The first contact with the juvenile justice system presents an enormous opportunity for the court, court personnel, attorneys and service providers to impact the lives of children and their families. In many states, first contact happens within the context of the Child in Need of Services (CHINS), Families in Need of Services (FINS) and Persons in Need of Services (PINS).
In all cases, the “need of services” is paramount. First contact with the Juvenile Court must be taken seriously, and the role of all court personnel, attorneys and parties should be made clear to everyone involved.
First contact is important to the child. The child must know that the court will be fair, and that the court will follow the law. The child must also know that the dispositions decided on by the court represent an effort to rehabilitate the child. First contact presents an opportunity for the court to gather information, get to know the child and family, get to evaluate appropriate services and get to evaluate the child and the family’s receptiveness to services.
I recently had a child communicate to me through a representative that “this was the first time I’ve been in a courtroom and not been in trouble. Some judges really do care.”
CHINS in Georgia
CHINS is a relatively new legal construct in the state of Georgia. It came into being on Jan. 1, 2014, when Georgia’s 2013 Child Protection and Public Safety Act went into effect. The Georgia Code defines CHINS as a child adjudicated to be in need of care, guidance, counseling, structure, supervision, treatment or rehabilitation who also is adjudicated to be truant, habitually disobedient of his or her parent or custodian and is ungovernable, a runaway, a status offender (an offense applicable only to a child), a child who wanders or loiters between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m., a child who violates court-ordered supervision or a child who patronizes any bar where alcoholic beverages are being sold, unaccompanied by his or her parent or possesses alcoholic beverages, etc.
The purpose of the CHINS law includes: “to acknowledge that certain behaviors or conditions occurring within a family or school environment indicate that a child is experiencing serious difficulties and is in need of services and corrective action in order to protect such child from the irreversibility of certain choices and to protect the integrity of such child’s family; to make family members aware of their contributions to their family’s problems and to encourage family members to accept the responsibility to participate in any program of care ordered by the court; and to provide a child with a program of treatment, care, guidance, counseling, structure, supervision, and rehabilitation that he or she needs to assist him or her in becoming a responsible and productive member of society.” These CHINS are neither delinquent nor dependent. These are the children who can be rehabilitated.
CHINS Proceedings in Georgia
The Georgia Code does not set forth the procedures for handling CHINS cases, and Georgia’s Juvenile Courts’ implementation of the Code Section varies. Fulton County created a CHINS Protocol that established a diversionary program called the CHINS Registry. It refers families to the appropriate providers before a formal petition is filed, the goal being to keep children and families out of court involvement.
The CHINS Protocol also established a diversionary program called the Educational Recovery Program (ERP), which seeks to refer children likely to be adjudicated as truant and their families to services; again the goal is to keep children and families out of court involvement.
A laudable benefit of these diversionary programs is that they create a record of the attempts at resolution made by the court, and often provide a baseline for evaluation when a child is adjudicated as a CHINS. The CHINS proceeding in Fulton County goes forward without the involvement of the district attorney. The parent(s) “prosecute” the case, present evidence under oath, and the child, who is represented by a public defender, responds. The court makes the adjudication, based on clear and convincing evidence, whether the child is a CHINS.
CHINS Dispositions in Georgia
The Georgia Code does provide the court broad discretion in fashioning a disposition for the CHINS. The CHINS disposition is a tremendous opportunity to divert children from delinquency adjudications and to divert families from dependency adjudications. From our work with dually involved youth (children involved in both dependency and delinquency proceedings), we know that the outcomes for these dually involved children are drastically worse than for other children involved in the juvenile court system. Utilizing the CHINS disposition to steer a child away from delinquency adjudication and/or dependency adjudication will decrease the likelihood that the child will end up in the adult prison system.
The hallmark of the delinquency process to adjudication is some amount of time in detention. Numerous longitudinal studies show that early interventions for children likely to be delinquent decrease the likelihood of young adult incarceration. The CHINS disposition is another opportunity to provide early intervention and to prevent a delinquency adjudication.
