246 – Why You Should Read The Car Thief
With a degree in Law Enforcement, a Master’s in Criminal Justice, and decades spent working in the child welfare and juvenile justice field, she is able to take readers behind the closed doors of a system the public seldom sees. She began her career as line staff in a juvenile detention center before moving to a job as a juvenile court probation officer. In her mid-twenties, she landed the position of director of a private youth-serving agency that operated a group home for status (runaways/truants) and public offender youth. While in this capacity, she obtained funding and housing to open a shelter facility for public offender boys who would otherwise have been placed in secure detention. Eventually, she moved into the Kentucky state government and helped develop a training curriculum for all of the state’s child welfare workers and community juvenile staff. A sought-after speaker, Vicki presented at numerous state and national conferences on juvenile justice and wrote a monthly article for the Kentucky Educational Collaborative for State Agency Children (KECSAC), dealing with behavior management of difficult youth in school settings.
Vicki Reed is the author of the book The Car Thief, a fiction story about a child going through the juvenile justice system.
This story follows the main character, a kid named Kelly, on his journey through foster homes, courtrooms, and dealing with trauma.
This book has become a resource to educate people on the various topics and themes throughout the story.
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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast; this is episode number 246: Why You Should Read The Car Thief.
Production Credits [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.
Dave [00:00:30] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.
Sandie [00:00:36] And my name is Sandie Morgan.
Dave [00:00:38] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking, Sandie. Today we have a conversation with someone that’s a little different than we normally do. And yet I’m really excited for this conversation to discover more. Aren’t you?
Sandie [00:00:56] Oh, I can’t wait.
Dave [00:00:58] I am so glad to welcome Vicki Reed to our show. Vicki, after earning her bachelor’s degree in law enforcement and master’s degree in criminal justice, immersed herself in a successful, decades-long career in juvenile justice. She’s a sought-after speaker and is currently executive director of the Kentucky Juvenile Justice Initiative in Lexington, where she lives with her husband and son. And she’s also an author of a book. Vicki, we’re so glad to welcome you to the show.
Vicki [00:01:29] Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here and I love the good work that you all do.
Sandie [00:01:34] Well, Vicki, we met at a conference for kids, and I knew right away we were kindred spirits. And you sent me your book, A Car Thief, and I read it in one weekend. And as I was reading it and Dave, you probably have this feeling because you read so much. I kept thinking of people I wanted to read it to because it’s so clearly illustrated a trauma-informed or an uninformed approach to communicating with young people. So, my first question for you, Vicki, I mean, you’re an expert in juvenile justice. Why did you write a fiction book?
Vicki [00:02:18] Well, I didn’t start out to actually, I didn’t start out to write any book. It wasn’t one of those people that said, oh, I want to write a book someday. But I am a voracious reader. I love to read. And I wanted to read about juvenile justice. But when I looked, you know, I really couldn’t find much out there, especially when it came to fiction that things that were there were very much inaccurate. And if you’re in the system, I guess it’s like a doctor who was reading a book about medical stuff. And if you say they didn’t sterilize the instruments or something, you’d be grimacing. So anyway, so I had Toni Morrison, who you’ve probably heard of, a famous author, said that if there’s a book you want to read that’s not out there, write it yourself. So, I decided I would write a nice little nonfiction and explain how kids get in the system and who they are and how traumas involved in that and so forth. And it really wasn’t going well. And about three o’clock in the morning, one night when I was trying to work on it, when I couldn’t sleep, it morphed to fiction and I felt much better. I was taking this hypothetical kid all through the system and basically Kelly, the kid in the story, he took over and he wrote the book from there.
Sandie [00:03:30] So, OK, so let’s talk a little bit about Kelly and some of the other characters. But don’t tell the ending. We don’t want a spoiler in our podcast. We want people to get the book and read it themselves. So, tell us about Kelly.
Vicki [00:03:50] Well, he starts off. He’s 12 years old and he has been involved in you know, he lived in Wyoming. He’s had some trauma in his life. And I don’t know that I wanted to do that. Should I tell what the trauma is?
Sandie [00:04:04] Yeah. Why don’t you start off by telling what his trauma is.
