By Mandy Zoeller Olivam, PSJ Member
This morning, I stood cradling my warm, sleepy one-year-old as I spoke aloud Gynnya McMillen's name. Tears caught in my throat sharing her story as I felt the stirrings of my second child in my womb. The weight of my two, living, breathing sons, held close and carefully, gave physical dimension to the grief and loss I feel, knowing we all have lost a daughter in Gynnya.
This was the first (and last) time Gynnya was taken into custody. There should have been no reason for her visit to this detention center to be her last journey anywhere. Yet, after the domestic dispute in her home, the response of our system was to offer discipline and detention.
Would Gynnya still be alive if we had opened a door for dialogue instead?
As a community, we must mourn the tragic death of a daughter who passed too young and under circumstances far too cold and careless. Even so, her immediate family carries a pain far greater than those of us lighting candles or offering prayers - their bodies viscerally hold her memory. She was their baby, abandoned in isolation. She died alone, away from their care. Their despair and cries for justice must disturb our hearts to ask challenging questions.
What does Gynnya's memory ask of us from behind the veil? In an eternally silent plea, what does she hope our hearts will hear in her story?
Less than 24 hours before she died, Gynnya was responded to with a physically aggressive restraint...because she sat still and would not remove her sweatshirt when asked. But when she was silent during three different checks the next morning - a wake-up call, breakfast delivery, and an offer of morning snack - no one thought it appropriate to respond or reach out, agressively or kindly.
When 16-year-olds "act up," are they simply trying to speak up? What are they saying to us? Should they be held in a chokehold...or with compassion? When we suffocate a child's dignity, how can we expect them to trust they are safe?
Perhaps if the center staff had decided to engage in any way when Gynnya did not respond to morning check-ins, they would have found an unconsious girl in need of medical attention. Perhaps they would have already found her dead...but they would have found her three hours earlier in the day. At the least, they could have afforded her the due respect of one, humane extension of care in her final hours alive.
But her silent complicity, dead or alive, warranted no greater effort toward care - only in a moment of perceived defiance and resistance, nonviolent though it was, did she evoke a connection of sorts: an attack.
Now, Gynnya cannot speak for herself. There will be no chance for others to reach out and open a listening space. There will be no opportunity to understand from her perspective what happened at the "domestic incident" in her home. We cannot know if she was still suffering from the death of her father a year ago. We have lost her and her story to violence and apathy.
Gynnya is most likely dead because our system's response was to connect with agressive physicality rather than to invite a relationship honoring the complex journey of this 16-year-old child. Her death was initially said to be due to "natural causes," but the treatment she received on her final day of life was anything but natural, dignified, or humane.
Will the authorities release the video footage of Gynnya in her lonely room? What will we see?
Our hearts must awaken. Our minds must move. Our voices must raise with reverberating demands. Our eyes must open to see what we can see for Gynnya's eyes, now closed forever. The eyes of our children, dead and alive, are looking to us for response. We must carry the weight, shed our tears, and protect their right to be held, until the end, in love.