By: Elizabeth Young

As an intern at Kentucky Youth Advocates I am new to advocating for policy change. My experience with the juvenile justice system comes from my work with children charged with status offenses. From that vantage point, I can tell you what actual cases look like when children are charged for misbehaviors like skipping school, ignoring rules, or running away from home. There are children charged with truancy because an overworked parent was not able to navigate the complicated process of filing the proper paperwork from the right doctors to support the existence of the child’s serious health problem. My clients were children whose beyond parental control charges were symptoms of a documented history of serious family dysfunction. My clients were foster children who had runaway charges because they were unable to get in touch with their social workers and felt trapped in abusive situations or neglected by a system that seemed to have little time or care for them.

“Status offenses” are acts that the juvenile justice system only considers crimes because the person charged is a child under the age of 18. These include skipping school, running away, and beyond control behavior. Status offenses are non-violent acts that pose no threat to public safety. Do not misunderstand me. Children need to attend school. They need a safe place to live and protection from homelessness, and they need to follow their parents’ and guardians’ rules. This goes without saying. However, in no way are formal charges and detention the proper response to what are usually cries for help.

This Tuesday’s new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation makes this clear. According to No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration, incarcerating children and teens fails to reduce the rates of re-offending, does nothing to reduce the risk to public safety these youth may pose, can result in violence against and abuse of these youth, and wastes taxpayer dollars because incarceration is expensive and doesn’t tackle the root causes of the problem.

A more appropriate response to skipping school, running away and ignoring rules at home or school is rehabilitative, not punitive. The youth need to be held accountable for their behaviors, but we also owe it to the youth and to our communities to figure out why they are acting out.  Children who skip school need interventions at school and greater attention to why they do not want to attend school. We need to ask whether these children are being bullied, whether they have learning disabilities, and whether their basic needs are being met at home. Children who run away need places like Gateway Children’s Services who will take them in, ask what they are running from, and make efforts to re-unify families and teach them how to interact with one another in a healthy way. Children who do not follow their parents’ rules need to be asked why they defy. Are there underlying mental health problems or abusive situations they feel they cannot escape?

We have to stop looking at these children as “delinquents.” Taxpayers deserve having their money spent helping these children to become productive members of society, instead of wasting it on trapping children in a system that does very little to address the issues that drove them to “offend” in the first place. Status offenders are often children stuck in difficult circumstances whose actions reflect the odds they are facing. They are children who deserve a second look.