Vicki [00:04:07] OK, well, I’ll start off by saying that the book actually starts in the middle of an exciting part where he is coming out the window, running away. So, it’s trying to get people from the get-go where they would immediately be captured into the story of the book of this kid popping out of a three-story window and almost falling to his death and so forth to get the excitement going. But basically, his family was killed in a car wreck and he lived in Wyoming. He’s a big nature lover and horse lover, which is something I am. So, I’ve incorporated that into the story as well and he is shipped off to live with an abusive grandfather. And so basically, he runs away and after that starts going through the system. And if you know anything about the system, probably what wherever you live, you know that when one domino gets turned over, the other is kind of knocked through. And that’s what happens with these kids. One little ripple can just take them deeper and deeper with juvenile justice. We like to say it’s like there’s plenty of on-ramps onto the highway, but not very many to get off. And so, this just takes him through all his travels. And the other thing is, and you mentioned the other characters are that the adults that come into his life along the way.
Sandie [00:05:24] So I think when the lights came on for me, he had been taking. Into a temporary placement and the way that you write this, I can hear what people are saying to Kelly, and then I can also hear what Kelly is thinking about, what they are saying. And it just rang so true. And he had no power. He anticipated a lot of what would happen to him and it happened to him. So, it reinforced his hopelessness. So, tell us how you came up with the characters that were interacting with Kelly.
Vicki [00:06:16] Well, basically, this is a good thing about being old because you have all these years of experience and all these places and people you’ve worked with. And one of my prior jobs was I actually ran an emergency shelter and a group home for kids. I’ve worked in juvenile detention. I’ve been a probation officer, so I’ve sort of done it all. So, a lot of the characters are sort of people I have met along the way. And I did make a real effort to balance in the book. And you can tell me whether I did a good job of this or not, the good and the bad, because one of my complaints with a lot of the juvenile books you read is, oh, they’re all corrupt guards and everybody’s horrible. And I didn’t want it to be that way. So, I have like a good judge and a bad judge and a good foster parent and a bad foster parent because I wanted to show that it’s sort of really is a roll of the dice. When you get in the system, you may get a great social worker to be on your case or one that doesn’t care and is going home soon as they can. A judge who loves kids and really tries to do the best of the judge who just wants to move on the docket and doesn’t really care. So, I tried to bring all those different people in. And I think after working with these kids for so long that it wasn’t hard to write a 14-year-old boy or 13-year-old boy, just because I’ve been around these kids so much and I’ve also been around the adults, the people who work in emergency shelters and work in juvenile detention and lawyers. And I tried to bring all of those people into the system and make them human and natural.
Sandie [00:07:52] So one of the things that I noticed is that Kelly didn’t explain why he did things. He didn’t explain what happened and why he ran away from his grandfather. And that’s kind of at the beginning of the book. So, it’s there’s not going to be a spoiler alert there. Why don’t you just tell us a little bit about what happened?
Vicki [00:08:16] Well, one of the things that when I started doing the book since I had never written fiction before, I immersed myself in all the how-to books and so forth. And one of the things they tell you is don’t say everything about the characters upfront, that you kind of dribble it in in a natural way. So, there isn’t a whole lot of explaining. Part of that is the fun of the reader discovering these little like peeling an onion, these little bits and parts. And really that’s how it should be in the system in a way because we had this conversation before, people asking kids very personal questions about their personal lives and expecting them to give this answer on things when you know how difficult that would be for an adult. Well, tell me about this horrible thing that happened to you over and over and over again. So that was one of the things I wanted to make sure that I incorporated was how kids think about these things and how we adults perceive them.
Sandie [00:09:13] So tell us about Grandpa. How did you decide that he would be? A challenge in Kelly’s life?
Vicki [00:09:24] Well, basically, I needed a reason for him to take off, to get into the system. So, and that’s so typical of kids that are in the system. Over half have been physically abused or neglected and an even higher percentage, especially when you get the girls have been sexually abused. I remember reading an article where they had gone in and a reporter was asking in a juvenile facility, well, what percent of the girls here had been sexually abused? And the director just looked at him and said, one hundred percent, all of them have. So that was basically grandfather doesn’t play a huge role, but he is the reason that Kelly ends up being a runaway and gets into the system.
Sandie [00:10:12] So I’m in Chapter six right now, and he has gone through intake at an emergency placement. And now we’re thinking about his plan for surviving this. So, here’s what it says. My brief time of being a regular person is over, there goes my shoes and here comes my stupid points book. I cave and start writing the points down. I don’t want them talking bad about me in court again. Besides, I figure out that being good makes you invisible. Now that I’m walking the line, the staff back off. And as they do, I begin to see opportunities to hit the road, even though I haven’t solved the problem of rescuing my backpack. So, he’s already I mean, he just got here, and they take his shoes away because they don’t want him to run and he’s already planning to run. How prevalent is that runner mentality?
