Notes from the Field: Juvenile Court and the Children who End Up There

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By Kellie Mannette, Esq.

Law Office of Kellie Mannette, PLLC, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

It’s been two and a half years since I first met a child I will call Greg. At the time, he was barely 14 and charged with minor drug offenses in the juvenile delinquency court of a rural county in North Carolina. Greg admitted to the charge and was put on probation.

I enjoyed representing Greg that day, as he was a sweet, thoughtful child. I had no idea that I would end up in court dozens of times on his behalf.

None of the criminal charges Greg picked up after his initial ones were serious: minor drug possession, driving without a license, and petty larcenies. But the court treated them all very seriously.

Every time Greg and I were back in court, the hearings sounded the same: judges, prosecutors, and court counselors (probation officers) lecturing Greg about his marijuana use and disregard for rules, threatening to send him to the “youth home” (which is actually a jail for children), and then actually sending him to the “youth home.”  There were out-of-home placements, a GPS monitoring ankle bracelet, and a “secure” (locked) out-of-home placement. In short, every punitive option the court had available was imposed on this child at some point.

The first time the judge sent Greg to the “youth home,” he ran out of the courtroom. He sobbed in a corner about how he wanted to go home, how he wanted his mother.  He looked years younger than his age as he cried.

Over the years, the kid I saw was very different than the one whom the court saw. The judges spoke of Greg as a defiant teenager who was always determined to do what he wanted rather than what was expected of him. Instead, I saw a sweet, smart child who found school too difficult due to a learning disability that had gone undiagnosed. I also saw a child emotionally damaged from the conflict between his parents, whose physical abuse of each other he had regularly witnessed. And I saw a child who would always make sure he thanked me for what I had done for him, even when we “lost” in the courtroom (which was often).

These two pictures are of the same child, but through the lens and the measure of the court system, Greg failed repeatedly:  he continued to smoke marijuana; he continued to steal; and he continued to defy his parents. I repeatedly tried to convey who this child really was, but the judges, district attorneys, and court counselors only saw his failures.

The empirical research is clear: out-of-home placements and confinement are harmful to children and result in more negative outcomes than keeping kids in their homes with family support and community-based treatment. Yet detention and removal are still the most frequently-imposed options in the juvenile court system for children who violate probation.

Recently, I had my very last hearing representing Greg.  He was back in juvenile court on another probation violation. Greg is now 16, and because of North Carolina law, if there are any future charges he will automatically be prosecuted in adult criminal court. Given his age and the exhaustion of options, we agreed to one final disposition. Greg would spend 28 days in the”youth home” and then his probation would be terminated.

Greg and I had to wait for a while before appearing in front of the judge to officially enter the judgment. Greg was hungry, so I grabbed a couple of granola bars from my purse and we stepped outside. We ate our snack and talked about the differences between juvenile and adult court. Greg asked very good questions and told me that he would try to stay out of adult court. With every fiber of my being, I hope he does.

We then returned to the courtroom for the judge to order Greg into custody. As the uniformed deputies were leading him away, he stopped them. He turned to me and politely thanked me for the granola bar I had given him, smiled, and then left the courtroom.

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