Running Away Or Skipping School Could Get A Kid Locked Up. Now That’s Changing

In Kentucky, running away from home or constantly skipping school could get a kid locked up in a juvenile hall for days. Those acts, called status offenses, aren’t serious crimes, but for years Kentucky and other states treated them as though they were.

That first brush with the juvenile justice system can often lead to more trouble if authorities focus on punishment, not the underlying reasons for the bad behavior.

But there’s growing evidence that the tough approach doesn’t work. Kentucky has joined many other states that are trying something different.

“We’ve got a lot of training on this,” says Lucinda Masterton, a Fayette County Family Court judge based in Lexington. “I don’t know of any judges who believe that you should lock up kids to teach ’em a lesson — especially status kids that we’re dealing with.”

Nationally, the number of status offense complaints filed against juveniles reached their peak in the early 2000s. They’ve since been on the decline as research about status offenses and the factors surrounding them deepens.

The status offense that tops the list of juvenile misbehavior is truancy. Kellie Shouse, 22, says missing school was a habit for her starting in middle school.

Shouse was in eighth grade and ran with her older sister’s crowd. She rarely attended school.

“I missed, I think it was like 98 days,” she says.

Now Shouse lives at the Brighton Recovery Center for Women in Florence, Ky., not far from Cincinnati. She’s working to break a heroin addiction after several stints in prison on a possession charge.

Her ready smile and deep dimples are a stark contrast to her description of a chaotic family life with parents, siblings and other relatives who, she says, were “out in the madness” of drug addiction. When Shouse went to high school, she missed even more days.

“You know they send your parents letters and stuff,” Shouse says. “Your parents would usually get in trouble if they don’t go to court, but I basically did not listen to my parents, what they say.”

Her mother eventually signed off on Shouse dropping out of school, and a judge ordered her to complete community service instead of detaining her for not attending school as ordered. Shouse says she’s thankful.

“I mean I’ve had friends, like when I was in school, that went to juvenile hall and they come back worse some of them.”

Besides truancy, there are four other common status offenses: breaking curfew, underage drinking, being incorrigible or ungovernable, and running away.

Quite often, cases filed today are dismissed. However, thousands of young people end up in court or a locked facility for status offenses each year. Ironically, the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act actually prohibits jailing juveniles for status offenses, but it also provides a loophole — the valid court order (VCO) exception.

About half the states in the country don’t use the VCO exception to detain kids, but the remaining states, including Kentucky, and the District of Columbia do. Kentucky jails young people who refuse to follow a judge’s order more than any other state except Washington, which is now phasing it out. In 2014, the same year that Kentucky passed a law overhauling its juvenile justice system, it incarcerated nearly 800 status offenders.

There are six detention centers for juveniles in Kentucky. One of them is in Lexington, the second-largest city. The Fayette Regional Juvenile Detention Center sits just down the road from the horse stables at a nearby adult prison.

It serves 10 counties, with detainees between the ages of 12 and 18. Fayette has a library, classrooms, a gym and an outside seating area full of flowers. The words “hope” and “courage” are prominent features of a huge mural near the intake area. The yellow cinder block walls and the attached metal sink-toilet combo in the juveniles’ rooms are reminders that the facility is a detention center.

On a recent day, 40 juveniles were incarcerated at the center — six of them girls, with one serving 30 days for habitual truancy and contempt of court.

Kentucky state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a chief sponsor of the state’s juvenile justice overhaul law, says reformers wanted to get to the underlying issues that cause kids to engage in status offenses. He says changes included first taking steps to help troubled youths and their families.

“We have front-loaded these services and we’ve diverted youth away from the system, as much as possible, to various resources,” Westerfield says. “And depending on where you are and depending on each child’s situation, we’ve done our best to keep the kid from ever coming in the door.”

Advocates say the reforms worked. Two years ago, the number of status offenders detained in Kentucky dropped to fewer than 400 — about half of them girls. The juveniles most often detained in the state now are runaways.

Runaways and girls

Nationally, the runaway category is the only status offense where there’s a higher percentage of girls, at about 55 percent, who are showing up in court.

Boston College Law professor Francine Sherman, who focuses on girls in the juvenile justice system, says that’s why paying attention to context is so important.

