When an attorney found her, the 15-year-old Fanquier County girl had been in solitary confinement for several months last year at the women's state prison facility in Goochland. Her crime: hitting someone over the head with a broom.
Before that she had been declared incorrigible and sent away to a series of institutions, each of which shuttled her on to the next, according to American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Stephen Bricker. Her case history, he said, is an example of the type of child that a proposed comprehensive revision of Virginia's juvenile code may help.
The new code, which represents the first comprehensive revision of the state's juvenile laws since the 1950s, has passed the House of Delegates and is expected by its proponents to be approved by the Senate. Last night the Senate committee reviewing the bill approved it with only one substantial amendment. The measure's sponsors describe the bill as one of the most important pieces of legislation before the current General Assembly.
The Fauquier girl has "nothing going for her" Bricker said.Her parents broke up when she was 7; her mother disappeared, and her father wasn't able or interested in taking care of his children.
She was placed by Fauquier authorities in 10 or 15 foster homes before she was 14, all the while her emotional problems worsened and her education was neglected, he said. By the time she was 14, she couldn't read or write, had no social skills, a low frustration threshold, and to make things worse she was big and fat and ugly."
In short, no one wanted her.
Being a "problem child" is not the same as committing a crime, Bricker noted. By declaring her "incorrigible," Fauquier authorities could send the girl away - first to the Northern Virginia Training Center, which kept her for six months before deciding she was "crazy," he said, and then sending her to a state mental institution.
Then she went to a juvenile correctional institution in Chesterfield County, where she was "a management problem," and was teased by the other girls because of her particular problems, Bricker said. She started having "psychotic outbrusts" during which it would take several men to restrain the 5-foot-10, 175-pound girl. Her Eventual commitment to the state prison was on an assualt charge after she used the broom during one of the outbursts.
Under the new law, which will go into effect July 1 if it is adopted, the girl never would have been sent to a correctional institution for being "incorrigible," which is one of the so-called "status offenses."
"The thrust (of the new law) is to divert from the juvenile court those children who have not committed crimes and can be more appropriately helped by other sources," Del. Wyatt B. Durrette Jr. (R-Fairfax) told the Senate committee reviewing the bill.
Instead, status offenders are to be called "children in need of services" or CHINS. They include habitual runaways, truants and children of problems, but not committing crimes.
"These are difficult kids." Durette said in an interview. "Usually they're arrogant, defiant and often sexually promiscuous. But we've learned they are not helped by putting them in detention centers. Some kids can't be helped at all. But this will at least prevent them for further harm."
The bill calls for a system of juvenile services to evaluate the needs of problems children and prescribe alternatives. Its main value, Bricker said, is that by removing the option of comittment to detention centers, "the onus is now on the judges' localities to provide helpful alternatives. They can't just send them down the tube to Richmond anymore."
Bricker, who runs the Project for Children's Rights here and was one of many people who worked with legislators and staff to design the bill, said there are several thousand "status offendors" every year in the state. Del. Frank M. Slayton (D-Halifax), who with Durrette has made the bill an almost personal cause in the three years it has been in the works, said that 32 per cent of the children in state facilities last year were status offenders.
The bill also increases convicted amount of fines a juvenile convicted of a crime can be required to pay - from $100 to $500, allows a judge to take away the offender's driver's permit as a possible punishment, and permits a youth convicted of a crime by a judge to appeal the decision to the circuit court and request a trial by jury. Juveniles now are not tried by juries at any point.
All children who come before the court either as CHINS or delinquents (children who are charged with a criminal offense) are entitled to be represented by lawyers, which Durettee said may increase the cost of the state's taxpayer-supported, court-appointed lawyer system.
Children will have, in effect, the constitutional rights of due process that adults have if the bill is passed.
Another major provision is the section dealing with foster care, which provided the only significant setback for the bill's proponents.
As originally proposed, the bill would have required a court hearing to review the case of any child placed in a foster home one year after the placement. This provision, opposed by state welfare services director William L. Lukhard and supported by foster parent and social worker associations, was amended to simply a "paper review" by the judge.
As for Bricker's client, she is back in a Fauquier foster home. "I've heard she's doing all right," he said, "but she isn't doing anything. She has no skills or education, so I don't know what's going to happen to her when she reaches 18 and has to go into the real world."