Accountability is lacking, say Vermonters

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People here are a little more wary now. They are more careful to lock doors. They want to know where their teenagers go, especially after dark. Quiet Vermont wasn't prepared for the murder of the schoolgirl in nearby Essex Junction in 1981.

In the basement of a community center here, Burlington residents talk about that tragedy and the changes they say are desperately needed to help solve the juvenile crime problem.

One of the voices at this informal ''roundtable'' talk gathered for the Monitor is J. David Egner, former chief psychologist at the state reform school. He hammers away at what he says is a basic flaw in the juvenile justice system: No one has to answer for the inefficiency and abuse that flourish there.

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''There's an absolute lack of accountability . . . the kids disappear behind the (juvenile justice system) 'wall.' And the people who run it never find out why it always has a totally predictable failure rate,'' says Dr. Egner. Because the juvenile justice system is shielded from the glare of the publicity spotlight in order to protect the identities of the youngsters, says Egner, it winds up being a dark and shadowy world that never has to answer to anyone. The answer, he suggests: ''Keep (the system) in the public eye.''

Karen Bradley, head of a successful alternative to the juvenile justice system in Vermont for first offenders, says that in her program - called Court Diversion - youths answer to a panel of volunteers instead of a judge. They also must work to pay for the crime and personally apologize to the crime victim.

Ms. Bradley wants the state to contract out to more private groups to do job now done by the state. That way, adds Maggie Greene, director of a local community center, proof of success could be required to get a new contract.

Other ''roundtable'' suggestions include:

* Use the public schools - which virtually every child has contact with - to start helping children who look like potential delinquents. ''You can identify the needs of these kids in pre-school,'' says Egner. But it is expensive and time-consuming for the already overworked schools to spot potential delinquents early on and keep track of them throughout school.

* Allow some self-expression. At the Waterbury Detention Unit, ''they do everything under the sun to deprive a kid of a sense of self,'' says Egner. No paint or pictures are allowed on the walls. The first thing a teen-ager does in his bedroom at home is tack up posters to help him define his often-struggling sense of identity.

Egner scoffs at the conventional citizens commissions set up to provide public input into juvenile justice. He claims the committees usually have no clout.

''It will take a public push, a public outcry, to get any change,'' says Ms. Greene.

''An absolute common denominator of delinquency is failure in school and rejection - the kids think no one cares,'' says Egner. Very few parochial school students are in the juvenile justice system because someone has kept an eye on them, he says: If a student is 15 minutes late, a school secretary is on the phone tracking him down.

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