TWO THOUSAND MILES FROM HOME AND LOCKED IN A COLD ROOM WITH A MATTRESS ON THE FLOOR
| Hannibal, Mo.
BRAD could almost have been a character in Mark Twain's ``Tom Sawyer.'' Same slow grin. Same puckish nature. Same tendency to prowl graveyards late at night for a good scare. While his story begins in the very riverboat country where Tom and Huck adventured, Brad's case is not fiction. Suspected of vandalizing a local cemetery, the 14-year-old would eventually spend four months locked up - without ever having a detention hearing in court and before being found guilty of anything.
During that time, Brad would spend five weeks in semi-isolation in Nevada, be extradited 2,000 miles to Hannibal's juvenile center, be denied much of the mail from his family, and be forced to wear only pajamas (plus one set of underclothing per week) for many of his 82 additional days in custody.
If Brad S. were an adult, he would probably have paid bond and been out of jail in a few hours.
Brad's case shines a light on a dark corner of American jurisprudence - the juvenile-justice system. It's a system designed to safeguard the privacy of the children, so that most juvenile courts are closed to the public, and court records are off limits.
But many child advocates say the confidentiality provision is warped. Instead of protecting the children, it can be used by the system to avoid public scrutiny.
Brad and his parents have waived their confidentiality rights in the interest of telling his story.
IT begins almost two years ago, when Brad came to live with his maternal grandparents in New London, Mo., just across the Salt River from Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal. His parents, Don S. and Diane S., say he'd been failing in school and getting some ``negative peer pressure,'' so they thought a move from home in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., would do him good.
But it didn't. His grades remained poor; he had at least 11 unexcused absences from school that year. In the spring, he spent a night in detention at the county juvenile-justice center for lying when police asked him if he knew where to find two runaway girls (who were hiding inside his house). Then, toward the end of May, Brad and another boy got carried away trying to scare each other in the cemetery, and knocked over 16 headstones, breaking three.
A few days later, with school ending, Brad's father arrived in New London to take him home. Just as they were leaving, however, they got a call from a local juvenile officer asking to question Brad about the cemetery vandalism. Because Brad at that time denied involvement and because Mr. S. was on a tight schedule to get back to work in South Lake Tahoe, Mr. S. says, he refused to bring Brad to the juvenile center.
``I kept asking if there were any charges against Brad, and he said no,'' Mr. S. says. ``But he kept insisting and I got impatient, so I cussed the guy. I never should have done that, because I think that made them more determined.''
Two weeks later, on June 16, 1987, chief juvenile officer Gerald Doty, in Marion County, Mo., filed four charges against Brad - one felony of property damage, two misdemeanors, and one infraction. Unwilling to let the case go, he would eventually change one of the misdemeanors to a more serious felony to smooth the way for Brad's extradition to Missouri, the boy's parents say. (That charge against Brad would ultimately be dismissed, court records show.)
Later that summer, official-looking documents began arriving in the mail from Missouri - and Brad admitted to his parents that he previously lied about not being involved in the cemetery incident. Mr. and Mrs. S. say they did not know what to do with the papers. The court summons listed the charges against Brad, but did not say when he should appear in court. Unable to afford to take him back to Missouri, Mr. and Mrs. S. ignored the papers.
BUT Missouri was looking for Brad, and it caught up with him on Halloween night, five months after he'd left New London. Brad and a friend, costumed in togas, were thumbing a ride to a school dance just across the Nevada state line, about a mile from Brad's home. Stopped by police and warned against hitchhiking, the boys decided they'd walk instead.
Then the police cruiser came flashing back. A routine check had turned up an outstanding warrant on Brad from Missouri. Immediately taken to a juvenile center in Carson City, Nev., Brad spent the first of 121 nights in detention.
At first, his parents figured ``it wouldn't hurt Brad'' to be locked up. ``He can get kind of sassy, and he needs to know you can't get away with stuff like this,'' Mrs. S. says. ``After about a week [in Carson City's juvenile detention center], he'd learned his lesson. He was a total basket case, crying, wanting to come home. They made him stay by himself all the time because they'd been told he was an escape risk.''
While Mr. and Mrs. S. thought locking Brad up in Carson City for several weeks would be punishment enough, the chief juvenile officer back in Hannibal obviously did not. At his insistence, Missouri exercised its authority under the Interstate Compact for Juveniles, and an extradition hearing was held.
On Dec. 7, five weeks after first being taken into custody, Brad was transferred to the Juvenile Justice Center in Hannibal.
Brad's parents expected the issue now would be resolved speedily in court, but that did not prove to be the case. Instead, the boy became a bargaining chip in negotiations over payments, or restitution, for the property damage in the cemetery.
The juvenile officer ``came down twice and told me if mom and dad would send money then I could get out right away,'' Brad says. ``And if they didn't, I wouldn't be getting out for a long time.''
