June 13, 2013 | Volume 118, Issue No. 24

Courts and children in the 21st century

Juvenile delinquency court sure has changed over the past 30 years. Since the time I served as an assistant public defender in delinquency court from 1982-1988 until now, the cases have become more serious and complicated.

One of the most difficult clients I represented in the mid-1980s was a teenage girl who, to say the least, was rude, obnoxious and wouldn’t listen to anyone including her own lawyer. I remember telling her I was the only person on her side and suggesting she might want to be courteous.

People might say any teenager could be "zoned out," rude and obnoxious at any given moment, but this young lady’s behavior and language were over the top.

Fast forward to 2013. This week I handled numerous delinquency cases. The children appearing in court ranged in age from 11 to 17. Were some of the kids rude and obnoxious? Of course. But some of the children had serious mental health problems and escalating violent episodes. Those cases just didn’t occur very often in the 1980s.

One 11-year-old was charged with assault. He is attending a special school program that helps children with emotional and behavioral problems. He has already been in residential treatment and has had psychiatric care for more than three years. I can’t recall any cases from 25 years ago where an 8-year-old was receiving psychiatric care. Unfortunately, these cases are more frequently seen in court in 2013.

Courts, probation officers, and attorneys deal with children’s behaviors. Judges need to consider what is causing the behaviors with the hope the actions won’t reoccur.

In Duluth, we’re fortunate to have a number of programs available to help children. Judges must impose the “least restrictive alternative” when considering dispositions in juvenile court. From work crew and community service hours to residential treatment, there are a variety of possible dispositions in a judge’s “tool box.”

If a child comes back into juvenile court, a judge will consider a more serious consequence, but will also consider some type of programming that will address the behaviors. For example, the court could order the child to have a chemical dependency evaluation and follow the recommendations. A mental health diagnostic assessment or an individual and family assessment completed by the local social services agency could identify treatment needs. Programs addressing cognitive skills are also used.

No judge wants a child to sit in secure detention,- so it’s difficult when a 13-year-old child refuses to return to a parental home. There may be a good reason or, as I saw earlier this week, the child’s allegations are not substantiated even after a thorough investigation by social services. The young man is currently seeing a therapist. A child protection matter may need to be filed to deal with the issues.

Courts need to deal with all types of children and their problems. Unfortunately, many times it’s dealing with kids who are more than rude and obnoxious.

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