Juvenile Office sees spike in cases during 2018

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Assaults, substance abuse, property damage rise

The Juvenile Office for the 39th Judicial Circuit saw an increase in offensive activity requiring a response from its officers during 2018 in almost every category it tracks.

Jill Braden, chief juvenile officer based in the Monett office, reported a busy year in 2018 that has continued in early 2019, though she hopes to see that slow in the coming months.

The Juvenile Office had three subjects turned over for trial as adults in 2018 after three years of no such referrals. A fourth subject was arrested in Stone County on a first degree murder trial and will also face a request for recertification as an adult to stand trial.

“We don’t like to commit juveniles to the adult system,” Braden said. “The Juvenile Office doesn’t have a lot it can do for a subject like this.”

While the Juvenile Office has not had to deal with a murder since 2013, the prevalence of typical offenses that result in intervention by juvenile officers generally rose.

The largest jump came in property damage with 85 cases, up from 28 in 2017, the first jump out of that range since 50 were logged in 2014. Braden said 50 of those cases stemmed from a tire slashing spree at the end of October and early November in Monett and Pierce City that also involved adults, resulting in around $22,000 in damage. Braden said officers are still working on disposing those cases.

Sexual offenses reached a 9-year high at 74, up 28 or 61 percent from a year ago. Under this category came two of the offenders who were reclassified as adults to stand trial in rape and sodomy cases involving younger victims. The final subject certified for trial as an adult was involved with “numerous” incidents of property damage, stealing and burglary cases. Braden said this person was not involved in the tire slashing incident.

“A lot of [sexual offense] cases come back to sending inappropriate pictures — nude photos — on phones [between teens],” Braden said. “It’s not getting better. I don’t think parents understand this is a crime. They think it’s one juvenile sending it to another juvenile. It’s really child pornography. Kids can’t have or take these pictures. They send them to another juvenile and they’re distributed quickly. They’re usually sent to numerous other individuals.”

The problem appears to be circuit wide. Braden discounts the idea that pictures on Snapchat disappear.

“Adults need to be diligent with parenting,” she said. “Pay attention to what kids are doing. Trusting a friend only goes so far. Kids turn on one another as quickly as they become friends, then here goes the picture everywhere. I don’t believe a picture ever goes away.”

Other offenses showed more modest increases. Assaults rose by six to 87, a category that spiked by about 50 percent in 2015 to 75 and continued for a third year in that vicinity. Braden said most are basic assaults between teens, but noted some stem from bullying, both by the bully and in retaliation.

Substance abuse remains rather steady at 62, up five from a year ago and very similar to the 2015 level. Braden was not optimistic about the drug scene.

“Juveniles say on any given day, they can get anything they want — pills, meth and marijuana,” she said. “Kids seem to start out with marijuana. That’s the popular one.”

Stealing, which had been falling from a high point of 82 in 2010, bounced up eight to 44 in 2018. Braden said this results from shoplifting and juveniles taking items from unlocked vehicles.

Harassment nearly doubled to 22 cases, a three-year high. Braden said much of that revolves around school and social media.

“Kids don’t seem to know when to stop, or when they’ve gone too far,” she said.

Four cases surfaced of juveniles with weapons. Braden said knives and a gun were involved, “mainly things juveniles have access to at home.”

Several offenses showed little change. Peace disturbances totaled two, about the four-year average. Burglaries fell to seven, a three-year low and less than half the 2014 sum. Trespassing held close to a four-year average at six, up one from a year ago. No cases involving burning or explosions were reported, down from four in 2017.

Truancy remained fairly steady at 54 cases, down from a six-year high of 62 in 2015. Braden noted that school resource officers have been particularly valuable to the Juvenile Office, providing someone to whom juveniles can reach out if they have problems, and someone who can intervene if an issue is developing. Even schools without school resource officers have helped head off problems, she added.

The office saw a spike in cases where the juveniles were considered beyond parental control, jumping 12 to 72, a nine-year high.

“Some juveniles seem to have difficulties following rules and obeying boundaries,” Braden said. “It’s part of ongoing rebellion, the same stuff we’ve seen over the years.”

Some of those individuals become angry and choose to run away, spiking that category to 64, up five from 2017 but a number that has stayed fairly steady for the past four years.

“We put a lot of these [runaway] kids on probation,” Braden said. “Having to answer to a juvenile officer sometimes helps the situation. We can refer them to a counselor or try different things.”

The number of juveniles referred for mental health assistance rose to 64, a six-year high, up eight from a year ago, a tally that concerns Braden.

“I say this every year, a lot of these problems are due to exposure from parents, either when they’re pregnant or [through parental] bullying,” she said. “They can lead to depression or a feeling of helplessness that can lead to a drug overdose. We have no additional resources to draw on. The Clark [Community Mental Health] Center is the big agency we draw on. They can only do so much. They’re very helpful, but they’re overwhelmed with adults and juveniles.”

Braden saw a connection between those problems and the number of children placed in foster care, which totaled 218 in 2018, down from 245 in 2015 but up nearly a third from 2017.

“The majority of foster care referrals are drug related,” Braden said. “Parents under the influence of drugs or alcohol are not effective parents, or they’re neglecting their kids. It’s sad that drugs put us in a position where kids have to be protected from their own parents.”

The total number of juveniles presently in foster care is 424, down from 462 in 2015. Braden stressed in cases where parental rights need to be terminated, her office “works diligently” to resolve cases quickly so that affected youth can move into a new stable situation. Approximately 70 juveniles were adopted in the past year after parental rights were terminated. That number does not include grandparents or other family members who assumed guardianship. Those not placed may age out into independent living arrangements, she said.

The Juvenile Office referred eight subjects for commitment into the care of the Division of Youth Services in 2018. Braden said these were cases where the local office could no longer benefit the individuals, having exhausted its resources to help, whereas the state agency had other programs at its disposal.

The Juvenile Office for the circuit had 1,508 referrals in 2018. That represented an increase of 56 or 4 percent, but still 172 cases less than in 2015. Staff attended 1,524 court hearings, maintaining its 100 percent efficiency in scheduling and holding hearings and follow-ups on the court’s mandated schedule.

The local office has remained fully staffed through the year. When Juvenile Officer Shey Snodgrass was hired as a school care coordinator by the Monett school district, Jerrod Jarvis filled the vacancy. Braden said consistency within the staff has helped build family rapport and to identify situations with recurring problems.

Looking ahead, Braden noted the Missouri General Assembly decided that in January 2021 the classification of a “juvenile” will change from age 17 to 18, though she understands that move may depend on available funding.

“The Monett Police Department said we will have significantly higher numbers to deal with,” Braden said. “I don’t know if we’ll get more staff. No one has said that. As a rural circuit, it will be a difficult task for us. Larger circuits have more opportunity to offer other programs.”

Braden said specifically she’d like to see more programs targeting juvenile drug treatment. The Clark Center, she noted, is not equipped to handle such cases exclusively. Getting a juvenile into another program requires referrals to Joplin, Springfield, Clinton or Rolla, programs that are often full. Those distances, she said, put a burden on families to visit or provide support.

“We’ll handle whatever comes our way,” she said.

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