Juvenile Office sees drop in caseload during 2016

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Drug cases drop, children beyond parental control rises

Cases of juvenile conduct requiring action by the Juvenile Office of the 39th Judicial Circuit decreased in 2016, the first drop in five years, though still higher than years preceding 2015.

Chief Juvenile Officer Jill Braden said the volume of cases fairly closely matched the previous year’s counts, though numbers in most categories reflected a drop. Referrals totaled 1,280, down 24 percent from 1,680 in 2015, but still higher than the 852 in 2014 and the previous high of 903 in 2010.

“You can’t explain why total referrals go up or down,” Braden said. “That’s still a lot. Any decrease is good.”

Braden saw several positive trends. The number of children placed in foster care totaled 192, a four-year low, down 53 from the previous year. An even more encouraging statistic was approximately 50 children formally adopted during the year within Lawrence, Barry and Stone counties.

“It’s very important to establish permanency for kids in the foster care system,” Braden said. “They need a permanent stable home so they can truly be successful.”

The number of children in foster care totaled 398 for the year, down from 462 in 2015.

One of the more concerning numbers showed under the children classified as being beyond parental control. The total of 48 cases represented a five-year high, up from 33 in 2015, close to the 41 count in 2011. Most behavior cited in this category reflected lack of respect for parents, rules and anyone in an authority position.

“More parents are calling and asking for help,” Braden said. “We can help with counseling, or hold an informal probation hearing in our office. A probation officer can act as a mentor and help modify behaviors and staying on the right path. We combine that with the counselor and help at home. Hopefully, we can alleviate some of the negative behaviors. We try not to be all about consequences of negative behavior. We push for positive behavior.”

For the year, the Juvenile Office had three individuals committed to the Missouri Department of Youth Services.

Runaway cases, Braden continued, are similar to being beyond parental control. The 59 runaway cases in 2016 fell three from the four-year high in 2015, a tally that still rose by 68 percent over four years.

Similarly, cases referred for mental health problems that needed placement in a residential facility or treatment center, dropped slightly to 70, down 8 from a four-year high in 2015. That number doubled between 2010 and 2015.

“We try to keep children in the home,” Braden said. “However, a child can become a risk to themselves or others. They may need to be temporarily held outside of the home. When they start to become a threat to themselves or others in the home, the situation needs to be addressed in a more serious manner.”

Truancy remained a major issue, though the 60 cases in 2016 represented a drop of five from the previous year. The tally was five times the five-year low in 2012.

“Truancy has always been an issue and probably always will be,” Braden said. “We meet with the school district about it. County prosecutors will filed charges against the parent for educational neglect if parents allow it to continue. All three prosecutors in the 39th Circuit are on board with that. That seems to have helped things.”

A breakdown of offenses for the year follow, with a comparison to 2015: assaults 68 (-7), substance abuse 37 (-21), property damage 32 (+1), sexual offenses 62 (-3), peace disturbances 1 (-2), burglaries 11 (-1), trespassing 8 (+2), weapons 3 (+2).

Cases previously classified in other ways in other years so no comparison was available: stealing, 40; harassment, 10 and burning or exploding things, 1.

Braden was pleased to report the Juvenile Office scheduled and attended all 1,765 court hearings relating to its cases on time again in 2016, a goal the office strives to achieve. The caseload for the year represented a drop of 68 court hearings from 2015.

“We always struggle to keep up with our referrals,” Braden said. “We have a good team in our office. I feel we handle the cases very effectively. We learn to prioritize.”

Braden’s office has been fully staffed through the past year, and even added a half-time person on direction of the Office of State Courts, which tracks the caseload. Presently, the staff includes six and a half juvenile officers, including Braden, two probation officers and a secretary.

“I’ll always be advocating for more staff,” Braden said. “There’s still a state budget we have to live by.”

Braden remains particularly pleased with the offices her operation has had in the former Cecil Mayer building at Second and East Cleveland Avenue in Monett. The move from 102 E. Dunn has given adequate space for offices and meetings, lacking in the previous location.

Operations underwent some change due to a revision in the Missouri criminal code in 2016, but Braden said that really only affecting coding of cases within the system and not how officers handled cases. Staff can judge some of their success when former troubled youth return to visit.

“We have juveniles come back in, sometimes after their probation hearing, or sometimes to show us how they’ve gone on to have a family,” Braden said. “That’s a true success story, returning so we can hear a positive impact we’ve had on them.

“The caseload in 2015 was a huge job,” Braden said, as referrals went up 97 percent from the previous year. “Maybe we can have it decrease for the next year as well.”

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