Vicki [00:11:17] I think is very prevalent. And it does. And it’s pointed out one other time in the book, it becomes a hard habit to break after a while. And there is the thing of it for some kids. When you’re under a roof, there’s the safety of what we call the three hots and a cot. And you don’t have anything out there, and you really were starving to death at night. But for so many of these kids, the freedom of being able to do what they want when they want to do it is just like us adults. I mean, when you go to a place, would you want everybody telling you, would you want to ask when you have to use the bathroom and get permission to do it? Would you want to be able to open the door to go outside and for group homes that this is a very common thing, even things like opening the refrigerator to get a drink, you have to ask permission. It’s very structured and controlled and is for a reason because a lot of these kids are difficult to deal with. But some of the rules become very much inhibiting, I think, for kids. And it’s really hard to strike that balance between keeping kids safe and keeping them under the roof and having them so unhappy that they want to leave. So that’s one of the points that I tried to make. And the other thing that’s interesting in this chapter, if you recall, is he meets another girl there that’s his age. And there are some, like romantic sparks flying between them. And then that’s just a very brief thing. And she’s gone out of his life. And that’s the other thing that happens with these kids. People don’t stay. They know that’s going to happen. People come in, they go, it could be another kid, it could be staff. So, you begin not to invest yourself in somebody because, you know, they’re not going to be a permanent fixture in your life.
Sandie [00:12:56] Oh, I was so excited when he got placed in a foster home where they were older and grandpa kind of style of leadership took him to goodwill. The mom fixed food and wanted to know what he liked, but also made him eat stuff he didn’t like. And then suddenly it’s over. It’s over. And how are kids, 12, 13, 14 years old, supposed to process that?
Vicki [00:13:23] Right. Again, that’s very common. I mean, he knew when he went in there that this was just a short-term placement for up to thirty days till he went to court. And that’s what it was going to be. And we see that with the shelters, too. There’s a terminology that we use. We call it the shelter shuffle. And it’s where the shelters have a 30-day limit. And after that, you can’t stay any longer. So, what social workers will sometimes do is put the kid and shelter for 30 days and then move them shelter B for thirty days and then move them back to a shelter A for 30 days. And we interviewed a kid not too long ago who had been in sixty-four prior placements. And so, when we talk about kids being wary of adults, you think, well, why wouldn’t they be? I mean, would you trust people after all that? So, we really sometimes get a little blasé, I think, about the things we put kids through and the impact that those have on them, even good intention people. So that was one of the again, one of the points I wanted to bring up in the book.
Sandie [00:14:25] So, in the book, we start to meet other characters, people like Bonnie and Henry and Sam, can you give us kind of a quick overview of what organizations, what agencies, I guess, is the right word those folks represent and why it’s so important for us to understand that in our systems?
Vicki [00:14:51] Right. So, when Henry comes in, he’s the first adult that sort of steps up and becomes a real factor in Kelly’s life. He is an attorney who used to represent juveniles who now moved up where he does adults primarily. So, he gets stuck with this kid’s case. And the instant he sees him, he knows, oh my gosh. One of the points I make in the book is that we have these laws called mandatory transfers where no matter what the circumstances of a kid is if he commits a certain offense, it’s mandatory that they be tried as adults. And he meets Kelly for the first time. And I think this will be a spoiler alert. But one of my favorite lines was when the first time he meets Kelly, he’s expecting this really tough, gruff, hard kid that he’s seen in the past. And he looks at him and he says, oh my gosh, the traps. We set a trap for a tiger and we caught a kitten.
Sandie [00:15:48] I loved that, too. I did. And this idea that this kid is now going to enter a system as an adult. So, my background, pediatrics, and developmental growth, the impact of trauma on development, all those things are a big part of how I look at our systems and how I try to bring the right people to the table to do prevention. And I kept thinking, as I’m seeing how Kelly is figuring out how to survive getting a job at a racetrack. And of course, because you’re in Kentucky, of course, there’s probably lots of opportunity for that. But I kept thinking, oh, my gosh, some trafficker is going to recruit him because he is so vulnerable and then being placed in an adult system. What would happen if he goes to court, and the judge doesn’t have an experience with juveniles and all of those what ifs came up and I kept thinking I would love to use this scenario in one of my classes for a discussion. And many times, that as a teaching tool is an amazing gift. And I think you mentioned to me that there are universities that are starting to use this story as a way of teaching. Can you tell me how they’re doing that?