Incidence and Dispositions of CHINS Cases 2014-15
In 2014, a total of 646 CHINS and CHINS Registry cases were managed by the Fulton County Juvenile Court. The dispositions of these cases show that 265 (41 percent) were dismissed (usually the families indicate that they have had a breakthrough with their providers, and request closure of the case), 168 (26 percent) were closed successfully (the child and family completed the requirements of the disposition), 52 (8 percent) were adjusted prior to adjudication (after holding the adjudication in abeyance, the child and family successfully participate in court-ordered services and supervision) and 32 (5 percent) of the cases ended up with probation or supervision. Overall, 517 (80 percent) of the CHINS cases reviewed by the Court ended up in positive outcomes, effectively preventing or delaying the child’s entry into the juvenile justice system.
The distribution of the 2014 CHINS cases totaling 646 showed that 258 (40 percent) were categorized as ungovernable/unruly, 196 (30 percent) were categorized as runaways, 69 (11 percent) were categorized as violations of probation/supervision, 64 (10 percent) were categorized as curfew violations, 41 (6 percent) were categorized as truancy and 18 (3 percent) were categorized as Minor in Possession of Alcohol or in a Bar.
In 2015, a total of 941 CHINS and CHINS Registry cases were managed by the Fulton County Juvenile Court. The dispositions of these cases show that 292 (31 percent) were dismissed, 235 (25 percent) were closed successfully, 38 (4 percent) were adjusted prior to adjudication and 75 (8 percent) of the cases ended up with probation or supervision. Although not as high a percentage as 2014, in 2015 640 (68 percent) of the CHINS cases reviewed by the court ended up in positive outcomes.
The distribution of the 2015 CHINS cases totaling 941 showed that 360 (38 percent) were categorized as ungovernable/unruly, 233 (25 percent) were categorized as runaways, 231 (25 percent) were categorized as truancy, 65 (7 percent) were categorized as curfew violations, 40 (4 percent) were categorized as violations of probation/supervision and 12 (1 percent) were categorized as Minor in Possession of Alcohol or in a Bar.
Demographics of CHINS Cases 2014-2015
According to the 2015 Census population estimate, Fulton County has more than 1 million residents, and Georgia.gov currently lists Fulton County’s population at 1,014,932. The population of Fulton County is diverse, as shown in the following figures: African-American residents (44.3 percent), white residents (40.5 percent), Hispanic (7.2 percent) and Asian (6.7 percent). This population mix is not reflective of the CHINS demographics, which reflect an overwhelming representation of African-Americans and raises the need for a statistical analysis of disproportionate minority contact in this system.
The demographics of the 2014 CHINS and CHINS Registry population were 52 percent female and 48 percent male. The racial breakdown reflected 82 percent African-American, 7 percent Caucasian and 4 percent Hispanic, with 7 percent categorized as Other/Unknown. The demographics of the 2015 CHINS and CHINS Registry population were 51 percent female and 49 percent male. The racial breakdown reflected 85 percent African-American, 5 percent Caucasian and 5 percent Hispanic, with 5 percent were categorized as Other/Unknown.
The importance of first contact
Early intervention is an important component of services to prevent further penetration into the juvenile justice system. CHINS-type systems provide the court an opportunity to get the child and their families the services they need before the child is facing the specter of a delinquency adjudication. Our data shows that our CHINS children are disproportionately African-American compared to the population of African-Americans in Fulton County. Our data also shows that the majority of our CHINS cases are categorized as ungovernable/unruly, runaways and truants.
The data is permitting the court to focus our service providers to provide services geared toward these populations — ungovernable/unruly, runaways and truants. First contact, which utilizes data-driven responses to our population and issues, is allowing the court to work smarter and more efficiently. I encourage my colleagues to utilize first contact situations in their jurisdictions to design data-driven responses also.
Presiding Judge Willie J. Lovett Jr. is a Juvenile Court judge for the Atlanta Judicial Circuit. Judge Lovett also serves as an adjunct professor of law at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, where he teaches Juvenile Law, Local Government Law and Georgia Practice and Procedure.