The number of children committed to the Youth Services Division has increased two years in a row, in part because some judges jail youths who commit status offenses or misdemeanors, division Director Marcus Devine told lawmakers on Monday.
"We, as a state, have embarked down this path of juvenile-justice reform, and I will be back to you, to this committee, to the Legislature generally, to get us to move forward to limit the number of kids that come to us," he said. "We think we should have youth in our system that are felony youth, youth that have committed violent acts. Those youth should be in our system."
A December Arkansas Democrat-Gazette investigation found that hundreds of truants, runaways and the hard-to-control end up in the same juvenile-offender lockups as youths who have raped, robbed or murdered.
Committing those who commit status offenses or misdemeanors doesn't make sense when the division spends about $68,000 per child per year, he said. About half of the 526 youths committed in fiscal 2015 fall under those offenses, according to the division's annual report.
"This is the most intense and expensive type of service that we provide, and I think it is well worth mentioning that we think that the right youth should be in our system, and, by extension, not the wrong youth," he told the Senate Committee on Children and Youth. "We think that lower-intensity, less-high-risk youth that may have committed some offense that is not significant should not be in our system."
Despite research indicating that jailing these status offenders does more harm than good, a number of Arkansas judges continue to funnel them into juvenile-detention centers, where they can stay for a few days or as long as three months.
Status-offense cases, known in court as Family in Need of Services proceedings, can be filed for children of any age. Most of them are teenagers, but some have been as young as 8 or 9, booking records show.
"Part of the reason for the increase in commitments is because of a few parts of the state where maybe judges don't feel they have a lot of options to deal with youth that come into the system," Devine said. "With that lack of options, they commit them" to the Youth Services Division.
In 2014, for example, 11th Judicial Circuit-West Judge Earnest Brown detained status offenders nearly 200 times.
The threat of lockup for violating a judge's orders holds adults and children accountable. It teaches them to respect the law, Brown said in the December article.
"If you put a court order in place and your court order has no teeth to it, then you spin your wheels," the Pine Bluff judge said.
Devine said the state needs to improve alternative services.
"If we're going to take away the ability to send these youth to us, we want to make sure we have better options for services provided," he said.
Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, chairman of the Senate Committee on Children and Youth, said, "This is getting to be really ridiculous, and it affects your communities -- it affects my community."
"You're not talking about a crime," she said.
Earlier in the meeting, lawmakers reviewed the Arkansas Infant and Child Death Review Program's annual report.
"It's a daunting task. It's an emotional task," said Pamela Tabor, director of the program.
The program, housed at the Injury Prevention Center at Arkansas Children's Hospital, examines non-natural deaths among children in Arkansas.
Of the 77 cases reviewed in 2015, children ages 1-17 were most likely to die from occurrences involving motor vehicles or other transportation -- about 34 percent of the deaths for that age group.
Death by weapons or through drowning each accounted for 15 percent of deaths for that age group. The report notes that suicide accounts for 20 percent of deaths for the age group. About 55 percent of suicides involved a gun, and other methods were used for the remainder.
For children less than a year old, what is known as sudden unexpected infant death accounted for 84 percent of deaths within the sample. Asphyxia accounted for 12 percent of deaths.
Of the infants who died from sudden unexpected infant death, 62 percent had an unsafe sleep environment and co-sleeping was a contributing factor in 47 percent of reviewed cases.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says babies should sleep on their backs on a firm surface; parents should not sleep in the same bed as their babies.
The program said it does not yet know how many pediatric deaths occurred in 2015. From 2010-14, 2,255 children died in Arkansas.
Tabor said medical examiners tend to rule explainable deaths as undetermined. To them, undetermined means "there is not a preponderance of one certain thing that they could sit and court and swear under oath was the only possibility. Your sleep environment deaths -- they are all going to be called right now undetermined. Other states will call them asphyxia," she said.
The Arkansas Infant and Child Death Review Program reviews death certificates, autopsies and other documents to better explain the deaths, Tabor said.
Infant death cases -- which are supposed to be investigated by the state Crime Laboratory if they are deemed unnatural -- are not always filed with the state.
"We did a review the other day -- there was no coroner report, the hospital report was one page, no ambulance run sheets, nothing," Tabor said. "Nothing to review."
Metro on 03/08/2016