Trapped Between: Managing cases in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems

Jun 14 2017

Trapped Between: Managing cases in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems

By Steven Olender

“What I’ve noticed is I’ll go to Gardner Betts [Juvenile Detention Center] and see kids in front of the judge for juvenile cases and they have a family member standing right by them. The judge thanks the family for being supportive,” explains Alejandro Victoria, Team Leader for CASA’s Teen Advocacy and Permanency Project, the team that sees the most cases also involved with the juvenile justice system. “When you see our kids, they don’t have that. I couldn’t imagine having to go through a scary system like juvenile justice alone.” Currently, 21 of TAPP’s 174 kids are involved in either the adult or juvenile justice system, and more kids on other CASA teams are as well. Knowing that children shouldn’t go through this alone, CASA makes sure to attend justice system hearings and to advocate for children in whatever capacity we are able, therein.

While some, usually more severe, cases wind up in the normal juvenile justice or even adult justice system, the vast majority of children in care with criminal issues end up in a specialized program called the Crossover Docket. For this program, there is one assigned judge who hears and considers all matters pertaining to child welfare and juvenile justice. This judge has the authority to manage all aspects of both cases and hears from more parties to the case, including defense attorneys, probation officers and the district attorney. CASA volunteers assigned to these cases get to speak in court, as opposed to regular adult or juvenile justice cases where they are simply there to support the child, and receive special training on how to work within the system.

Crossover Docket cases tend to have better outcomes for kids than are seen in traditional adult or juvenile justice systems. The judge can look holistically at the cases and the mitigating circumstances for kids. Because there are more parties to the case and special considerations are made, sometimes there are more options and resources available, including supports like mentorship programs and specialized placement options. In making decisions about placement options, extra considerations need to be made like the child’s charges, their runaway history and any fears they could be a danger to themselves or others. Gardner Betts itself has three placement options on campus: the detention center, a short-term secure placement; the Intermediate Sanction Center, a longer-term secure environment with therapeutic services akin to a residential treatment center; and a halfway house program to help kids transition to life after detention. “The situation may not be ideal, but I’ve had kids assigned to a probation officer who has really been a help,” says Greg Trottie, a CASA Team Leader with extensive experience on Crossover Docket cases. “It’s another person involved who has to see him and talk with him and model good behavior.”

While children involved with both CPS and Juvenile Justice may have committed crimes, it is vital to remember that they are also victims and that sticking them with a perpetrator label can affect the rest of their lives. “It’s important for volunteers not to think of kids as criminals,” explains Trottie. Most infractions that land children in care in the justice system are relatively minor and many wouldn’t rise to the level of justice involvement if kids had supportive parents to fight for them. On top of this, children who have been involved in the system are less likely to find that support in the future. Parents or placements won’t take them back after they’ve been arrested and many foster homes, residential treatment centers and potential adoptive homes won’t take a chance on them.

“They’re kids,” explains Trottie. “Like adults, they don’t always make the best decisions. Only these kids just don’t have the support structure that a kid in a so-called ‘normal’ situation may have. They tend to come from a household where these choices are normal, never learning to manage a conflict.”

Based on his experience, Victoria concurs. “You have a cycle in the child welfare system and you have a cycle in the juvenile justice system,” he says. “We are trying to break two cycles right now.”