WLAM panel discussion-- Referee Altenburg notes that parents of juveniles are unsure of court process

Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part series about last week's WLAM Washtenaw and WCBA co-sponsored panel discussion on "The School to Prison Pipeline."

By Frank Weir

Legal News

Some parents of teens facing a date in Juvenile Court are not at all aware of the process according to Juvenile Court Referee Gail Altenburg.

"They may think they will just sit down with the referee and talk it out," she said during "The School to Prison Pipeline" panel discussion held last week and hosted by the WLAM Washtenaw Region.

"They often ask if they need an attorney or if the youth should just admit guilt and get it over with."

Altenburg provided a overview of Juvenile Court adjudication noting young people arrive at the court if they have been accused of violating a criminal statute when under age 17, or for a "status offense" which usually is truancy, a curfew violation or incorrigibility.

Referrals for criminal violations come from the county prosecutor, or municipal or township attorneys and from the schools or parents for status offenses.

Altenburg added that a juvenile has the right to waive his or her right to counsel but "I won't allow it unless I am comfortable that the child understands it. I often send them all away and have them come back with an attorney or with counsel appointed for the youngster."

If a teen pleads guilty or is found so, Altenburg explained that the court determines a plan that addresses accountability and serves to prevent future offenses. Some youth are eligible for diversion, which requires compliance with a contract and results in no authorization of charges.

"We try to target whatever brought the youngster to court. We all believe that expelling a student from school is a terrible lost opportunity and it's very frustrating when there is no educational opportunity to send the child to.

"We think of school as the center of youth education and socialization so its truly tragic where there is no option."

Guilty teens almost always are placed in a community based probation setting with only a few placed in a locked environment. "Placement out of the home is very expensive and is only utilized with the most serious offenses and when a family-based placement has not worked," she said.

"Community based placement is the primary choice since kids should be with their family and in their community."

Juvenile defense attorney Kim Moore noted that teens from certain zip codes in the county are more likely to have higher rates of contact with the juvenile justice system including 48197, 48198, 48108.

There are attempts underway to try to intercede with youngsters headed for trouble and to the court, Moore said.

She said a software program has been introduced in schools in those zip codes.

"Those of us involved in introducing the software program into the schools wondered whether the kids really would interact with it and if it would make any difference," she said.

The program is designed to assist children who are starting to get into trouble to deal with emotions, attitudes toward learning and to delinquent behaviors she noted.

"The Community Action Network purchased the software which has been developed for elementary school to high school students. It is up and running at Bryant Community School and the preliminary results have been good.

"We are seeing a decrease in bullying and intimidation tendencies and positive social behaviors have increased among both the younger kids and teens."

Another diversion program has just begun Moore said but hopes for it are high. It is a cooperative venture with Eastern Michigan University and it involves pairing students in social work and criminal justice degree programs with one youth.

Moore noted that the bachelor-level students are trained and also receive ongoing supervision from faculty advisors and that the time and support are "intensive."

"When you think about it, by the time a youngster is involved with the juvenile court, we are operating from behind. We are dealing with problems today that have been brewing for years in the past with deep family and social issues."

Developers of the mentoring program are hoping that it can offer intensive help right in the home and community that will make a difference.

"We have six students already training and one youth placed in the program who is 11 years old," Moore said, "and we are talking about mentors putting in eight to 10 hours a week with the minors. That is far more than any of us in the system could give that child so we are hopeful about program results."

She said that the program is based on one in Ingham County that has shown great promise.

Jessica Ashmore also spoke at the panel in her role as a juvenile court probation officer.

"After adjudication, the family meets with us for a preliminary report. I'm always very attentive to the body language of the teen as well as the rest of the family," she said.

"I want to get as much information as I can so when I walk into the court with my disposition report, we have as much information as we need in case there are issues down the road."

She notes that the first matter to be dealt with is schooling. If there is a history of truancy, she wants to probe why that occurred, if there was a lack of interest and whether parents were involved in addressing the truancy as it happened.

She adds that her probation report always includes a requirement to enroll in and attend classes.

"So then if there's an issue of future non attendance we can file a probation violation. It is not preferable but education is so important that we want it enforced. If classes aren't being attended and parents are not following through, then we have to deal with that."

Ashmore acknowledged that she is on a "first name basis" with school administrators. "We want to present a united front and if I am aware of problems we can address them immediately."

Ashmore always has an eye on the possibility of substance abuse not only by the youth but by parents as well.

"I have had a parent tell me he was a 'recreational crack user.' That sort of comment goes into my report and also will be considered as part of any mental health assessments. Those assessments then become part of the basis for my recommendations."

Probation requires that the youth complete 40 hours of community service with an area agency and that they participate in a recreational education class of some sort.

"I want them to do the research and attend at least four sessions before they decide they aren't interested in that class after all. I see this as a part of life: going through uncomfortable experiences and learning from them. I want them to connect with a class or experience that is positive."

She said that youth will be expected to complete a community service that is not easy or comfortable. That is coupled with the rec-ed classes that are hoped to be a more positive choice.

"We want to get them positively engaged so eventually they no longer need the court involved telling them what to do."

She concluded by noting that youth are intensively supervised while in the probation program.

Published: Thu, Oct 27, 2011