Friday, July 1, 2011

LRC Press Release - Lawmakers continue study of status offenders

FRANKFORT—The average age of a child committed to state child protection in Kentucky for a status offense—including being habitually truant—is 16. Many enter the system at age 13 or 14, state lawmakers were told today by the state Department for Community Based Services, and many go to foster care.

Of the 1,221 status offenders committed to the department as of January 2011, 945 were placed in “out of home care,” or foster care, said DCBS Commissioner Pat Wilson. They included victims of substantiated abuse or neglect, children with attention deficit disorders, victims of school bullying, substance abusers, or those who felt marginalized by society in some way, she said.

Foster care is one way to help these youth, but a course of action Wilson said DCBS does not favor for habitual truants is juvenile detention, or jailing of students. Habitual truancy, which Wilson said is the most common status offense in Kentucky, is defined by state law as six or more unexcused school absences per school year and is subject to action by the courts.

“We certainly agree that the detention of youth is not the answer to the problem,” Wilson told the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary.

Only seven of the 1,221 children committed to DCBS in January were in juvenile detention facilities, she said, although that number only reflects the number of children under DCBS. It does not include status offenders who are detained before being committed to DCBS.

Wilson and Patrick Yewell, who is the executive officer of the Administrative Office of the Courts Department of Family and Juvenile Services, both seemed to favor diversion programs for truants that allow children to work through their issues with their school and the state without going to court.

“Truancy diversion programs do work,” said Wilson. “It’s essential we assess what the problems with these youth are and work… toward keeping them in school.”

Senate President Pro Tem Katie Kratz Stine, R-Southgate, suggested reducing truancy could also lower the state’s dropout rate.

“It seems to me there is a correlation between truancy and dropouts,” she said.

Yewell said the state’s Truancy Diversion Program has been voluntary chosen by 61 counties and 149 Kentucky schools so far as an option for handling truants. The program has been about 90 percent successful in correcting truancy issues based on grades and other measures of school performance, said Yewell. Still, not every county elects to join the program.

That drew comments from Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, who said participation should be strongly encouraged.

“It’s as good to me as a truancy officer in your school system,” she said.

Yewell recommended that lawmakers consider statutory changes to Kentucky’s status offender laws including expanding parent accountability, reviewing the state court designated worker program, assessing programs and services—“Find what works, find what doesn’t work,” as Yewell said—and look at increasing the pay of state employees who work with status offenders.

“It’s gotten to the point where we must realize the key to any program is its workforce and the stability of that workforce,” he added.