12 Investigates: Woman claims juvenile system failed her son

12 Investigates: Woman claims juvenile system failed her son

CADDO PARISH, LA (KSLA) - A Caddo Parish woman claims the juvenile justice system never followed through with consequences for her son, which resulted in him committing more serious crimes.

The mother, who asked that her identity not be released, said her son had mental and behavioral issues that started with fights at school when he was 11 years old and escalated from there.

He got counseling and ended up in Caddo Juvenile Court, where he was told he would be going to the juvenile jail for 30 days, she recalled.

But the boy's mother says that sentence never was carried out.

"They'd send him and, for whatever reason, they always, always - from we're under construction, to we're full to this - to that, whatever. They always had a reason for why they never ever, ever kept him more than 24 hours with the exception of maybe one time. One or maybe three times in the span of about seven years."

The lack of follow-through taught her son a negative message, she claims.

"They don't do what they tell that kid they're going to do, so the kid learns like my son did. 'Yeah, I'll be out in 24 hours, I don't care.' And he does what he wants."

Caddo School District offers a conflict resolution program in which students involved in fights attend a workshop to learn how to work out their problems.

When asked if she thought her son would benefit from that, the mother replied: "They need an immediate action, an immediate response, or something to put them in immediately. And then if they get to the point where that's not working and the behavior's continuing, and that judge and that P.O. says I'm going to do this if you do that, then they need to do it."

The conflict resolution and school fight diversion program put on by Volunteers for Youth Justice started in the 2005-06 school year.

It helps about 400 to 500 students a year who otherwise could have been arrested.

"I don't mean to downplay a fight. But if that's all it is and that's all that's going on with those kids, I don't need to use a detention cell. Jail is not appropriate" said Clay Walker, director of Caddo Juvenile Services. "There still needs to be consequences, but jail is really too heavy-handed.

"We want to save as many kids as we can from going down that path. It's better from them; it's better for their families, it's better for their future," he continued.

"But it's better for our community to have fewer kids graduate from the juvenile justice system to the criminal justice system as adults."

One of the biggest benefits to the conflict resolution program is that it takes place shortly after the fight, said Shonda Houston-Dotie, youth programs director for Volunteers for Youth Justice.

"They can come within one to three days during their suspension time, get it taken care of and return back to school. And they're not missing instruction."

The court system, on the other hand, can take weeks or even months.

The conflict resolution program teaches students how they could have resolved their issues without fighting.

"So what we do is offer them a way to talk it out, away from the peers who may have helped to instigate the fight. And they're actually here to discuss what could have been done differently in that situation."

During the 2015-16 academic year, Houston-Dotie said, the attendance rate was 79.9 percent. That's 473 of the 592 students who were referred to the program.

Of those who attended, Houston-Dotie said, only 10 percent of them got into another fight that school year.

"By going through our program, they have an opportunity to right that wrong and return back to school and finish any remaining days in in-school suspension. If they were arrested, that charge could be dismissed."

The program teaches life skills that hopefully can prevent future problems, Houston-Dotie said.

"Sometimes fights are the gateway to more serious offenses. And I think by going through this program, it keeps them from going into more serious offenses later."

That's an opportunity the mother at the beginning of this story said her son never got.

He was in school after the conflict resolution program started but never was referred to it, she said.

Eventually, the woman continued, he aged out of the juvenile system and committed a serious crime that landed him behind bars for more than a decade.

"What he's in jail for now is irrelevant. But Juvenile Court played a major role in allowing his behavior to escalate to the point that he committed the crime that he did."

She said her son struggled with mental issues. She found a facility for him in San Marcos, Texas, but needed a court order to get him there.

Judge Paul Young said there wasn't enough evidence to prove her son needed treatment for a mental illness, court records show.

Young and Walker said they can't legally talk about a specific child.

But Walker said it is within the judge's authority to decide placement based on each child's need. A child can have mental health problems but not be in need of a facility like the one in San Marcos.

"Why should a juvenile justice (court) in Shreveport have look at a mental health facility in San Marcos, Texas?" the judge asked, saying there need to be more mental health facilities for Louisiana children.

In most cases, Walker added, they use tools like interviews and questionnaires to find out what underlying problems teens have and try to treat them.

"Getting treatment for mental health problems, getting treatment for trauma, getting treatment for drug use. All of that is just to get kids back on the right track."

Of all the teens who went to the Juvenile Justice Center in 2016, Walker said, about 19 percent them committed another crime.

Not all people who go through the system go through the jail, he added, but 25 percent of the ones who did committed another offense.

Walker said they have nearly 150 programs to help teens with specific issues and keep them out of the detention center.

"If all you do is punish them and you don't solve the underlying problem, they'll be back."

The boy's mother said her son is the biggest loser in this situation because he never learned and never was taught.

"He was never held accountable by the court system."

She said she can't say if things would have been different had her her son had more consequences.

As it stands, she'll never know.

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