Georgia earning a name for justice in a new way

Counties in the state demonstrate new ways to help kids involved in both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems

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Covington - Candice Branche (standing), assistant district attorney, approaches a juvenile (left) sitting with Stephanie G. Johnson (right), assistant public defender as Newton County Juvenile Court Judge Lisa Mantz (background) looks in Newton County Juvenile Court in Covington on Wednesday, January 14, 2015. Newton County Juvenile Court is one of a handful in the nation experimenting with alternative sentencing options for juveniles who are also in foster care. Such children typically have many more adjustment issues and have been dealt with more harshly in the past. 

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Hyosub Shin

This story was reported by Virginia Lynne Anderson for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

COVINGTON, Ga. — On a bright, fall day — the kind of day that kids love to be outdoors in, riding a bike, playing ball — a 15-year-old walked into a juvenile courtroom in Newton County for a hearing, wearing a dark blue jumpsuit, handcuffs and a look of fear on his face.

He had been picked up for riding a bicycle under the influence in next-door Rockdale County a day or two before and placed in detention.

Had Judge Lisa Mantz not known about the teen’s home difficulties, she might have sent him back to his foster mother’s home.

He’s faced some very hard obstacles. His father is in prison. His mother is absent for unknown reasons, and he hasn’t seen her in years.

Because Mantz and the Newton County juvenile justice team make it a matter of protocol to find out whether a youth has been in protective custody or has an open case with the Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFACS), Mantz knew in this case not to send the boy home.

“The foster mom has a meth problem,” Mantz explained after a wrenching hearing. “He wouldn’t be safe going back into that environment.”

Newton County is one of four sites in the nation chosen by the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps to serve as a demonstration project — to show how the juvenile justice court can work with DFCS, other children-serving agencies and the community to identify dual status youth and get them the help they need.

While this young person’s case resulted in his being kept in detention, the collaborative efforts of the Newton County Juvenile Court and DFACS play out in different ways in different cases. The goal is to keep dual status youth out of detention and to instead get them and their families the help they need to stay out of detention.

Using an initiative that recognizes that most juvenile offenders are dually involved in the child welfare system, Newton County is changing its strategy for working with youth in the juvenile justice system.

Previously, the county might have looked at a youth’s juvenile record without ever examining his or her involvement in the child welfare system. Now the county’s first step is to learn whether a young person has an open file with the Department of Family and Children Services. A separate intake form is created, and, within three days, DFCS returns information to the court that shows whether a youth is dually involved.

Newton County began tracking the young people charged with offenses in June 2013 to learn how many were dually involved. So far, more than half — 54 percent — of youth fitting the juvenile justice criteria have been identified as dually involved, according to records from Newton County’s research analyst.

“These youth-serving systems must be working together,” said the Action Corps’ John Tuell, who co-wrote a technical assistance workbook to help juvenile courts work more collaboratively with youth-serving agencies. Tuell credits the leadership of Chief Juvenile Judge Sherri Roberts as well as Mantz and research analyst Diana Summers.

‘“They’re not only identifying these kids, they’re trying these kids,” he said. “This enables them to serve them better, design more targeted programs”  and, ultimately, to keep youth out of detention centers when they instead need mental health treatment, family support or both.

“The first response used to be, ‘They need to be locked up,’ ” Mantz said, referring to youth who had been arrested. “Now, it’s how do we de-escalate.”

Often, Mantz and Roberts are able to keep a child in the home rather than out — and to help the parent or parents learn better parenting skills so that they and their child can live together happily.

“It’s about prevention, taking those kids with their first foot in the door, and saying, ‘Family, let’s get some skills. This is manageable. Let’s don’t go any deeper,’ ” Roberts said.

Roberts, a Newton County native, has especially strong ties to the community. For her, this is a dream job. After working in the financial services industry — she has an MBA in addition to her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Georgia — she practiced law for several years in Kentucky. While she liked her work, she wanted something more fulfilling, something that would help youth in particular. And, she wanted to come home.

She was thrilled to return to Covington, the county seat. Because she has many friends and professional connections in the county, she is able to turn to them for support, and even for financial backing for special projects, such as the Community Help Fund, which is used to help families and children’s groups with one-time financial help.

Roberts and Mantz are totally committed to the goal of identifying dual status youth and making sure they get the help they need. In part because of Roberts’ numbers background — that MBA came in handy as a juvenile judge — she knew that a research analyst would be key in tracking the cases, their dispositions and how they are referred.

Toward that end, Roberts hired Summers as research analyst for the court. Having hard numbers not only helps Roberts and Mantz as they track cases, but helps get community buy-in.

For example, the court is able to show that more than three-quarters of all dually involved youth were not involved in any pro-social programming. Data also showed that more than one-third of dually involved youth are not attending school. Such information is crucial, the judges say, to help them get help for youth and families — and to educate the community that prevention is far better than detention.

“The ultimate goal is to stop the problem before it gets worse, but first, there has to be a recognition that abuse and neglect are behind most of these offenses,” Roberts said. “Juvenile justice cases escalate so quickly, and they don’t need to. We know that therapeutic intervention can work. We know that ‘scared straight’ does not work. So one of the first goals is to make sure the community understands this, too.”

When Newton first began its pilot project in 2013, Roberts admits there was some resistance.

“People said, ‘Oh, great, there’ll be a crime wave,’ ” she said.

There hasn’t been. Instead, there have been programs throughout the community aimed at reaching at-risk youth before there is any involvement in the juvenile justice system.

For example, because Roberts and Mantz started seeing more girls coming through the system — and Summers’ numbers backed that up — Roberts started a class for girls at risk, giving them an opportunity to connect with other girls, to gain mentoring from women in the community and to come together and talk. Roberts holds a tea at her house, and the girls get dressed up and have a chance to be social in a positive environment.

“At the end of the day, our job is just common sense,” Roberts said. “We just try to use good parenting principles ourselves. We’re both very careful in what we say, we acknowledge success, and we try to support the family however we can.”

And even in the difficult cases where a child must be taken from the home, the goal is still to empower the parent.

“Usually, what’s happened is that the balance of power is out of control,” Roberts said. “And we try to let them know they can still be a good parent. It’s amazing to see sometimes when that parent who’s been struggling just gets a little bit of support and respite.”

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