Vicki [00:17:22] Yes, I’m very excited about that. And I’m hoping to really make an effort to get into more of those. And it’s the funny thing was, is that I did not approach them. They approached me. And now that I understand how that works, I’m going to be approaching more of them in the future myself. But one, a social work professor at a university in Ohio contacted me and said, oh, my gosh, I just read your book. I loved it. And I want to use it as mandatory reading with my class the next semester. So, she’s done that and then scheduled me for a meeting with her students in April. And then meanwhile, I also got a from California, a law school contacted me and said one of their professors wanted to use the book for their students. And it was funny. I was I was really so concentrating on more social workers and juvenile staff that I didn’t really think as much about the attorneys. But that really does play a very prominent role. All the court processes that he goes through, the interactions, you know, we talk about emancipation, we talk about judicial release, what all sorts of things are mandatory laws. And then, as you mentioned, the impact of putting kids and adult systems where we know they’re much more likely to be sexually abused and have those sorts of horrible things happen to them. So, having that sort of character in there and then Sam being a correctional officer with the adult system, so you have that person in there, too. And Bonnie, who works for also for adult corrections as a sort of like a probation officer type of job. So, we had a lot of different people and a lot of different universities who teach that sort of thing. I know in Canada that they are much bigger on community colleges and have a lot of two-year degrees for youth work. And so, I’m hoping maybe that I know some other folks have done some stuff in Canada, so I’m hoping to get up there, too.
Sandie [00:19:18] So Bonnie was one of my favorite characters and of course, Sam I loved. Hearing it from a female perspective, as well as from a male leadership perspective and how they saw this young kid, but your years of experience in working with these kids, you actually were able to integrate some sense of self-respect, self-value, empowerment. One of my favorite parts where you demonstrated that is when Sam takes him shopping to buy him some clothes because the kid doesn’t have anything. Kelly takes over the shopping experience and takes Sam to Goodwill and teaches him how to shop the way he knows how to shop. And that was so empowering and such a great example of giving kids some option for self-efficacy. And I don’t want to use terminology from the field, but it’s really hard not to. And those are such important keys. And we didactic we teach that in the classroom and then you show us what that actually looks like. How did you arrive at that? Did you have an experience with kids in that area?
Vicki [00:20:46] One of the things that we know is that the kids need choices and kids that are in especially correctional facilities or any other type of placement like that get so few. I do a lot of, before covid shut it down, I went into our local juvenile detention center and did art with the kids once a week. And we try to always incorporate a ton of decisions purposefully. Do you want the red paper or the blue paper? Do you want to use crayons, or do you want to use markers no matter how small the decision with these kids? Because they’re told, you sit here, you stand here, you’ll get upset. I mean, they had so few choices. Interestingly, Colorado, I read, is trying to upgrade and make its detention centers more trauma-informed. And they’re painting the walls and more soothing colors. They’re taking out some of those metal tables and chairs bolted to the floor, putting in the soft modular furniture. But one of the things they did was allow kids to make a choice of a color bedding instead of just everybody gets green or brown. It’s like, do you want the blue? Do you want the green? Do you want whatever? And they found that the vandalism of the bedding and the kids’ cell went way down simply because they gave them some choice about their living arrangements. So that’s very known in juvenile justice to try to give kids those choices. So, it’s a much more natural sort of thing for people to choose what they want and always just have a set in front of them.
Sandie [00:22:14] So your book actually just oozes with hope for the future in the system? It does. And I have this sense that somehow you are one of those characters. Which character represents your voice?
Vicki [00:22:31] Oh, that’s so funny. You’re asking me that. I’ve been asked that. So, I’m doing a lot of book clubs. And by the way, if anybody wants me to do a book club, I love doing it. They’re so fun. But I get asked that all the time. Which character am I? And I always tell them I’m sort of really a morphing of Bonnie and Kelly. There’s maybe a teensy bit of Kelly or Henry and Sam, but they’re big Guy Guys kind of thing. So, I’m not as much with that. But I tend to be funny sometimes. I like to think so. Bonnie is funny. And that is one of the things I did try to do with the book. I didn’t want it to be this model and depressing where people go, ew, I don’t want to read this. And I did try to put a lot of humor, which I think I did because when I look at my Amazon reviews, people will talk about how much they laughed with some of the stuff and then the Kelly part. To me, the other aspects of the book are horses and nature. And that’s all me. I ride. I have horses. I think horses are great for kids. And I think nature is very healing for everybody who’s been through trauma. And so, I was able to have Kelly had those parts of my personality and then probably some of the daydreaming, too, because that’s the other aspect. Kelly’s a big daydreamer, and I was always that way to that. You don’t know necessarily what somebody is thinking, but they may have a whole different perspective from what they’re saying, what their internal mind is telling them.
