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.