One of the biggest challenges in juvenile courts is what to do with runaway children in the short-term while his/her case is working through the system. An impediment to safely housing these children is the 20-day maximum stay at shelter care facilities instituted as part of the Indiana Department of Child Services licensing requirements (IC 31-27-3-10). This should be reexamined during the next legislative session.
Children who leave home without permission (defined at IC 31-37-2-2) are delinquent children who committed a status offense. A status offense is not a crime, and can never apply to adults. Other examples include truancy, habitual disobedience, curfew violations, firework violations, and certain alcohol-related offenses.
Experience has shown that runaways are often running from something in the home — abuse, neglect, molestation, drugs — or reacting to family changes, such as a divorce or death. Too often, if the juvenile court does not detain a runaway, the child will run, and run, and run, putting themselves in danger. Clients have been found passed out in alleys, in far-off places in stolen cars, and in the homes of older men, for example.
In Indiana, status offenders who are removed from the home generally may not be placed in secure facilities, which prevent a child’s departure (defined at IC 31-9-2-114). They can be placed in shelter care facilities (defined at IC 31-9-2-117), which are intended to be more home-like, do not prevent a child’s departure, and often provide access to necessary services.
For runaway children held in shelter care, it can be a challenge to get a juvenile case from arrest to disposition in twenty days. Adhering to that timeframe may result in the difficult decision to foregoing diagnostic evaluations, interviews, and document-gathering that would be helpful to the judge in the decision of which rehabilitative services are needed by the child.
The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Model Programs Guide on Shelter Care is useful to examine characteristics and outcomes when using shelter care. OJJDP defines emergency shelters as limiting stays to 30 days or less, while shelter homes may hold children for a year or longer. The children’s experiences may vary, with particular negative consequences with long-term removal. However, OJJDP notes that shelter care facilities offer stability and aid, and have been shown to prevent future substance abuse. Additional research on shelter care facilities is available here.
If OJJDP defines emergency shelter care as less than 30 days and shelter homes as much longer, Indiana legislators should consider the needs of these children and modify IC 31-27-3-10, and any related statutes, accordingly.