“I think it’s important to give these kids a chance,” said Smith, a retired nurse.
They are essentially good children who made a bad decision, she said.
On Wednesday, Smith accepted a 13-year-old boy as the newest Youth Aid Panel child under her supervision. He punched a classmate in the stomach in retaliation to a girl’s claim the boy had hit her.
“He’s not a bad kid. That’s why it hurts me to be here,” the boy’s mother said.
Magisterial District Judges Pentz and Kelly Rock use their discretion when referring cases as possible candidates for the program, according to Heather Evans from Franklin County’s juvenile probation department.
“Almost everything (the panel) gets is a citation-level offense,” Evans said.
Evans said she receives the file, talks to the child and parents about scheduling, and mails introduction materials. The Youth Aid Panel typically handles two or three new cases on the nights it meets.
Panelists ask a child, who must admit guilt, about his or her friends and activities in hopes of building the child’s strengths.
“They really take a holistic approach to the situation. ... They try to get an overall picture,” Evans said.
The case can be sent back to the judge at any time, Evans said.
For example, a child interested in drawing might be asked to create a poster, or one who enjoys poetry might be asked to write, Evans said.
Panelists “have a lot more freedom than ‘the system,’ per se, because they’re a diversion program,” she said.
The middle-schooler under Smith’s supervision will write a letter apologizing to the school and an essay on how he could have handled the situation better. He will also log 10 hours of chores completed for his family.
Evans and Pentz said the late Larry Meminger, a magisterial district judge, championed forming Youth Aid Panels in Franklin County about eight years ago. The program quickly expanded from the Chambersburg, Pa., area into other communities, but now, only the Waynesboro program remains active.
A juvenile’s record cannot be expunged without petitioning a judge, Evans said. The record can receive a notation about completing a rehabilitative program, she said.
Smith said she fondly remembers improvements made with one boy who has learning disabilities. He was bullied and hit someone in retaliation.
Smith made arrangements for the boy to take horseback riding lessons, which helped make the child more communicative and cheerful.
“It gave him the chance to do something he really, really liked, and it changed him,” she said.
The Youth Aid Panel has worked with children from grades three to 12, Smith said.
“You feel like you’re doing something to help,” she said.