Aiden Decker

Portrait of Aiden Decker
Aiden Decker

Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Debt Free Justice

Abandoned, abused, and incarcerated; Aiden is an 18-year-old survivor who is preparing to build a family, rebuild his life, and repair a relationship with his father. The only thing holding him back is the juvenile justice system, which has laden him and his father with thousands of dollars of debt. One may wonder what’s more important: rehabilitation or restitution?

“The thing is, kids like me don't know how to handle heaven because they think it's a lie."

Aiden Decker  
System Impacted Youth

Abandoned at 13

When 13 year-old Aiden Decker boarded a bus with his family to travel 30 miles to the beach in Mexico, he didn’t know it would be the last time he saw them. After years of abuse, his mother and stepfather abandoned him on that beach—with no shoes, no bus fare, and barely any comprehension of the language. Alone, Aiden was left to walk nearly 15 miles.

He was found by the Mexican police, who put out a missing persons report; but when no one came looking for him, Aiden, a U.S. citizen, was brought to the American consulate in Mexico. Speaking of the accommodations at the American embassy, Aiden says, “It was very nasty; the beds were basically prison beds. It was one of the nastiest places I’ve ever been.”

After two weeks with no outreach from his mother, Aiden was transferred to a Mexican orphanage: “That place was even worse.”

Finally, a caseworker from U.S. Child Protective Services contacted Aiden and flew to meet him. The caseworker told Aiden what he already knew. “We made contact with your parents,” he said. “All they did was hang up the phone.”

This traumatic experience at the formative age of 13 marked an end to Aiden’s nightmare of abuse and abandonment at the hands of his biological mother and stepfather, and the beginning of a new journey marked by alienation and incarceration.

New home, old struggles

Aiden was placed in a group home in the California foster care system. Managing adolescence can make any teen feel volatile. For Aiden, the emotions were almost too much to navigate. “I was feeling fear, anger, hurt—you know, all the emotions you would expect. But I began to shut down,” Aiden recalls. “It’s kind of a defense mechanism of, you know, abused children.”

As he celebrated his 14th birthday in foster care, Aiden’s biological father made the trip from Idaho to meet his son for the first time. Before long, Aiden was on a plane to Idaho, to make a new start with his biological father. The new home and lifestyle was dramatically different, but also jarring and disorienting. “I was an abused kid, very isolated. He gave me a phone and a tablet, a PS4, my own room with a bathroom. I mean, that was heaven…”

But Aiden explains that it takes more than a change in location to make a new start. “The thing is, kids like me don't know how to handle heaven because they think it's a lie. And when I couldn't handle it and my dad got angry at me, I didn’t know how to express myself to him. So I got angry and he got more angry.”

Aiden did what many people, especially victims of abuse and neglect, do in new and unfamiliar situations: He reverted to old habits. Unaccustomed to a life of plenty, Aiden began sneaking and hoarding food, stealing money off of countertops—survival behaviors that persisted even though the need had subsided.

“For 13 years of my life, I survived by going into the garbage can to grab food, eating cat food and dog food, you know, going out at night to just get away from it. I would pillage for food, pillage for clothes, pillage for blankets even. So it was the only way I knew how to survive.”

When Aiden got caught and punished, he revived another old, unhealthy behavior: he ran.

“When I ran away, I stole a car and crashed it. And because of that, I went to the hospital, got surgery on my left foot—11 stitches, two screws—the entire left side of my body is, has been fractured and broken. And when I got back from the hospital, my dad put me in a room with only a bed, a radio, and four books. All I ate for two months was ramen, bread and water. And let me tell you, that was the most depressed I've ever been in my entire life. Eating ramen and bread, and rereading the same books, hearing the same songs on the radio, with nothing to do except lie on a bed in casts will tear down your psyche. It really broke me.”

It drove Aiden to the point of attempting suicide. And then he got arrested.

Paying dues, paying debts

Aiden spent nearly two years in the county juvenile corrections facility, or what he terms, “juvenile prison.” According to Aiden, he called his father daily, but his father rarely returned the calls. His father visited Aiden twice during the two-year stay, and when County Corrections determined Aiden was ready to go back home, his father recommended he stay in prison longer.

“That felt horrible,” Aiden says, looking back. “How many times I told him I needed him in there and that I was trying my hardest, and to have him tell me, no, you're not, or I'm not coming over for a visit because I'm too busy with work. It hurt a lot. … it was the same feelings I had when my mom abandoned me on the beach.”

After his release, he didn’t go back to his father’s house, but to a foster home until his 18th birthday. Then, he found himself homeless.

Now on his own, Aiden has lived in a group living situation, he has completed a culinary-skills-and-life-skills program at Life’s Kitchen, and he is working as a caregiver for the elderly and cancer patients. “I chose that job because it's time for me to give back for everything that's happened,” Aiden says. “It's time to show appreciation for the community, which has shown appreciation for me.”

The newfound responsibility is compounding: Aiden’s fiancée is expecting a baby soon. He knows it won’t be easy, but he’s looking forward to his new chapter: “I think it's worth it. I found someone who truly makes me happy. And not only that, but because of her, I realize a lot of stuff about myself. I realize how strong of a person I am and how much I'm willing to do for others. She's shown me a lot. And if I can be there for her and show her what she's shown me, then it'll be worth it.” But the juvenile corrections system, which is intended to help rehabilitate at-risk youth, threatens to endanger Aiden’s new life by saddling him with more debt than a young man with a new family and no degree can easily pay off.

“I understand that it is my responsibility to pay for what I did. But I paid for it with two years of my life. I would be willing to pay him that money that he lost and I would be willing to pay the damages that I caused. But what is cruel is the stuff I have to pay for that I didn't cause. For example, once you go to juvenile prison, you have to pay for your food there. You have to pay for your clothing…”

“Why would you charge criminals who are doing time, more money when you already know they have restitution that they won't be even able to pay for a while? And furthermore, why would you have the parents pay just to keep them locked up there if what you say is they're a danger to society and need to be locked up—but let's get benefits out of it while we do it. That is cruel.”

Aiden is an intelligent, inquisitive, and optimistic young man with a whole new life ahead of him. However, compounding debt creates a higher opportunity cost than interest. This amount of debt makes it impossible for Aiden to get a car or sign a lease on an apartment—which makes it nearly impossible to pick up enough caregiving shifts. Aiden continues to struggle with housing insecurity, even as he looks hopefully toward the future. The sad fact is, while he has paid his dues, it will take him much longer to pay off this debt.

Donate to Aiden's GoFundMe campaign.