Ask the GAL: A look at what happens when a child breaks the law in Manatee

October 10, 2012 

Q: When children are picked up by law enforcement for law violations, what happens to them, particularly if they are in the dependency system?

A: When children (anyone younger than 18) are charged with a law violation -- which can be anything from murder to retail theft -- they are delivered by law enforcement to a delinquency screening site, commonly called a Juvenile Assessment Center. At this center, youth are screened to see if they meet statutory criteria for mandatory placement in secure detention. Youth charged with minor violations such as misdemeanors would not usually meet criteria for being placed in secure detention. These youth would be released to a parent or guardian.

In Manatee County, 1,058 children have been screened at the facility since January. According to administration at the facility, they see 120 to 150 children a month, which is a decrease from recent years. About 80 percent of these children are male, but the number of girls is on the rise. Most of the children are teens, but there is the occasional younger child. Since January they have seen one child younger than 8, two 10-year-olds and eight 11-year-olds.

The reasons children are arrested today have changed considerably over the years. The pranks and bursts of childhood anger that caused past generations to be sent to their room can now be criminally prosecuted offenses. Throwing a book at the teacher, punching another student in the arm, or threatening someone at school can land a youth in juvenile detention today.

According to my conversation with Juvenile Justice, the schools, local Department of Children and Families, the Safe Children's Coalition and local law enforcement work well together to avoid involving children in the court system whenever possible. They are aware that involving low-risk youth in the justice system can do more harm than good.

Placement in a juvenile justice facility exposes them to more of the criminal element. When other less restrictive options are avail

able, they attempt to use them. The anger and frustration of being involved in the dependency system may be the very same reasons they become involved in juvenile justice. The last thing anyone wants is to start a child on the downward spiral of criminal behavior.

The majority of children in Juvenile Justice are processed and sent home to await a court date. Some of the more violent offenders are locked up or sent to commitment programs. Others are sent to diversion programs or placed on probation.

When a child in the dependency system is arrested, the foster home or caregiver may be reluctant to take the child back into their home. Sometimes the biggest frustration for children in dependency occurs when they are not permitted to return to their foster or caregiver placement and end up placed in a shelter, which is not meant to be a long-term placement. If they run from their placement, they violate their probation and dig themselves deeper into the justice system.

There are currently only 11 dependency youth in Manatee County who are also involved in juvenile justice. Of those 11, six are in the community in their dependency placements, one is in jail, three are in commitment programs, and one is in a detention facility. These youth continue to have their case manager working with them and their guardian ad litem advocating for them. The youth will most likely appear before the same dependency judge for their delinquency and their dependency. This allows the judge to know both the dependency and delinquency histories of the youth. The systems work together to achieve the best possible outcome for each youth.

Pam Hindman, director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the 12th Judicial Circuit, writes this weekly column for the Bradenton Herald. Email her at askthegal@12gal.org, or write to the Guardian ad Litem Program, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Hensley Wing, Suite 330, Bradenton 34205.

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