Taking the Time to Make Juvenile Court Work

A couple of weeks ago, I was in juvenile delinquency court and as often happens, a particular case got me thinking – and rethinking – about the system as a whole. A 14 year-old, whom I will call Sarah, was charged with misdemeanor assault.  She had hit another girl at the foster care facility where the two were living.  Sarah readily admitted to the charge, and the judge then moved to disposition, similar to sentencing in adult court.  A counselor reported that Sarah was receiving therapy and doing well in a class at the mediation center on “conflict coaching.” Her probation officer recommended that she remain on court supervision under the same terms.

The judge, however, wasn’t satisfied.  “I’m concerned,” she said to Sarah sternly.  “This is the third or fourth adjudication for assault in the past two years.  What is changing to help you get in charge of your emotions?”

Sarah stood and looked down at her hands.  “I don’t know.”  The courtroom was silent. “Your Honor,” her public defender began, standing with his client.  “Sarah has experienced significant trauma.  She is struggling with serious issues that are deep-seeded.  This is not to excuse her behavior, but to explain that she is receiving therapy and making improvements.”

As the hearing continued, I learned that Sarah’s father had never been a presence in her life and that her mother had died several years earlier.  She had been in residential group settings ever since. “Why do you become angry?” the judge asked the girl.  Sarah spoke haltingly. “When I see other people with mothers and fathers, I get upset,” she whispered.  Tears ran down her cheeks.

Part Five: The Big Trouble With Oxy

Just joining us? This is part five of a five part series. Start from the beginning. Scott Merritt, a certified addictions counselor and licensed therapist in metro Atlanta, estimates that about 40 percent of kids in Cobb County high schools use illegal drugs, including alcohol. Though federal officials say the rates nationwide are lower, Merritt isn’t pulling that 40 percent out of thin air.

Part Five: A Day In Drug Court

Just joining us? This is part five of a five part series. Start from the beginning. Cobb County, Ga’s., Juvenile Court Judge Juanita Stedman’s office overflows every Wednesday at 4 p.m. For an hour, with therapists and probation officers filling every chair and – with several sitting on the floor – Stedman and her juvenile drug court team do a rundown of every kid currently in the program. One by one, Stedman calls out the name of each of 30 or so kids.

Part Four: Redemption and Temptation

Just joining us? This is part four of a five part series. Start from the beginning. Kyle is now only a little more than four and a half months clean. His last relapse came during the Thanksgiving break of 2010.

Part Three: A Friend and Reason for Hope

Just joining us? This is part three of a five part series. Start from the beginning. Kyle Boyer, 15-year-old prescription drug addict, duped his parents once again, faking a stomach ache to stay home from school. But instead of staying in bed, he went out to do what had become his norm – breaking into houses and stealing whatever the medicine cabinets within had to offer.

Part Two: The Sympathetic Judge

Just joining us? This is part two of a five part series. Start from the beginning. Juvenile Court Judge Juanita Stedman, who presides over Cobb County, Georgia’s Juvenile Drug Court has gotten to know Kyle quite well the past three years. Yes, he was one of the most dangerously addicted kids she’s seen.

Part One: Darkness Visible

Just joining us? This is part one of a five part series. See the whole series. When Suzanne and John Boyer left their upper-middle class home for work on the morning of May 20, 2008, their 15-year-old son, Kyle, had a stomachache and was still in bed. It wasn’t too bad, he told them.