Family Court Focus: Troubled Teens

Load of cases before a Rhode Island judge typifies soaring, often violent youth crime rate

Call it "heartbreak court." Bewildered and scared, the teens come and go, each standing before Chief Family Court Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah for a few moments of hard truth in this small room. A court stenographer silently records every word. An armed bailiff keeps an eye on any movement.

Facing the judge at the end of a table, each boy or girl appears young and fragile. But they have used guns and knifes, fought other teens, sold cocaine, burglarized homes, stolen cars, or confessed to being an alcoholic. Usually reporters are not allowed into juvenile courts to see the proceedings, but this reporter was granted special permission.

"Do you know what's happening?" the judge asks each teen in the session. Quick discussions with a lawyer, public defender, or family member have ended. The judge wants a response from the teen.

Most of them answer quietly or mumble, "Yes."

"Tell me what's happening," the judge insists, hoping to hear some comprehension, some signs of life from these saddened children who are struggling to know where they belong in a world turned dissonant to them.

The broader answer to "what is happening" in this family court, or any juvenile court across the United States, is buried behind numbing statistics. As adult crime has edged downward in the US, crime among teens, particularly violent crime, has soared.

Between 1985 and 1993, according to the US Justice Department, the number of murders committed by youths under 17 increased 165 percent.

More teen victims

The Justice Department also estimates that nearly a million young people from 12 to 19 years old are raped, robbed, or assaulted each year, most often by their peers.

Over the last decade, admissions to juvenile detention facilities nationwide have increased by 30 percent to 500,000 annually. As average lengths of stays have increased, the facilities have become overcrowded.

On any given day, according to the Children's Defense Fund, 5,314 children in the US are arrested for all kinds of offenses.

"In general we are seeing more serious offenses now," says Judge Jeremiah, one of 11 juvenile and family judges here. "Our lockup facility can handle about 145 [teens], and the place is filled. We are a statutory court here, required to be part of the rehabilitation of youngsters, and that's why I put many of them on probation with suspended sentences, and in some cases restitution or community service."

For Micheline Lombardi, a probation counselor with the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families in Pawtucket, the increase in youth crime has meant nearly a doubling of her case load.

"I used to have around 36 cases at any one time," she says. "Now I have 65 to 70 cases, and sometimes I don't remember their names. But I can tell you that young girls are becoming more violent. It used to be they were truants or disobedient; now they are assaulting each other."

Standing before Jeremiah, a small 18-year-old girl wearing a blue, brimless cap, white blouse, and baggy denim pants, stands motionless while her case is discussed by the judge, a public defender, and an assistant attorney general. No adult relative appears with her.

Naomi (not her real name) is charged with "assault with attempt to murder" as a result of a fight with another girl who has a baby allegedly fathered by the same teen who fathered Naomi's child.

There was a fight at school, witnessed by others. Naomi left the school, returned with a loaded gun, and chased the girl, saying, "Do you want to live?"

Then the gun apparently went off accidentally in her pants pocket. No one was injured, but the other girl pressed charges.

The state attorney recommends a year at the juvenile training center, and the judge concurs. But Naomi's lawyer balks, insisting that Naomi's record at school is good, and that she was provoked continually by the other girl prior to the fight. On behalf of Naomi, he asks for a trial date, and the judge sets a date. Expressionless, and with out a word, Naomi leaves the room.

"So many of the families have no fathers," Ms. Lombardi says, "or the children within families all have a different father. When we look at a family history, often the brothers or cousins are all involved in criminal activity."

Since 1976, Rhode Island has worked to keep young first-offenders out of the court system, one of the first states to take this approach. Such cases filed in family court - runaways, disobedient children, shoplifters - are treated differently from repeat offenders.

"We set up an appointment with the family to discuss the options," says Joe Conley, a juvenile counselor with the Rhode Island Family Court.

The objective is for the child to remain at home while either the child or the whole family has counseling, training, or is connected to a community resource.

"The objective is to provide some kind of service, after we talk to them separately to determine what is going on in the home," Mr. Conley says, "but we're overloaded, and our budget hasn't been increased while we have lost personnel."

Truancy is often the first sign that a child or family is troubled. In an effort toward early intervention, the juvenile court and Rhode Island schools launched a program this year to identify truants earlier in the school year, and help them stay in school.

"Previously we just slapped the child on the hand," says Judge Jeremiah. "Now we're getting to the child in 10 or 20 days rather than waiting 100 days when there wasn't much that could be done."

For Conley, who grew up in Providence's inner city, part of the answer to troubled youths is more programs in conjunction with schools and after school.

"Most of the kids ask me, 'Can you help me find a good job?'" he says. "A teen can make $4.35 an hour at McDonald's, and his friend is making $200 an hour selling drugs on the street. Drugs have a lot to do with the problems of kids."

A bicycle theft

Back in Jeremiah's courtroom, a mother and father accompany a 15-1/2-year-old boy charged with stealing a bike and being part of a group that beat up the bike's owner, a 13-year-old. The boy in court was the only one identified by the victim, and the bike was left in a park.

Both the mother and father work. "Dad, tell me about your son?" the judge says.

"He's a typical teen, no threat to society," the father responds. "He plays football. He's doing pretty good and gets B's and C's at school."

Because the parents misunderstood a previous judge's handling of the case, the boy has already spent two months in home confinement.

The judge listens to the mother and father, both well-spoken and direct.

He compliments the parents. "It's not too often we get both parents here," Jeremiah says, placing the boy on six months probation.

"And if you get your grades up to A's and B's, I'll shorten the probation," he adds.

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