“We have to think about why that young person is running away and very often for the girls I’m involved with it’s very often about escaping abuse in their homes, escaping abuse in their foster homes, it’s also about controlling their lives,” Sherman says.

In Northern Kentucky, runaway girls may end up at Homeward Bound, a 24-hour emergency shelter in Covington, Ky., run by Brighton Center, a nonprofit community organization.

Youth Services Director Kate Arthur says the shelter is at a convenient location, right off an interstate and along a bus line.

“We do have a lot of female runaways,” says Arthur. “Females don’t want to be in situations where mom’s boyfriend may be inappropriate — not necessarily sexually, but drinking or bringing in drugs. Females are more geared toward running if they feel they have a safe place to go.”

In Louisville, 24-year-old Jasmine Foust can talk easily now about her teenage years. She stands in a grassy area on the campus of YouthBuild Louisville, an education and job training program where she has learned to build and help rehab affordable housing.

Foust is married and has a young child. It’s quite a different lifestyle from the days when she would run away from home and was often picked up by the police.

“My first charge, let’s see, I was 14 and it was for drinking,” Foust says.

She says she was sexually and physically abused as a young child. She was later adopted, but Foust says that as an adolescent she began to have flashbacks and started acting out. Details about juvenile cases are sealed and NPR normally doesn’t name victims of abuse, but Foust says telling her story could help others. Her arrest for public intoxication when she was 14, she says, came months after she was sexually assaulted at a party.

“So I was sitting in the juvenile section of jail,” says Foust. “They kept me for three days and I got out and proceeded to lash out any way I possibly could.”

For Foust, being locked up didn’t change her attitude because, like much of the research has found, the roots of her problems weren’t initially being addressed.

Judges respond

Some in Kentucky argue that part of the problem is recalcitrant judges who believe the valid court order exception must remain — that detention might just turn a kid around. Three Kentucky judges say that’s not the case at all.

Judge Masterton says there has been significant change when it comes to handling status offense cases. She says even though Fayette County judges may still order jail time for a status offender, young people are in a facility for only a short time.

“Less than 24 hours,” she says. “Frankly, if we had a better place to put them than the jail that was safe, we’d put them there. We do have a detention alternative facility, but if they don’t have room or they refuse to take her then our only option is the jail.”

Last year, there were 23 runaways detained in Fayette County, 11 of them girls. Whether judges order detention varies by county.

Family Court Judge Tara Hagerty works in Louisville, the nominal seat of Jefferson County. She says that county doesn’t detain kids at all for violating court orders in status offense cases anymore. She says there were issues about housing them along with more serious offenders and she credits Kentucky’s efforts to provide services to families at home first.

“I really feel that when I have kids before me on the status docket I’m more counseling them as parental figure but I’m not threatening them with detention,” says Hagerty. “I’m interested in these kids’ welfare and I’m happy to spend time talking with them, but the fact that I’m doing it in a courtroom and as a judge seems kind of ridiculous.”

Campbell County District Court Judge Karen Thomas says she doesn’t believe status offenses should even have a place in the juvenile justice system. There were nine detained runaways in Campbell County in 2018; three were girls.

Thomas says it can be a frustrating situation if a lack of resources, especially in rural areas of the state, makes it difficult to find a safe place for a status offender outside of a detention center.

The judge says there’s another issue, too.

“I’m not going to order somebody to do something and then not follow it up. There has to be repercussions for actions,” says Thomas. “I’m not saying you automatically go to detention, but there has to be an escalating process, maybe it’s curfew or community service hours, and there is the crux of the problem and why status offenses shouldn’t be in the system.”

Foust, a graduate now of YouthBuild Louisville, says she understands the complications when it comes to status offenses, but sometimes teens are teens and Kentucky just has to provide more programs for troubled kids instead of locking them up.

“Like me, I mean, the things I’ve been through — look at the outcome with my story,” she says. “There’s so much to learn that you can teach kids. ”

Last year, Congress passed legislation that puts limits on the valid court order exception. When the Kentucky Legislature reconvenes in January, state Sen. Whitney Westerfield says he’ll urge lawmakers to make Kentucky a state that doesn’t incarcerate status offenders at all.

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