Parents and juvenile officials in Northern Virginia are beginning to view recent revisions in the state juvenile code as major roadblocks to help troubled youths.
The roadblocks, according to those two groups, come under new guildelines for classifying youths as Children in Need of Supervision (CHINs).
In the juvenile justice system, a CHIN is a youth who commits an act - called a status offense - that is a crime only because the youth is a minor. Status offenses traditionally have covered three categories - truants, runaways and incorrigibles.
But on July 1, when the new code, House Bill 518, went into effect, courts found their jurisdiction over those three categories sharply limited to youths classified as habitual CHINs. It was left to each court jurisdiction to formulate its own definition of habitual.
The primary concern of juvenile officials is that the revisions leave them with little power over non-habitual CHINs who need immediate help.
"The old law allowed an officier to use his discretion and experience to determine whether a youngster should be taken into custody or not," said Jared Stout, a Fairfax County police officer. The new law, he said, does not.
For example, in Northern Virginia a runaway can be taken into custody only if he comes under at least one of four guidelines: He has been missing ten days; he has run away at least three times; there is a "clear and substantial" danger to the child's life and health, or custody is needed to ensure the court appearance of the child. Even the an officer must have a court detention order, or the child's consent, before he can legally take the youth into custody.
On Aug. 22, a group of Northern Virginia police chiefs issued a statement expressing their dissatisfaction with the limits of the legislation.
A child in need of supervision who does not qualify for immediate custody should receive consideration, too, the statement said. Otherwise he may be forced into criminal activity to survive or even become a victim of crime.
"Parents should be aware that some of the responsibility once vested in law enforcement againcies must be assumed by them, with respect to the prevention, locating and picking up of runaway children," the statement said.
Police agencies, it continued, would assist the parents by taking reports and placing local look-outs who would notify parents where the child was last seen or, hopefully, convince the child to return home voluntarily.
The intent of the bill, the chiefs said, is to limit institutionalization of juveniles under the principle that many children with problems can be better helped in the community, not the court system. However, the statement said, the practical effects are just the opposite.
"Our (court) intake people are caught in the bind of enforcing the legislation and trying to service the parents and the kid," said Fairfax juvenile court official Vincent Picciano. "By caling people (CHINs) you limit the options open to them. If you force kids to come into the juvenile justice system (for services) you're forcing them to become criminals. The people writing the legislation are not the ones dealing with the problem kids.
"Legislation always accomplishes the opposite of what was intended. More boys are being institutionalized as deliquents (a legal classification which often forces courts to institutionalize juveniles) now than before."
Virginia arrest statistics for 1976 show that juveniles were involved in one-third of the state's most serious criminal offense (i.e. robbery, rape, murder, assault etc.) and 37.7 per cent of the arrests for property damage crime (burglary, larceny and auto theft).
Ironically, the new law sets forth a rigorous approach to the youngsters committing delinquent acts, said Stout, while overlooking the fact that these youths and CHINs are sometimes the same individual.
"That's part of the Catch 22 involving the whole question of status offenders (CHINs)," he said. "In 1974, in this country, youngsters committing deliquent acts were labeled status of offenders." However the practice was later discontinued by the police in 1974, said Stout.
The problem of servicing CHINs is further complicated, said Stout, by complex interstate laws that do not allow some states to hold youths in that classification.
Recently a county youngster who had been classified as a CHIN was spotted in Florida, he said. "The younster didn't want to wait (until someone came for him) and they couldn't hold him," said Stout. "By the time someone got there he was gone.
"Where there's no desire to get help and the child keeps on running, there's a problem."
"You must have the kid in hand before you can do something for him," agreed Picciano. However, he said the new law doesn't always make that possible.
Last year there were 1,797 reported runaways in Fairfax County, said Stout. There are 1,345 to date, and police expect that figure to rise to last year's level by the end of the year.
This summer the Fairfax juvenile court received fewer intake orders on CHINs, said Fairfax court official George Augsburger. Yet, Augsburger said, he's not sure whether this means parents are just failing to report missing youths or whether the 10-day probationary period is allowing non-habitual runaways more time to return home.
Still, the police chiefs and many juvenile officers are seeking to have the new legislation amended at the next session of the General Assembly, Stout and Picciano said.
"We're really unclear on how we should deal with our juveniles," said Picciano. "There are officials that fear some children will have to be wasted because we aren't able to act in their behalf."