The Juvenile Code Task Force continued its thoughtful and thorough discussions last week on changes to make the youth justice system work better in Kentucky. Judge Steven Teske from Georgia answered one of the big questions the Task Force has been dealing with, saying that it’s not an argument any longer nationally – secure detention makes it worse. Knowing this – and also knowing the challenges judges and schools face in getting youth back on track – underscores the value of the work the Task Force is putting in to finding effective solutions.
The Task Force also discussed youth placed in foster care when they come in to court for things like missing school or running away from home, or status offenses. Pew researchers revealed that in 2012 alone, Kentucky committed 859 youth to the Department of Community Based Services for status offenses. These children were placed in residential treatment or therapeutic foster care where they may have received individual attention, but no attention was given to the places they were returned to after release. Community supports were still scarce and families still did not have the tools to support their children. It should be no surprise, then, that upon coming home, children had just as many challenges as they did before.
“Sometimes these kids’ worlds are out of control,” said Commissioner Theresa James, aptly summing up the challenges many youth involved in the court system for status offenses face. At the latest Unified Juvenile Code Task Force meeting, legislators and practitioners alike were concerned about the lack of support for these young people. Labeling these behaviors as punishable offenses often neglects the fact that they can be directly related to many things outside the control of the young people, like an unstable home life, an unhealthy community, or other struggles. The research tells us that in most cases, services in the community are most effective for addressing youth behavior. A school representative and a judge talked about how effective local supports can be when available.
Meeting participants shared insights on how easy it is for some kids to get caught up in the court system. Senator Whitney Westerfield, co-chair of the task-force, noted that the six unexcused absences or tardies that constitute the truant student label did not seem like a big number even for a responsible kid. There are some situations in which a child can be detained for being tardy. Professionals in the room, working with youth all over the state in different capacities, shared frustrations. There were stories of truant kids referred to court when they really just needed a winter coat or a new pair of shoes. For many kids, simple needs like this might go unaddressed and the best solutions are overlooked.
As members of the task-force processed the challenges in Kentucky’s approach to working with kids, there were big ideas for big change. The general consensus seemed to be that people working with children need more options. Judges in Kentucky are tired of sentencing kids to jail when there are no other options, just like state social workers are tired of seeing kids moved far away from their homes when problems could have been taken care of right at home. Kentucky needs a new method for delivering help to the students right where they are. And the Task Force seems poised to identify a path forward.