A brief respite
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
— Nelson Mandela
“A person is a person, no matter how small.”
— Dr. Seuss
A front-page story in last week’s Delaware Gazette noted the adoption of a contract for “respite” services for juveniles. The story incorrectly reported that the contract was for $110,000 rather than its actual value of just $10,000 (the Gazette kindly printed a correction the following day) and the article didn’t have the space to go into the reasons behind the use of respite care and the source of the funding used to provide it.
Juveniles find themselves in court for a variety of circumstances. Many are before the court because they have committed an act that would be a criminal offense if they were an adult. These juveniles are referred to as being ‘delinquent’ and can be confined in a detention facility or in the state’s juvenile prison system as administered by the Ohio Department of Youth Services.
Other juveniles have traffic citations. Though the penalties are slightly different from those that adults would face, their situation is not altogether anomalous to that of an adult traffic offender. Juvenile traffic offenders are more likely to have to appear personally in court and are more likely to have their licenses suspended than adults who commit similar offenses. In many cases, their license suspension is mandated by state law. Still other juveniles have been neglected or abused or otherwise find themselves in need of services or placement in foster care.
Many juveniles, however, find themselves before the court in situations that are applicable only because they are juveniles. These offenses include violations of local curfews, failure to the follow the rules of their parents and teachers or the use of tobacco products. Many of these cases fall under the umbrella title of being “unruly” and all of them are referred to as being “status offenders” since they are offenders only because of their status as juveniles.
In some of these cases, the relationship between the juvenile and the juvenile’s parents or guardians has deteriorated to a point where it would be unwise or unsafe for the juvenile to immediately return to the home. Were the case a delinquency matter, the court could consider placing the child in detention, but federal regulations prohibit placing a child in detention for a status offense. The court could consider treating the matter as if it were an abuse or neglect case and find a foster care placement. Both detention and foster care are extremely costly and foster homes are limited in number and needed for the most serious cases.
Into the breach steps the respite program. Funded without using general fund dollars, but rather through a grant from ODYS, the contract with the Village Network provides a safe, effective, short-term out-of-home placement for juvenile status offenders. The placements are through certified homes licensed through the Village Network and they allow for a short-term cool down period while other issues are addressed.
In this way, children are kept safe through the least restrictive method, they can quickly return home; federal law is not violated by placing them in detention; foster placements are preserved for children who are abused, neglected or dependent; and all of these goals can be met while preserving precious and limited financial resources for extreme cases in which those resources will be desperately needed. Though the respite program is approved to expend up to $10,000 in grant funds, a significantly smaller amount was spent in the first year of the program.
Through cooperation and careful planning, government agencies and community partners like the Department of Job and Family Services, the Village Network and many others aim to serve the largest number of children and families that time, talents and resources will allow.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.