COURT HOUSE – Fourteen hundred to 1,700 juvenile offenders are processed by the court system here annually, a pretty astronomical number, according to Michelle DeWeese, assistant county prosecutor for juvenile cases.
“Considering what a small county this is, we have a lot,” she said, speaking at the Youth Services Conference on the local campus of Atlantic Cape Community College here April 7.
A movement to make services community-based rather than agency-based by coordinating case management with one plan to provide multiple services to a family may keep some children out of court, a recent county study concluded.
About 100 health care providers, social service workers, educators and law enforcement officers discussed the latest programs available for troubled children and their families. The county Human Services Department sponsored the program.
Public Defender Timothy Gorny also spoke, along with Superior Court Judge Kyran Connor, Hearing Officer John McGarr III, and Joanne Morrison, supervisor of juvenile probation. All are involved in juvenile cases that reach the family court.
They explained how juvenile cases are resolved. Many do not require a full court hearing. Gorny said his office is approved to represent 90 percent of those juveniles who come before the judge.
The full-day program also included speakers from the behavioral and mental health fields and agencies, some of which operate under the state Department of Heath and Senior Services.
The focus was broader than just those children who find themselves in court on juvenile charges, but on the new approach to assist families with children experiencing:
_ Challenging behavior at home or school.
_ Drug or alcohol use.
_ Running away.
_ Sadness, worries, or thoughts of suicide.
_ Difficulties making or keeping friends.
_ Changes in eating or sleeping habits.
The goal of the state Division of Child Behavioral Health Services, which was formed as part of the reform of children’s services, is to keep a child who may be troubled or a problem in the home with his or her family by developing a plan to cope with the child’s behavior.
This county has been ahead of this trend with family crisis services available through the Department of Youth Services, Elaine Makowski, services coordinator with county Human Services, told the Herald.
Judge Connor explained that juvenile court is part of the family division not the state criminal division of courts for the good reason that rehabilitation, not punishment, is the point.
For over year, he has had the option of ordering an assessment within 14 days if a child before him has an obvious problem that had yet to be properly diagnosed.
Efforts are also being made to get services directly to a family statewide.
Mobile response started statewide in 2002 and the state has contracted with ValueOptions to be the first point of contact for reaching these services. Any family in crisis can call ValueOptions toll free at 877-652-7624 at any hour of the day to bring services into the home.
For those parents whose children are not subject to court jurisdiction but may be in need of help due to behavioral or mental stability issues, Cape Atlantic Mobile Response Director Michael Logsdon hopes families will call on assistance from his agency. They may also be referred to it by ValueOptions.
It became the new provider here at the beginning of the year and one reason for the conference was to get that word out. Law enforcement officials in particular were invited to ensure that they were aware of it, said Makowski.
Educators were also a focus group for the conference. Patricia Devaney, director of county human services, told the Herald that Connor had recently attended the county roundtable meeting of school superintendents to share this information because there are many new superintendents in the area.
Logsdon’s organization serves both Atlantic and Cape May counties. He said they anticipated at least 30 calls a month. The demand was higher:
_ 47 in January (11 in this county).
_ 48 in February (10 in this county.
_ 53 in March (14 in this county).
For a family in crisis with a child whose behavior is escalating or if a new problem has arisen, the goal of mobile response is to keep the child in its present home, which could be with a parent or guardian or foster care.
In seven out of 10 experiences, if the mobile response team “gets its foot in the door” or can speak to the family by phone, they can keep the child in the home, said Wyndee Davis, as a representative from the Division of Child Behavioral health.
Other services are provided by Atlantic-Cape Family Support Organization (FSO), a non-profit, which will provide support for families with an emotionally disturbed child in the home. That’s a challenge, said Executive Director Sondra Dublinsky, who spoke of her own experiences with her three year old.
Patti Orapallo, operations administrator for Cape-Atlantic Integrated Network for Kids (INK), explained that her agency is a sister organization to FSO and works with about five percent of those in need. These are the “most neediest, she said, where traditional support hasn’t work.
“Interventions are powerful,” she added, explaining how her agency can be one of a number of services provided to a family.
Representatives from Cape Counseling Services, Inc. and the county prosecutor’s office also presented information.
Randy Brooks Miller, RNC, is the nurse manager of the Child Adolescent Psychiatric Unit for Kenney Health System in Cherry Hill. She spoke about research that has shown that development of the brain is not complete until early 20s and may be the reason for adolescent behavior previously attributed to hormones or other causes.
The county has a 24-hour hotline for family crisis intervention at 465-5045.
Contact Cote at (609) 886-8600 Ext 31 or: email@example.com
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