Juvenile office caseload up

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Sexual abuse, need for mental health help rising

The Juvenile Office for the 39th Judicial Circuit saw record activity in 2019, though the severity of problems with children age 17-and-under seemed fairly typical of past years.

Jill Braden, chief juvenile officer, reported her office handled 1,633 referrals for child abuse, neglect or delinquency for the year, covering the counties of Barry, Lawrence and Stone. The tally represented an increase of 125 cases, or 8 percent, over the previous year, which had grown by 56 over the previous year. The 2019 total nearly topped the 1,680 referrals in 2015, supporting the idea that the ebb and flow reflected a cyclical pattern, Braden said, rather than a sudden intensification or outbreak of new criminal activity.

There do not appear to be any “hot spots” for juvenile issues. Braden said Lawrence County has the largest population and thus the most cases, but that Barry County is “very similar.” Stone County with the smallest population has the smallest numbers. She did not identify any towns as having more problems proportionately than any others.

With the rise in cases, the number of court hearings required of juvenile officers also increased. The sum of 1,622 ran similar to the 2018 numbers, comparing referrals to court cases.

Various types of offenses showed some shifts. Substance abuse continued for the third consecutive year between 80 and 90 cases.

“I don’t know if drugs are more prevalent,” Braden said. “Kids have told us any drugs you want, you can get.”

The most common offenses involve pills, opioids and marijuana. Abuse of liquor is rare, Braden said, since drugs are more easily accessible, also leading to less abuse of more powerful drugs such as methamphetamine and heroin.

“Keep your meds up, where kids can’t get to them,” Braden said. “Make sure you dispose of unused drugs or keep them where they’re not accessible to kids in the home.”

Property damage was down by 45 percent. Braden said the previous year had a lot of damages in a single report. This year was more typical. Most cases represented juveniles breaking into vehicles, and, more seriously, forcing entry and damaging unoccupied homes.

Sexual offenses were up 40 percent, after a 60 percent rise between 2017 and 2018, hitting a five-year high. Braden considered the problem “getting worse,” mostly stemming from peer pressure to share compromising photos. She added incidents are increasing down to 11- and 12-year-olds now, younger than before, and includes boys.

“Kids feel if they don’t do it, they’re not going to be popular or liked,” Braden said. “Some of it is low self-esteem and wanting to fit in. I don’t think girls or boys realize once pictures are out there, there’s no taking it back. It’s a very difficult task to teach them. The problem is primarily in social media.”

Several sexual offenses also included rape and sexual assaults. Six offenders were certified to be tried as adults. Other cases, she noted, have brought a defendant now at 21 back to juvenile court, because the offense took place when the defendant was underage, and must be tried in the court for persons the age when the offense took place.

Harassment cases increased for the third consecutive year. These too stemmed from pressure to send inappropriate photos. Braden said victims tended to be both boys and girls.

Trespassing cases remained low but relatively steady.

“Unfortunately, kids tend to be where they shouldn’t be sometimes,” Braden said. “That will probably never change.”

All three weapons offenses involved possession of guns. Two had been stolen and one taken out of the home. Braden did not know why the juveniles had the guns, but they tended to result from anger or threats, not simply being found on the juveniles.

Stealing cases have varied in number by only six cases over four years. Braden expected the number to remain steady. Several involved shoplifting, and 5-10 represented felony cases. No major stealing incidents took place during the year.

The breakdown of offenses follow, compared to 2018 in parentheses:

Murder: 0 (-1 from 2018)

Assault: 82 (-5)

Substance abuse: 74 (+12)

Property damage: 48 (-37)

Sexual offenses: 96 (+22)

Harassment: 34 (+12)

Peace disturbance: 0 (-2)

Burglaries: 4 (-3)

Trespassing: 5 (-1)

Weapons: 3 (+2)

Stealing: 38 (-6)

Cases involving the status of juveniles showed increases in every category except truancy. Braden offered no explanation for that drop, noting there was little her office could do about truancy, since it was the responsibility of parents to get their students to school, whether the child is 5 or 17.

“It’s not our role to take every kid back to school,” she said.

The number of juveniles classified as beyond parental control showed an increase for the fourth consecutive year, going up by about 20 percent three years in a row. Braden said this category involved many repeat offenders, some resulting from peer pressure.

“We have a lot of reports from families who need help,” Braden said. “We’re limited in the services we have.”

The number of runaways increased by 25 percent over two years ago after holding fairly steady for the previous three years. Braden said her office learns of these incidents from law enforcement reports when the juveniles are found. She said there are usually more than get reported.

The number of cases referred for mental health issues, after remaining fairly steady for three years, has risen two years in a row, jumping up 25 percent from two years ago.

“The schools and their counselors do a great job,” Braden said. “The community may be more aware. The Clark [Community Mental Health] Center treats most of our juveniles. A lot of it is brought on by peer pressure and social media. Kids feel the need to be better than the others, whether it’s from depression or low self-esteem. We want parents to recognize what can happen with your child. So many slip through the cracks.”

She added mental health issues appear about as frequently in younger children as with older ones. Younger youth may not be recognized until later, though.

Status cases include:

Beyond parental control: 86 (+14 from 2018)

Runaways: 74 (+10)

Mental health: 97 (+11)

Truancy: 38 (-16)

The number of children presently in foster care totaled 400 in 2018, down 24 from 2017.

“We continue to strive to have permanency for the children of the 39th Circuit,” Braden said. “It is a group effort with the Missouri Children’s Division, guardian ad litem and the Juvenile Court.”

She noted that prolonged stay in foster care is “detrimental and very traumatic to any aged child.”

“We understand the home environment can be unsafe,” Braden said. “We must weigh trying to provide more services and trying to keep families intact.”

The number of children placed in foster care during 2019 was near the 218 the year before, though Braden did not have an exact total. The sum was nonetheless lower than the 245 placed in 2015 but up about a third from two years ago.

Braden noted that for decades, the Juvenile Office has had two intense probation officers, paid for by an annual grant from the Division of Youth Services. Each are limited to 10 juveniles and required to have three contacts weekly. Juveniles assigned to the intense probation officers have committed a crime, qualifying them to be committed to the Department of Youth Services. She said these officers represent “a last chance,” and have had a high success rate. Some require electronic monitoring with ankle bracelets, like many subjects released from the Lawrence County jail.

In her budget requests to the counties this year, Braden requested increases of about 10 percent for the Juvenile offices, which she said would cover fees for attorneys representing parents and juveniles in delinquent cases. She said she asked for the same amount spent in 2019, more than had been budgeted, and expects that sum to remain steady.

“Typically if a juvenile is charged with a felony or tried as an adult, we automatically get them an attorney,” Braden said. “For less serious crimes, [the decision to have an attorney] is up to the juvenile and the parents.”

On Jan. 1, 2021, state law will change, making the age of adults 18, matching all the states adjacent to Missouri. That will add a year to the age of juveniles under the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Office. The severity of the offense will make no difference. Braden said her office has not been allocated any additional positions to handle a greater caseload. Many of the additional cases, she noted, will be subjects with whom the office has already been dealing.

“The chances of us getting a 17-year-old for the first time is unlikely,” Braden said. “The average age [for juvenile offenders] is 14-15, but they’re getting younger, down to 11 and 12. Anything under 12, we handle it informally.”

For general advice, Braden urged parents to be involved in the lives of their children.

“Pay attention to what kids are doing,” she said. “Know what they’re watching. Don’t be afraid to seek mental health help. Nothing is wrong with seeking help, though some parents may think it’s a bad reflection on them. It’s important to seek help early.”

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