With reports of extreme juvenile crimes in Iowa and other states surfacing last week, a closer look was given to juvenile referrals in Marion County. While Knoxville led the number of referrals to the Juvenile Court Officer in 2012 (72 of 229), Knoxville Police Chief Dan Losada said the 2013 numbers show a downward trend in Knoxville.
“Through July of this year charges have been filed on 27 juveniles,” Losada said. “This compares with 35 being charged in the same time period in 2012 and 55 in 2011. I do not have an explanation for the dropping numbers.”
Juvenile Court Officer Kristi Dodson said Marion County typically has an active caseload of 70-90. The office recently expanded to include a second officer, Kyle Johnson. Any crime committed by a person under age 18 is recommended to the office.
Typically, law enforcement sits down with the child's parents or guardians to explain what they suspect the child did and what they have been charged with. Parents and the juvenile then meet with a juvenile court officer to discuss the crime. According to Dodson, a risk assessment is performed. The juvenile may then be referred for services and treatment. If the court system needs the parents to do something, formal court action must be taken. The office does have a voluntary counseling program available to parents and families.
“There's always a waiting list for that service,” Dodson said. At a given time, she will have at least two families involved with that service. Research has shown that these services aid in keeping the juvenile at home, instead of being taken in to state custody.
The reasons why juveniles commit crimes can vary.
They can include lack of parental supervision or dysfunction in the home. Other, simple explanations exist.
“Sometimes kids just go out and do stupid stuff,” Dodson said. However, when the stupidity rises to a criminal degree, action needs to be taken. Most juveniles who meet Dodson or receive a referral learn from the first incident and do not return.
Contrary to popular opinion, according to Dodson, juvenile court records are not automatically ex sponged when the individual becomes an adult. Action by the judge is required for that, based upon his or her belief that the individual has demonstrated a worthiness to have a clean record.
If the record is not cleared, calls come in from those a young adult will encounter after high school. Military recruiters, college scholarship committees and employers will call to follow up on an applicant if something appears on their juvenile record.
“The parents understand what the long-term consequences could be,” Dodson said.
The majority of parents Dodson encounters side with law enforcement. She said very few are adamant about their child's innocence. Most are already aware that the child has done something wrong before receiving a knock on the door from law enforcement. Parents read the reports and, in some cases, parents complain more about the consequences the State eventually imposes are “too mild.”
Dodson compliments the officers she works with in Knoxville, regarding their ability to talk with the parents and explain the situation involving the child. She said, “That probably helps.”
Marion County's 229 referrals compare to 133 in Lucas County and 261 in Jasper County for the same period. Dodson said the number of juveniles she deals with in Marion County is a very small percentage of the underage population overall.
“It's a very select population of the kids that I get to know very well,” Dodson said.
The kinds of crimes Marion County youth are committing are not as serious as they could be. In 2012, there were four “D” Felony (the lowest level of felony offense) crimes committed. Of the 229, 161 of the crimes were Simple Misdemeanors.
Pella has seen an uptick in the number of juvenile cases referred in the past five years. In 2012, the Pella Police Department accounted for 56 referrals.
According to Dodson, Pella has seen gang-related graffiti in the past. The “Young and Stupids” gang tags were identified in the town by law enforcement officials in Des Moines.
One of the trends Dodson sees that she finds disturbing is the minimization of substance abuse in Marion County. Children are trying drugs at a younger age, and if parents would intervene sooner, the chances for the child to overcome an addiction are increased. These children, around age 10, can be more successfully treated than even teenagers can be. Dodson said if a parent waits for the teen years, the child will remain hooked and in treatment into their early twenties. Addicts typically take seven stints in rehab before the treatment is successful.
Alcohol remains an issue for young people. During the Knoxville Nationals, a 14-year-old boy was referred to the juvenile court system whose blood alcohol content was three times over the legal limit. According to Dodson, the child claimed he did not know where he got the beer. She added that Nationals is also a time when people often freely hand out beers, but in this case, the adult should have known better. She said of the 14-year-old, “He certainly appeared his age.”
Dodson believed the boy when he said he was handed the beer. Two others charged said the same thing. In this same incident, when a parent was contacted, he was just as drunk as the children.
Dodson said she rarely sees an incident in which the juvenile has “snuck out.” Curfews are either non-existent or not enforced. She also believes that parents have become too reliant upon cell phones. They believe that if the child has a phone, he or she is safe and does not need to be further monitored.
In today's world, Dodson also sees fewer parents communicating with each other, as they did years ago. She believes some are naïve, and too trusting of others today. This concerns her because of the increase she has seen in sexual abuse cases involving young people.
Diane Ellis with Marion County Public Health has worked to assist parents with everything from financial resources, housing, food and finding health care coverage. She believes part of the problem is that some are not ready for the responsibility of raising a child.
“They're not prepared to be parents,” Ellis said. MCPH offers classes to assist these people.
“They don't realize it's a lot of work,” Ellis said. It goes beyond discipline and monitoring the child. Too many parents do not know what foods are healthy for their children, nor do they know how to prioritize money. Though they may not have the resources, they choose to eat at restaurants, as opposed to fixing their own meals.
MCPH participates in a home visitation program to help alleviate these issues. Most families MCPH works with are visited between three and five times at home. During these visits, MCPH identifies strengths and weaknesses, builds relationships and sets goals.
“I could have used them,” Ellis said of the visits. These programs were not available years ago. Ellis believes society has changed.
“I think (parenting is) harder for young people now,” Ellis said.
Ineffective parenting can also affect the school district. A teacher with 30 students in the room might have difficulty if a parent is relying on him or her to care for their child as the parent is supposed to.
“That's a big responsibility for a teacher to take on,” Ellis said. She believes early childhood education helps. In Iowa today, preschool is available to all families. Research has shown that early childhood education has a positive impact on a child's ability to learn.
She, along with Rachel Cecil, who oversees the Maternal Child Health program, believe that today's parents are becoming more isolated. This ties back to Dodson's belief that parents don't talk to each other anymore. MCPH has tried to organize social groups for young parents to help them share ideas, concerns, etc.
“They just don't have any friends,” Ellis said. This can lead to depression. Depression of a parent can also leave a lasting impact on a child.
“I can't think of a parent I have seen...who didn't have risk factors for depression,” Cecil said.
This can be tied to financial struggles. A parent may have a car, but no disposable income for gas or outings. In today's economy, MCPH works with families who may earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, but still need assistance.
While financial problems may exist, Dodson said she has seen juveniles across the spectrum of the socioeconomic classes. In some cases, these kids get in trouble for the thrill.
“I never have kids come in here who steal things because they really needed it,” Dodson said. She said most thefts among juveniles are of things such as small electronics, nail polish, etc. Juveniles can also be gullible and believe their friends when they are told the friend steals all the time and never gets caught. When Dodson hears that in her office, always with a parent or guardian present, she points to her large file cabinet full of reports about kids who have lied to their friends.