Sandie [00:23:58] So without giving away the ending, I want to talk about how it must have felt for Bonnie and Sam and Henry when Kelly runs again, and you maintained the integrity of your story by not fixing it for this kid so that he wouldn’t do what he’s done most of his life being in the system. And I’m curious how you see what you wrote as a road for change because there’s so much hope in it. Can you talk about your hope?
Vicki [00:24:45] I can, and I’ll also mention that as far as Kelly and what happens, I wanted that to be more realistic because, you know, this idea that all of a sudden, we put a kid in a good situation now and all the trauma they’ve had doesn’t count anymore. Everything’s fine. Angels sing, birds chirp. It doesn’t really work out that way. These kids have trauma and it’s going to come back and bite them now and then. And it’s going to influence their behavior. And we shouldn’t be too shocked and appalled when that happens. We kind of need to be ready for those sorts of relapses. But I do have hope because this is, again, a good thing about being older. Sometimes when I was in my 20s and 30s and dealt with these kids and they would have these what we call reversals and so forth, I would get a little disheartened. But when you get older, you suddenly realize how many of these kids still prevail. I’ll be out and about at McDonald’s and some kid that I had on a probation caseload comes up to me. Are you so-and-so? They’re introducing me to their kids, and they’ve got a job. And for some of these kids, I didn’t think they were going to make it. And I see now that they are. I think my other hope is that even though there are still some bad things that go on in the system, we are starting to realize what’s going on. I mean, do you hear trauma-informed care with lots of things now, but it really is being taught into juvenile justice. And we are making decisions and looking more now at these kids from a trauma-informed lens. And I’m very hopeful about that. The number of kids in placement right now is historically low and this was even Pre-Covid. And now with Covid there, they’re even lower. And it’s like we’re finally starting to get it and that we need to do more because we still a lot of states, all these and probably countries and so forth, you have big juvenile prisons or places that are punitive nature. So, we still have our work to be done. But more and more people get it that we need small treatment-oriented facilities. We need to give these kids choices and come at them and understand the trauma they’ve been through and let them take the lead sometimes on it, not just tell them what they need to be doing. So, I am hopeful that we are seeing changes. There’s been a ton of juvenile facilities that have closed nationwide. And then that time when we were trying kids as adults in the last, I think it’s been three or four years, over a hundred laws have been changed across the United States in various states to roll back all that, let’s throw kids into adult jail. So, I am hopeful that both the system and we are finally learning some things and doing better.
Sandie [00:27:19] Wow. That is a great overview of changes that are growing our understanding and great examples of what it means to be trauma-informed. I want to recommend that you get a copy of The Car Thief, read it, read it with a group. We’ll put a link so that you can connect with Vicki if you want to do a book club. And I hope to hear some great stories about the actions that people have taken in their own community as a response. Vicki, I think you combined your imagination and a lot of perspiration and experience to create an amazing story that teaches and will produce amazing change everywhere. So, I want to thank you so much for taking the leap to become an author.
Vicki [00:28:21] Well, thank you very much. And I will mention it is The Car Thief and that if they look on Amazon, there are two of them. There was actually a book called The Car Thief that was written in the nineteen sixties by Theodore Wasner. And it is actually a very good book. I also recommend it but get mine first.
Sandie [00:28:41] And I’m sorry, I wrote it down A Car Thief, but it is The Car Thief and you read about Kelly Morgan and I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes. Vicki, thank you so much for joining us today.
Vicki [00:28:56] Thank you very much. I just love to talk about my book. And so, this has been great fun and I look forward to hearing from anybody. I do have an author website. They read authors. I think you mentioned you’d probably put that there, but please feel free to email me and I’d love to talk to you.
Dave [00:29:13] Well, thank you so much for this conversation. I’m excited to read The Car Thief now and to dive in on this. Vicki, thank you so much for your work. We are inviting you to take the first step as well. If you hop online, you can download a copy of Sandie’s book, a free copy, The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. Boy, what a good complement that will be to The Car Thief in really giving you the critical things that Sandie is identified in her work that you should know. Before you joined the fight against human trafficking, you can get access to that at Endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s where we’ll also have the links to Vicki’s book and everything we’ve mentioned in today’s episode. In addition, when you’re online at Endinghumantrafficking.org, take a moment to find out about the Antihuman Trafficking Certificate program, a program that is available through Vanguard University here that will help you to really understand the depths of so many of the complexities of this challenging issue so that you can work with us to ending human trafficking. Endinghumantrafficking.org is the place to go for all of that. We will be back with you for our next conversation in two weeks. Sandie. Always a pleasure. Thanks. And see you in two weeks.
Sandie [00:30:32] All right.
Dave [00:30:32] Take care, everybody.