of the #JJDPAmatters Blog series. Please use and share this post – all we ask is that you credit #JJDPAmatters and include a link to this page.