Zak Roussel1

Children are not little adults. We don’t expect a little league baseball player to pitch like a high school player. Young children start at the very basic level with a tee and an adult guiding them on how to hit the ball off of the tee. As they get older, year-by-year, they move up to machine pitch, then coach pitch, and eventually kid pitch.

Just as we treat kids differently in sports, a presentation at the June meeting of Kentucky’s Juvenile Justice Oversight Council made the point that we would get better outcomes for communities, families, and children if we applied that concept in juvenile justice. Tara Grieshop-Goodwin of Kentucky Youth Advocates along with Judge Tim Feeley, Deputy Secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and J.R. Hopson, Juvenile Services Manager with the Administrative Office of the Courts, presented information on complaints against young children and alternative solutions.

We know that communities are safest when there is effective accountability for children when they misbehave. Both intuitively and when looking at the research, we know that young children are very different from older youth. But when kids age 10 and under misbehave in Kentucky, we don’t always respond in a way that prevents them from repeating the misbehaviors.

In the presentation, Ms. Grieshop-Goodwin shared that we are talking about children who at this age have age-appropriate favorite books that include Green Eggs and Ham; Click, Clack, Moo Cows that Type; and, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Understanding their reading level and comprehension reminds us that young children are not old enough to understand complex court proceedings or connect the proceedings to their own behaviors in a meaningful, productive way.

Mr. Hopson shared recent data with the Council on Kentucky children ages 10 and under who have had complaints filed on them. Mr. Hopson informed the Council that in 2014, 195 children ages 10 and under were charged with an offense and, in 2015, that number dropped slightly to 192.  From 2012-2015, 7% of the kids ages 10 and under who were charged were 7 years old or younger and 26% were 9 years old. Additionally, he shared the types of charges that were filed, and summarized by stating that none of the charges between 2012-2015 would be considered “serious” and questioned the appropriateness of handling them in the juvenile justice system.

Judge Feeley shared with the Council that he’d learned about brain development at trainings during his time on the bench. He relayed that the research on brain development indeed shows that children’s brains work differently than adult brains. He also called for legislation in Kentucky so that 10-year-olds are not criminalized for their behaviors.

What does work for young children who misbehave? Research tells us that processing kids and teens in the justice system can actually increase the chances they’ll commit new crimes. Common sense tells us that the family should be involved in the response. For children age 10 and younger, the family and home life play a major role in a child’s behavior. Family-focused responses that prevent children from repeating misbehavior should be the emphasis, rather than formal processing. Henderson County Attorney Steve Gold added at the meeting that restorative practices can be implemented when a young child may have harmed another individual or property. He stated that in his experience, he has seen “mending” in both the youth and the victim.

KYA looks forward to working with stakeholders to change how Kentucky responds to the behavior of young children so that our communities, families and children are safe. Approaches that identify and activate the right system, connect the children and families to appropriate community services, and build on restoration of appropriate behaviors will produce better outcomes for our children, their families, and Kentucky.