Working in a juvenile court in metro Atlanta, I become a fly on the wall to some interesting conversations that take place among kids while they wait for appointments.
Not long ago, while I was waiting for our reluctant elevator, I overheard a conversation that really caught my attention.
Girl No. 1: Smiling, “Hey, you know this is my second time in court … only my first time in this court though…”
Girl No. 2: Eyes popping open wide, obviously impressed, “Really, aren’t you afraid you will have to go to the RYDC?” (Regional Youth Detention Center)
Girl No. 1: Flashing tough girl smile, “For real girl, I have already been there. Met some cool girls too… hoping to hang with them all soon.”
At this point I looked at both of the girls’ mothers, shocked that neither had intervened in the conversation taking place. They sat staring straight ahead, not appearing to hear or be paying attention to them in the least.
Girl #2: Leaning into Girl #1, “Wow, for real? I have never been to RYDC. I have heard of some girls who have. Maybe I’ll end up there too, after all, it’s gotta be less boring than school.”
Girl #1: “Oh, it’s really boring too, but easy. I am not scared of any of it. It’s just time.”
Both girls went on to explain the nature of the acts that landed them in court that day. By the time my elevator arrived, one might never have known they had just met.
The two girls were awaiting a program at our court called the Quad C-ST. It is a single point of entry to local services and consists of a panel of experts that meet with the parents of youth who have been referred by an individual or agency in the community.
The panel gathers important information about school, home and community history of the youth. This information is then used to develop an appropriate plan of treatment/intervention for each at-risk youth. Recommendations are based on each youth’s needs and the resources which are available in the community.
Instead of filing truancy and unruly petitions, the child and family are referred to the Quad C-ST for assessment. The same is true with low-level school offenses, which are mostly unruly students but masked with a delinquent act, disrupting public school and disorderly conduct. This has reduced school related petitions by 73 percent. All of this began when we joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative network and equipped ourselves with the knowledge of detention ineffectiveness and with tools to serve kids better.
We have come a long way from past years. Now, with these new tools and collaborative systems, we are better able to keep low-risk offenders away from high-risk offenders and out of detention centers and instead serving them in the community. However, we still have a system that does not consider that these positive changes might require a shift in the way we fund the system.
Statistics show that of all status runaways, four out of five are girls, increasing the odds that girls will be detained for a status offense if there are no services available to keep them safe. Let’s face it; most girls are not high risk, but high needs. Unfortunately, most communities do not have the resources for appropriate services for girls with high needs.
One program that the evidence shows works with youth, especially girls, is mentoring.
After my wait at the elevator, I couldn’t help but think I had just spent five minutes witnessing some serious mentoring. Unfortunately, it was negative mentoring. Positive mentoring programs for at-risk girls are few and far between, as they are difficult to fund.
Girls like the ones I saw, often end up receiving safe keeping and services in an RYDC setting, but could have best been served in their communities, if only resources were available. It is not enough to assess the needs of youth.
We must question why low- risk, high- need youth too often only find needed services in an RYDC environment.