Changes in juvenile crime, especially regarding gang activity in Monett, has added new challenges to the 39th Judicial Circuit Juvenile Office. The number of cases involving juveniles has remained fairly steady in recent years, said Keith Parris, chief juvenile officer, but limited space and resources are constricting the office's ability to meet public needs.
|The Juvenile Office handled 990 referrals during 2009. The number has been in the upper 900s for three years running. The major change in recent years has come from a timeline on mandated hearings for abuse and neglect cases.||Requirements to revisit cases with regular court hearings has resulted in committing three officers exclusively to abuse and neglect cases. Parris said the results have been positive, moving cases through the court faster. Children either get reunited with families sooner or placed in an alternative setting.|
The total number of children coming into foster care in 2009 was 123. Of the 936 hearings held on abuse and neglect referrals, more than 99 percent were held on time. The remaining cases were held within two days of the deadline. The 39th Judicial Circuit's timetable is also faster than the state standard.
"The number of abuse and neglect cases dropped about two years ago," Parris said. "They are rising again. We're seeing more parents testing positive for methamphetamine. The economy hasn't helped."
Of the 299 abuse and neglect cases, 57 percent of children referred were male and 42 percent female. Of the 761 delinquency and status referrals, 74 percent of the children were male and 24 percent were female.
Delinquency referrals broke down into the following categories:
* Simple assaults: 95.
* Substance abuse (drugs and alcohol): 84.
* Property damage: 83.
* Stealing: 75.
* Sexual offense: 49.
* Burglaries: 22.
* Tampering with vehicles: 18.
* Weapons: 8.
Gang issues increasing
Parris said a growing concern has been the increase in gang activity.
|"There is no such thing as a gang wannabe," Parris said.||"Topeka, Springfield and Fayetteville said there were no gangs in their cities until the problem had become entrenched in their communities," Parris continued. "We've sent six officers to the Division of Youth Services for training on gangs. Three went to gang training in Springfield recently.|
"We're taking a proactive approach," Parris said. "We will not tolerate [gang activity] in our community. The Monett Police Department has been more than helpful. Intelligence gathering has been pretty successful in the last several months. I want to bring in Lawrence and Barry counties as well."
Hispanic parents have been coming to officers seeking help with gang issues, in greater numbers than Anglo families.
"The Hispanic community used to take care of themselves," Parris said. "Now they're asking for help. They know it's dangerous. We feel we need to help them."
Need for support increasing
When money gets tight, education and law enforcement get the first cuts. Under that formula, Parris said the Juvenile Office takes a double hit. The judiciary, which generates revenue and could stand alone, represents 3 percent of the state budget, and nonetheless has been eyed for reductions.
The Juvenile Office has no real budget for training. The 39th Circuit Juvenile Office works a territory extending from Exeter to Branson, from Blue Eye to Ash Grove and Stotts City. Officers generally have to bundle small cases together to justify visits to smaller towns.
"We don't have the personnel to sit down with departments to work a case," Parris said. "But if it's a serious issue like abuse and neglect, we have to respond."
The Juvenile Office has outgrown the facility it has had for more than two decades at 102 Dunn in Monett. Parris said he does not have desk space for all his six full-time and one part-time staff members or storage space for case files. He would like to have some office space in the new judicial centers at either Barry or Lawrence counties, but that option has not been offered.
"Mental health has been a big issue with us for a lack of resources," Parris said. "The Clark Center does a wonderful job with the resources they have for Barry and Lawrence counties. The state's resources on children's mental health is absolutely appalling.
"At one time the state had eight residential beds [in a mental health facility] for the area from Springfield to Joplin and everywhere south. That may have changed, but we still have a high mental health need," Parris said.
"At the point when we see someone, if a young kids has mental health needs, it's a maze to get the services you need," Parris continued. "People also think if you make a few visits with a therapist, the problem is fixed. It's a long-term process."
The Juvenile Office is evolving to meet the needs of the area. In time, Parris said, the state will mandate audio and videotaping equipment. At the present time, his office even lacks an answering system for its telephones. Under state standards, the 39th Circuit should have nine more people in the Juvenile Office for the number of young people served.
"I understand the financial situation," Parris said. "It's not going to get better. In tough times we have to make due. Budget planners may forget you have to spend money on the front end to save money in the long term."
Parris has seen some bright spots, like the additional of a juvenile drug court in Stone County. Unlike adult criminal offenders, most of the teens that come into the juvenile system do not end up as repeat offenders showing up in the court system repeatedly. He had high praise for the juvenile judges: Scott Sifferman in Lawrence County, Carr Woods in Barry County, Alan Blankenship in Stone County and Presiding Judge Robert Wiley.
"The difference between a good kid and a bad kid is a good kid will make a mistake and learn from it," Parris said. "A bad kid won't. I believe kids are good. In the 14 years I've been here, I've only seen five bad, scary kids. Kids as a whole haven't changed a whole lot. They're still fearless, arrogant and know it all. The dangers have changed. The drugs are more powerful.
"Kids on their own are tough and resilent," Parris said. "When you have a situation, with an extreme parent, that can drive that kid down. Or an enabling parent, where it's everyone else's fault----that's too much on the other end. I'm the parent in the middle.
"We want to give positive direction in life, deal with the negative and go on," Parris added.