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Juvenile court sees a range of problems, misdeeds

January 14, 2012|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com

Mom shrugged.

"No comment," the woman said when asked by Assistant Public Defender Brian Hutchison in Washington County juvenile court if she agreed that her son would be better off remaining in foster care.

Her 13-year-old son, one of hundreds who find themselves in juvenile court each year in Washington County, had admitted to vandalizing a vehicle. Other charges, including a threat to commit arson, were dismissed.

"You took your medications today?" Hutchison asked the boy.

The boy, who previously was found not mentally competent, answered that he had. The types of medications were not discussed in court. Though now ruled competent, he still had problems following the questions asked of him.

A Department of Juvenile Services caseworker told Judge John H. McDowell that the boy was doing well in foster care, and McDowell ordered him to remain with that family.

"I couldn't ask for a better kid," the foster mom said.

In 2010, there were 334 juvenile petitions filed in the county, according to figures from the Washington County State's Attorney's Office. Of those, 192 were first-time offenders, the report said. The number of felony petitions was down from 81 in 2009 to 51 last year, but the number of misdemeanor petitions increased by 47 to 283, the report said.

The young people finding themselves in the juvenile justice system range from juveniles with often profound mental, emotional and behavioral issues to those who are accused of more commonplace misbehavior, such as underage drinking, marijuana possession, fights at school and shoplifting.

Some of these kids will spend time in detention, foster homes and residential treatment centers, but the majority will be placed on probation and remain with their families.

During the same court session, the case of a 9-year-old diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome was postponed because he was scheduled for a hearing two weeks later on other pending charges. The charges against the boy were not mentioned during the proceedings.

"It's difficult to find a place that will take him," a caseworker told McDowell. The boy had behavioral issues, was removed from school twice in a month and was in the care of a temporary custodian because of a "history of physical abuse" at home, she said.

"He would not do well in detention," said Hutchison, who noted the boy had eight psychiatric hospitalizations. "We have to have a long-term placement."

"There wasn't nobody being abused," the boy's father told McDowell. The father said he disciplined the boy because "he was acting out."

McDowell questioned why the Department of Social Services would have removed the boy from the home if there were not credible allegations of abuse.

"He told some stories," the father said.

McDowell placed the boy in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Services for placement in foster care.

A high school athlete came before the judge and made an admission to an amended charge of theft under $1,000 for stealing a duffel bag from the YMCA. In exchange, other cases against him were dismissed.

The teenager was in detention and McDowell delayed his disposition — the juvenile equivalent of sentencing — for a few weeks. His stepfather and stepmother were present, but they were unwilling to take him back into their house.

The boy's biological father also was present, but a court official said later that the man lived in another state and had no fixed address.

"You seem like a polite and intelligent young man," McDowell told the teenager. He asked what caused him to start getting in trouble.

"Life started to go downhill," the boy answered.

A week later, a teenager charged as an adult was in Circuit Court for a reverse waiver hearing, a legal proceeding to have a case moved to juvenile court.

An evidentiary hearing was held earlier before Judge Donald E. Beachley on assault and handgun charges against the 16-year-old Hagerstown boy.

Beachley had to consider five factors in determining whether the youth would be transferred to the juvenile system or remain in the adult justice system — age, physical development, mental development, amenability to treatment within the juvenile system and public safety.

In this case, which involved allegations of assault and use of a handgun, Beachley ruled that the case would remain in adult court.

On another morning, Beachley was dealing with three young burglars, ages 12, 9 and 8. The youngest had difficulty understanding his attorney's explanation of what it meant to have his case placed on the inactive docket, which meant the charge would go away in time if he stayed out of trouble.

The boys were in court because they had broken into a woman's apartment, stole food and games, and broken a television.

They were ordered to pay restitution to the woman in excess of $1,600, with each of the three to pay his fair share. In reality, it is the parents who must pay.

"As a parent, you can be held responsible for restitution up to $10,000," Beachley told the parents.

"Typically, parents are not responsible for their children's criminal acts, but there's an exception by statute" for restitution, Beachley later explained.

Another 12-year-old, big for his age, was before Beachley because he had been accused of three assaults — one against a police officer. He made an admission to one assault in exchange for the others being put on inactive status.

Beachley placed the boy, who had no previous run-ins with the law, on probation with a curfew, and ordered him to go through anger management counseling, to attend school and to pay restitution for one victim's dentist bill incurred as a result of the assault.

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Coming Monday

The 24 rooms at the Western Maryland Children's Center are private, but spartan — a bed, sink, toilet and a clothes rack mounted on tan cinderblock walls, the view of the outside world from the quarters limited to a slit window just a few inches wide.

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