I have just finished a conversation with a well intended, and probably highly competent law enforcement officer. He tried returning a runaway to our facility who is very strong-willed, world-class manipulative, and determined not to stay here. The officer had concerns about leaving this young man here, based on some of the stories he had been told, and he wanted to make sure that there was some kind of system in place for this resident if he had complaints about things. I’ve seen this before across the legal field, from police officers to probation officers to judges — people who don’t understand what we do in the Child Welfare System, and want to provide help that really falls into areas where the system already sees to those needs. This is not to say that the CWS is terribly effective in seeing to those needs, nor that it is all that rationally operated — nobody who works in the system for more than a few months could honestly claim that it is. But it’s already there. Here’s the nickel tour that is similar to what I explained to this officer at the door:
The child has a Social Worker that works for Children’s Administration. That SW has a supervisor who will be reasonably conversation about the case, especially if there have been difficulties in it. For our residents, there is also the Behavior Rehabilitation Services system, which has regional coordinators who handle our placements. They monitor things going on with the case as well. We also have house-level care provided by Residential Youth Counselors like me, and a Case Manager who interfaces with all of the systems involved with our residents’ lives, and a director of our portion of our agency who keeps track of these cases as well. Collectively, before you get to the SW, you’ve got individuals with combined decades of experience working with troubled children in a variety of scenarios. CA acts as the legal guardian of these children, and they may also have a Guardian ad litem in place to represent their interests in court proceedings. The most difficult have a support system the size of Rhode Island, including teachers, counselors, therapists, medical professionals, etc. Any service you would notice that they need is almost certainly being provided by a qualified professional. As much as you might want to step in and second-guess those qualified professionals (I know I often do such second-guessing), they are there for a reason, and all of us have oversight by our agencies and the State to minimize the amount of harm our collective failures can do, and to provide accountability for our failures when they do cause harm.
When our residents are interfacing with the legal community, there are specific things that we need those legal professionals to do, and not do. I’m going to talk about some of them here, based on my perspective and experience:
Consequences delayed are consequences denied
Every step in the legal system defaults to using the minimum consequences possible in each situation. This makes sense — resources are limited, and so providing those consequences is focused on those who are shown to be the most habitual offenders. So first-time offenders, and even those with long records, find themselves facing a system that exerts much of its resources to avoiding giving them serious consequences like incarceration. When they are on probation, the probation system wants to do what it can to get them off probation as quickly as possible, without regard to what their behavior patterns are. This, along with wanting to play Social Worker, contributes to most of the problems these children receive due to the legal system.
Consequences are very important in the lives of both children and adults. When a bad choice results in an unpleasant consequence, that bad choice is less likely to be repeated. When it results in no consequence the child cares about, the child is left with no reason to make a better choice in the future. Putting one’s hand in a fire is a bad idea, not only because it hurts, but because it causes harm to the hand. Engaging in criminal behavior only has the pain aspect if it is imposed by someone else. This is not to say that excessive consequences will guarantee a more positive result — young brains are not yet fully formed, and acting in their enlightened self-interest is not a characteristic of children. They want to do what they want to do, when and how they want to do it, and they want to get what they want, when and how they want it. Connecting their choices to the consequences of those choices is important in them learning principles adults need — delayed gratification, appropriate and prudent behavior, etc.
What I want from police officers called to my group home is for them to put cuffs on the problem child and take them to jail. If they do anything else, it’s likely to make the problem the child was doing worse. Most want to start with gathering the information and determining what to do, beginning with the lecture to the problem child. This is singularly ineffective. Information gathering has to take place, but the lecture is a hopeless waste of time. Our children do not lack for caring, qualified adults who can give them good advice about what to do with their lives. We know them quite well, and how to give the lecture in a way that is most likely to give the optimal results. Some big person with a uniform and a gun might be able to scare them, briefly, but when that person walks away without taking them away, they are no longer seen as a threat, and the residents will be laughing at them and about them minutes after they leave. Even if they were crying because they were scared moments earlier. This is counted as a “win,” and “getting away with it.” The next time we are pointing out that their behavior could result in the police being called, they will likely laugh, in the firm belief that the police will do nothing. Experience shows that this is likely more often than not.
The push-back we get from police officers is that we want the officers to do our jobs for us — which is a little ironic, since they seem to want to do our jobs, rather than their own. We can contribute to the problem when we call law enforcement inappropriately, such as when a resident is out of control, but not engaging in criminal activity. Our agency requires floor staff to talk to our on-call Crisis Manager for permission before calling 911 (except in obvious situations where the emergency response needs to be initiated more quickly, like serious medical emergencies), and that permission isn’t going to be given unless a crime has been committed — usually, assaults or serious property damage. But, when those things have happened, we would prefer an arrest to a lecture with a stern warning. The stern warning, without stern consequences, is a waste of time — it’s empty, and obviously so to the resident.
Not infrequently, I refer to judges as “Social Workers in black robes,” when they are dealing with our residents, because they seem more interested in micromanaging how we do what we do than in providing consequences for our residents behavior. Similar to the main thing I want from police who are called to our group homes, what I want from judges is to lock up our residents when they come before them for criminal charges or probation violations. Each and every time, and I want them locked up for longer each time. No amount of showing concern from the bench is going to have as much effect as steady escalation of incarceration. Consequences show caring in a way that counts. As a base of reference, I don’t know of any youth who is concerned about spending 30 days in lock-up. However, getting a 30 day sentence out of juvenile court, even for serious crimes and probation violations, is very unusual. In this state, there is a maximum number of 60 days a parolee can be held on parole violations during the entire time of their parole. I’ll talk about that more later, but that demonstrates the disconnect in expectations between judges and the juvenile offenders in front of them.