Activity by Juvenile Office rises slightly in 2017

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Types of offenses similar to 2016, adoptions rise

A 13 percent increase in referrals in 2017 boosted the number of cases handled by the Juvenile Office for the 39th Judicial Circuit, making up half of the 24 percent drop in referrals between 2015 and 2016.

Chief Juvenile Officer Jill Braden said overall the case load handled by her staff remained fairly constant, though there were several notable shifts in the types of cases handled.

Assault cases, for example, totaled 81, continuing to rise for the fourth consecutive year. Braden said most assault cases stem from incidents at school. Much of that number reflects bullying, which has not declined.

The second-highest number of cases worked in the year fell under substance abuse. The 57 referrals reflected a 54 percent increase, bumping it over sexual offenses. The total was one below the 2015 count, the only years since 2011 the count even approached that year’s sum of 65.

Braden credited the shift to youth having greater access to controlled substances.

“Juveniles could go to school at any time and get drugs, especially prescription drugs,” Braden said. “It’s just what kids can get their hands on. They don’t seem to be too picky.”

Braden viewed marijuana as a continuing problem, one that is easily accessible and could be considered a gateway drug to more dangerous substances, just as alcohol or prescription drugs can be.

In many cases, the drugs are found on the juveniles. Some referrals come from parents, many from school counselors reporting erratic behavior by juveniles who have consumed drugs. Braden said stealing drugs is not the major source.

“Any drug is dangerous for a juvenile,” Braden said. “Adults don’t need them. Juveniles sure don’t.”

The brightest spot on the annual report came in the 26 percent drop in sexual offenses. The 46 cases reported was the lowest in three years, since the 42 in 2014, and had fallen from the 60’s range.

“Parents are more aware of what’s going on, especially on phones and things on computers,” Braden said.

Much of the sexual offenses in recent years have stemmed from teens exchanging sexually explicit photographs that have been passed to others, creating a wide range of embarrassing situations and exploitation, Braden said.

Another positive trend surfaced in the stealing reports, down to 36, a drop of four cases from the previous year but down significantly from 60 incidents in 2012. Stealing, like property damage, Braden noted, has in many years spiked due to the activity of the few individuals. She looked at the lower number as a positive trend.

Other types of referrals included:

• Harassment, again stemming from bullying at school, 13 (+3).

• Burglaries, 9 (-2), “Not a huge issue for this area,” Braden observed.

• Trespassing, 5 (-3).

• Burning/exploding, 4 (+4).

• Weapons, 1 (-2).

In reviewing status offenses, Braden noted the number of children classified as “beyond parental control” jumped to 60, up 25 percent for the largest sum in seven years.

“I think teens are always trying to push the envelope,” Braden said. “It’s sometimes difficult for parents to deal with that.”

For the third year in a row, the high number of status offenses fell under mental health issues. The 78 cases in 2017 matched the count in 2015. Cases have run in the 70’s three years in a row.

“Some of that comes from drug use, some of it is hereditary,” Braden said. “You can’t always diagnose it. We’re limited to the services we have. The Clark [Community Mental Health] Center has number limits. They do a good job. It’s just a matter of them being able to meet the needs. Other agencies help as well. These cases need counseling, therapy and family treatment.”

Runaway cases held steady at 59, the same as 2016, down slightly from the 2015 peak of 62 after jumping up from 29 in 2014. Braden saw these as similar to beyond parental control, leading to a specific outcome.

Again on a positive trend, truancies fell to 48, down for the first time in three years, down 20 percent from 2016.

“I know we have a good relationship with the schools,” Braden said. “We try to keep in touch and see if there is anything we can do to help. We also meet with parents.”

Referrals for the year totaled 1,452, up 13 percent from 2016 but down 14 percent from the recent peak of 1,680 in 2015.

“That number can fluctuate from year to year,” Braden said. “This was not a year that caused great concern. The cases seem to be the usual numbers. It would be nice if they were all zeroes.”

The total number of children in foster care during the year held steady at around 400. The number of children placed into foster care was approximately 165, the lowest number in five years. This reflected a predominant philosophical position of the state agencies.

“The Children’s Division [of the Missouri Department of Social Services] is working hard to keep kids out of foster care by providing services to keep families intact,” Braden said. “Children are always better in their homes with their families. If that can be accomplished, that’s a great thing. Safety can’t always be assured. The Children’s Division and the Juvenile Office are working hard together to look at other options, particularly at finding more support for these families to keep them intact.”

That being said, the number of children adopted in the circuit in 2017 came to 65, up 15, or 30 percent. Braden attributed the increase to the number of cases in the judicial system that reached resolution during the calendar year rather than a spike of justified incidents.

“It’s important for children to have permanency and to have security,” she said.

During the year, the court ordered two juveniles committed to the Department of Youth Services, a fairly consistent number with recent years, up one from 2016. Braden said these stemmed from serious offenses where treatment in the community would not be suitable.

“The treatment they received at a facility is a more intense program,” she said. “They go through many levels of supervision before being committed. These individuals need to learn to be successful in the community.”

One juvenile was ordered to stand trial in adult court on a sexual assault charge. Braden said that was the first in several years.

Staff appeared at 1,408 court hearings, 100 percent of those required on the time schedule set by state law. Braden said prompt response to court hearings enables juveniles who cannot return home to be adopted faster. The count represented the lowest number of court hearings in five years, down 20 percent from 2016.

Braden’s office is fully staffed with six juvenile officers, two of which are intensive probation officers, plus herself.

“We’re always overwhelmed with the number of cases we handle,” Braden said. “Six people to carry three counties [Barry, Lawrence and Stone] is a big responsibility.

“I don’t foresee any changes in the next year. The state [General Assembly] is looking to change the age [defining a juvenile] from 17 to 18. That would have a huge impact in the office. We would need more people. I think that’s getting closer. It’s just a matter of time.”

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