``It is absolutely improper to ask for money before there is a restitution order,'' says David Howard, a St. Louis lawyer who Brad's parents later retained to represent their son. ``It's coercion, intimidation, and a form of extortion.''
Indeed, Mr. and Mrs. S. say they did not know the total damages, nor what Brad's share of the restitution would be. Until they had some firm figures and a court decision, they thought it would be wrong, on principle, to send money, even if they had had it to send.
What they did not know was that the chief juvenile officer had previously been criticized in a state auditor's report for improper accounting procedures and incomplete financial records. The auditor noted that the juvenile officer had no authority to act as treasurer in collecting and dispersing funds.
Unable to determine whether grant money and reimbursements were properly used, the auditor recommended that all eight bank accounts for the juvenile-justice center be closed and that the money be turned over to the county treasurer. Two years later, a subsequent report showed that the recommendation had not been carried out.
Officer Doty refuses to discuss details of Brad's case, on grounds he is legally obligated to protect the confidentiality of the juvenile. But he did say he generally tries to avoid taking juvenile-delinquency cases to court, settling them instead through an ``informal adjustment'' process worked out with the child and the parents. Usually, the child admits to the charge and agrees to participate in one or more programs at the juvenile-justice center, such as probation, counseling, or restitution.
But in Brad's case, with his parents and Doty at a standoff, court intervention was needed. Doty, whom local lawyers say sets the docket for juvenile-court cases, did not schedule a hearing until Brad had been in his custody for 7 weeks. Then, another two weeks passed before the actual hearing date on Feb. 10, 1988.
Brad remembers the months in juvenile hall as ``depressing.'' A Hannibal church that had been converted to a juvenile center, the facility houses kids in the basement, Brad says.
``There are no windows you can see out of. There are these plastic windows you can't see through. The first month or two, I got put by myself,'' he says.
The facility operates on a ``level system'' in which youths earn privileges for cooperative behavior, according to Brad.
``After one month, if you don't slip up you can work up to two hours of TV and two hours of recreation time a day,'' he says. ``I worked up to Level 4, but I was in Level 1 most of the time, because at first I smarted off too much.''
Brad says that ``Level 1 kids sleep on the floor on a mattress. It was real cold in there. I had one sheet and one thin blanket. It seemed like I had a sore throat constantly.''
On Level 1, kids don't go to school classes held at the center, aren't allowed to wear street clothes, and don't get to come out of their rooms more than one hour each day, he says.
``They knock you back down to Level 1 for talking in class, or for spending one minute too long in the shower.''
BRAD finally went home with his grandmother on Feb. 29, 1988, after the judge at Brad's hearing indicated he would release the boy. The release, however, was conditional upon an initial restitution payment of $200. As soon as Mr. and Mrs. S. received written notification of $611 total restitution from the public defender handling Brad's case in Hannibal, they borrowed $200 and sent a check to the county clerk. (The final court order in this case, however, totaled $1,237 in restitution - $822 to the cemetery association, $50 for an American flag, and $365 for air fare for Brad's transportation from Nevada to Missouri.)
But five days later, before arrangements could be completed to get Brad home to California, the boy was back in custody. While visiting a girlfriend who was baby-sitting for a Hannibal police officer, Brad says he picked up a portable radio and shouted obscenities into it. ``It was a pretty dumb thing to do,'' he says. ``I had no idea it was on, or I never would have done it.''
This time, the juvenile officer moved to have Brad stand trial as an adult. The option is allowed under Missouri law for youths over 14 who are vicious or violent, or who have a ``repetitive pattern of offenses which indicates the juvenile is beyond rehabilitation under the juvenile code.'' Says Brad: ``He told me this time I was going to the state pen.''
Afraid they might never get Brad home again, his parents hired two lawyers and explained their story to the local press. Then, taking leave from their jobs, they drove to Missouri to try to reclaim their son.
The glare of the media spotlight settled on officials back in Hannibal, and the police radio charges were dropped. But Brad was still in detention. His parents finally got him out and, reunited, the family left Missouri just after Easter.
``In my opinion, Missouri statutory and constitutional law were broken, in spirit and in letter,'' says Mr. Howard, the St. Louis lawyer. ``The juvenile code says the court is supposed to act in the best interests of the child - to provide care and supervision in the most homelike setting possible consistent with public safety. But that's not what happened,'' he says.
Attention had focused on Hannibal's juvenile-justice center once before, in 1982, after a parolee hired by Doty was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting two girls at the center. A subsequent investigation of the center revealed that abused and neglected youngsters waited there for months pending a more family-like placement. As a result, the court revised the detention policies.
``I feel we've paid enough in phone bills and legal fees, and that they've done enough to Brad already,'' Mrs. S. says. ``Quite frankly, I don't know if we'll ever pay the rest [of the restitution].''
As for Brad, who just turned 15, he improved his grades last quarter, got a part-time summer job, and has not had any other scrapes with the law. ``I'm glad it's over,'' he says. ``I ain't never going to get into trouble again.''