Helping juvenile offenders back into society

For her tireless work in legal aid with juvenile offenders and victims of crimes, Zhang Yuxia was honored for volunteer excellence last year.
Ti Gong

Zhang Yuxia communicates with a deaf teenager in her office where she receives juveniles seeking legal aid.

EDITOR’S note:

ON March 5, China celebrates the life of Lei Feng, a People’s Liberation Army soldier who has come to exemplify selfless contribution to the cause of the Communist Party of China and to the national good. He died on duty at the age of 21. This series looks at some of the volunteers in Shanghai who have heeded the call to emulate the same spirit of altruism.

ZHANG Yuxia said her volunteer legal aid work on behalf of juvenile offenders and victims of crime is aimed at trying to help them into adulthood as unscathed as possible.

In the past eight years, Zhang, 37, has handled more than 1,000 legal aid cases, apart from her work as a lawyer with Sunhold Law Firm. Her work, she said, is often arduous and emotionally draining.

“Helping them is helping ourselves because they are the future of society, despite the dark chapters of their early lives,” she said.

Zhang said she has handled dozens of cases involving sexual crimes against children in recent years. In one case three years ago, a 5-year-old boy was sexually assaulted by a man employed where the boy’s mother worked. The boy suffered from bed-wetting and claustrophobia after the attack.

“In court, the man claimed to have just been playing games with the boy and said he thought the boy liked it,” Zhang said. “I reminded the court that he wouldn’t have avoided others when assaulting the boy had he not been aware that it was a monstrous crime.”

The court agreed and justice prevailed, she said.

Depending on the nature of such assaults, young victims can develop mental problems. Sometimes the reactions are delayed and can appear later in life. That is especially true when parents can’t cope with the stigma of sexual abuse and sweep their children’s experiences under the rug.

Zhang and her team have a good working relationship with a mental health center that provides psychotherapy sessions for young victims of abuse and their parents. However, some parents simply don’t show up.

“In most cases, there were some problems in the victims’ families that needed to be addressed to prevent further consequences to the children,” Zhang said. “But we can’t force them to do anything because they haven’t been convicted of any crime.”

Zhang said she is always relieved to see children who show signs of recovery from mental shock after a few sessions of psychotherapy.

“Like the little girl who ceased playing the piano after she was assaulted, but then started playing again,” she said.

In some cases, Zhang volunteers legal assistance to juvenile offenders when no outside lawyer is hired. “Most juvenile crimes are committed out of passion,” she said. “They might sound like adults when you first talk to them, but after a while, you will find that their thoughts are very childish.”

When a crime is committed, forgiveness from the victim can often lead to charges being dropped. Otherwise, carrying a conviction can portend a hard life in adulthood.

Zhang recalled a case where a 12th-grade girl shoplifted garments from a fashion retailer in Shanghai. She said the retailer at first refused to issue a note of forgiveness that would helped in dropping the charges against the girl.

The stolen garments didn’t amount to much money, but it still qualified as a crime. After talks, the retailer finally agreed to forgive her and the case was dropped.

Zhang said she still stays in touch with the girl as she does with other juveniles she’s helped as they grow into adulthood.

“When they grow up and have success in life, they would rather not remember me,” she said.

“But if they get into trouble again, they can seek my help or advice.”

The girl in that case, for example, later contacted her in anxiety about people getting to know about her “past.”

“I told her to remember that she wasn’t a convicted criminal,” Zhang said.

Zhang said she treats juveniles like adults — getting them to analyze their situations and then make their choices.

“Like parents, like children,” she said.

“Some parents are didactic and tyrannical toward their children, and this turns the children into the same kind of person.”

Zhang’s volunteer work also includes legal education for teenagers. “Many children will immediately say that they don’t think they will commit crimes, but they need to learn to play by the rules to protect themselves,” she said.

Zhang devotes two-thirds of her work time to legal aid cases, sometimes sleeping only a few hours a night when workloads become heavy.

“I would feel more tired if I didn’t do legal aid because my life would then be nothing more than just making money,” she said.

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