Juvenile Office sees drop in cases for third year

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Criminal or inappropriate behavior by juveniles, requiring intervention by the 39th Judicial Circuit Juvenile Office, declined again in 2012. Chief Juvenile Officer Keith Parris said the news was not all good, as abuse and neglect cases have gone "through the roof."

"It's been a very busy year," Parris said. "Referrals are down from the third year in a row. We don't know why."

Law enforcement and the courts referred 763 cases in 2012, a 40-case or 5 percent drop from 2011. The number is down 15 percent in over two years.

The total number of cases referred for delinquency or home status were 365, a drop of 153 cases over the previous year. Boys jumped to 71 percent of the total, up 3 percent.

On the other hand, abuse and neglect referrals totaled 398, up 113 cases or 40 percent. For the last two years, victims have been evenly divided between boys and girls, compared to 55 percent female in 2010.

"We took 231 kids into state custody," Parris said. "That's the most I can remember. It's not a number I prefer to see. We try to find placement with relatives or family friends, rather than placing kids in foster care.

"Kids who come into the system have a bond with that parent, even in a bad situation," Parris said. "We try to facilitate that bond. We want the parent to correct the situation. The state doesn't do a great job raising kids."

Judges in the 39th Circuit heard 1,293 hearings on child abuse and neglect cases. The total represented a 253-case jump over 2010, after the number dropped by 49 in 2011.

Parris was pleased to report his office continued to hold more than 99 percent of its hearings on time. The state average is approximately 96 percent.

Parris saw no significant differences in the types of delinquent acts brought before the court, although the 270 cases represented a 27 percent decrease overall. Each offense represented only a few percentages of difference between 2011 and 2012. Substance abuse, though the number of cases dropped by 30 percent, represented 17 percent of cases in both years.

The breakdown in delinquency referrals follows, with a comparison to 2011 in parentheses: Simple assault 58 (-32); substance abuse 45 (-20); stealing 60 (-17); property damage 27 (-1); sexual offense 31 (-1); peace disturbance 13 (-5); burglaries 10 (-9); trespassing 9 (+1); tampering with vehicles 6 (-1); violation of valid court order 4 (-3); weapons 2 (-1); other 5 (-13).

Status cases followed the same general pattern. The 95 cases, one-third fewer than in 2011, broke down in nearly in same percentages per violation. The most significant shift showed up in a 3 percent drop in mental health cases.

The breakdown in status offenses follows, with a comparison to 2011 in parentheses: Beyond parental control 25 (-16); habitually absent from the home 24 (-12); behavior injurious to self 28 (-19); truancy 12 (-10); other 6 (-16).

"Cases are more complicated these days," Parris said. "Everyone wants to see more evidence. Time, computer systems and the attention for detail has gone up."

A no-detention policy has come from the state and federal government for juveniles with status issues and low-risk offenders. Each case requires an assessment on each subject, using a point system to determine the action.

"It's not something we necessarily agree with or like," Parris said. "It's frustrating, but the numbers are going down. As long as recidivism goes down, we'll be satisfied with the assessment. It could be the calm before the storm."

School shootings have become far more frequent around the nation, suggesting something has changed in the big picture. Parris hopes working with troubled persons before a catastrophic incident provides the best prevention.

"Any time we get a student who has made a threat to the school, it's always taken seriously," Parris said. "It comes down to the mental health of the person doing that. We just try to deal with it on a case to case basis. You hope you've done everything you can to prevent something like that from happening."

Parris asked Barry, Lawrence and Stone counties for budget increases because the state has "highly suggested" juvenile offices have legal representation at all court hearings. He budgeted for having an attorney to avoid facing a mandate without funding in place.

"Under Circuit Judge [J. Edward] Sweeney, we got the money we needed to operate and for years we gave back what we don't spend," Parris said. "We won't spend the money for an attorney 'til we have to."

The juvenile office operated with the same sized staff for several years. The office has six full-time juvenile officers, one part-time officer, two employees funded by grant money from the Division of Youth Services as intensive probation officers and a secretary.

According to the Office of State Courts Administrator, the workload in the 39th Circuit's Juvenile Office would justify having six and a-half additional full-time employees.

"I'd love to have a full staff, a new office, updated equipment and get more training for the staff," Parris said. "I have the same bucket list most law enforcement deals with."

Parris commended the judges working with juveniles for having a deep understanding of the issues at stake in their decisions. He is looking forward to working with Jack Goodman, who took over as presiding circuit judge in January.

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