Kids for Cash — Lessons for Indiana

On April 3, 2014, in Indianapolis, over 100 people watched “Kids for Cash” a documentary about the Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.  Four lessons from the documentary resonate here in Indiana:

Juvenile court participants cannot keep quiet when there is unacceptable behavior impacting children, even if the bad actor is the judge.  Most juvenile courts are functionally kept closed to the public, even when the law allows the courtroom to be open to public view.  There are few people in a position to see the big picture of what is happening.  But, every juvenile court hearing has a prosecutor and probation officer present, as well as a court reporter.  In Pennsylvania, none of them spoke up.  Neither did the chief public defender who oversaw public defender appointments on approximately 50% of the cases.  It took parents and juveniles speaking up before the case in Pennsylvania to come to fruition.  The same silence could and may be impacting children here in Indiana.  For instance, when interviewed for the right to counsel project, many children from one Indiana county noted in individual interviews that the juvenile court was holding en masse initial hearings with little individual attention given to any child.  Those of us in the courtroom have a duty to ensure that any questionable conduct by any of the court participants is reported.

Having a child and his or her parent sign a waiver of the right to counsel document does not ensure that the child’s constitutional rights are protected.  Too often the child and his or her parents are functionally illiterate, mentally ill, developmentally disabled, or are just ignorant of juvenile court procedures.   Throwing documents in front of the participants for signature does not and should not meet the standards of a knowing waiver of a constitutional right.  Hundreds of children in Pennsylvania had their adjudications expunged because of an inadequate process that was finally challenged.  There are many counties in Indiana, according to State Court Administration statistics, that allow more than 50% of juveniles to proceed in this case pro se.  The new right to counsel rule that will become effective on January 1, 2015 may help.  To ensure that all children are protected, each child should be appointed an attorney before any waiver of counsel may be accepted by the juvenile court.

Individualized rehabilitation should be the dispositional goal of each juvenile case.  In Luzerne County, the juvenile court judge was clear in his announcement that any child who committed a delinquent act in school, no matter how minor, would be detained.  Many were detained for years.  There is never going to be one dispositional option that will meet the unique needs of every child, and all options should be considered as a plan is developed.  Each of us who participate in the system need to continuously reach out to others across the state for ideas for new services and service providers, as well as information about inferior and ineffective services and service providers.

Shackling and long-term removal from the home can do lasting damage to many children.   The documentary highlighted that some children developed mental illness issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety disorder, after long-term detention.  A national statistic cited was that a large, and unacceptable, percentage of children who are removed never complete their education.  Anti-shackling advocates note that the shame of being paraded through the courthouse in handcuffs, ankle shackles, and belly chains can change the child’s self-image.  As the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative continues to roll across the state, we all need to work to develop new ways of keeping our children in the community whenever possible.

It was great to see so many participants in the juvenile court system at the film event.  A shoutout to Dan Schroeder from the Marion County Public Defender Agency for arranging the viewing through Gathr.  Kudos, as always, also go to the Juvenile Law Center in Pennsylvania for their tireless work on the Kids for Cash scandal.  We can all learn lessons from JLC about courage and tenacity in speaking up for our children who need a voice.

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