Bobbie Gross put her own son behind bars. Or at least that's how she sees it.
Bobbie Gross sought help for her 17-year-old son’s drug addiction by filing a Families in Need of Services petition in Independence County circuit court. She thought he would be put in rehab.
Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, is shown in this photo.
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Earnest Brown is shown in this file photo.
Worried about her 17-year-old's drug addiction, Gross went to the courts for help last June. She thought that by filing a petition with a juvenile court judge, her son could get drug treatment and maybe an order to go to rehab, which she believed was what he really needed.
Instead, her petition prompted a chain of events that led to the incarceration of her son Thomas -- who didn't have a previous criminal record -- at the Dermott Juvenile Correctional Facility, a state-run lockup that houses 18- to 20-year-old males, mostly sex offenders and those who commit more serious, often violent, offenses.
The realization of her role in her son's incarceration hit Gross recently as she drove up to the 32-bed facility, about three hours from her Heber Springs home.
"I expected to tour a rehab, what I got was a prison," she said. "We're hardening him, we're preparing him to go to prison. That's exactly what I feel like."
The state's Families in Need of Services program is supposed to be a legal avenue for troubled families to obtain services, such as counseling, health assistance, psychological evaluations, drug treatment and parenting courses.
Any adult can file a Families in Need of Services petition, like the one Gross submitted in Independence County on behalf of her son. The family-services program addresses noncriminal-status offenses, including disobedience, truancy and runaways.
In 2016, Independence County saw 49 new Families in Need of Services cases, a steep drop from previous years. Two years earlier, 126 new such petitions were filed there.
Across the state, circuit judges saw 6,705 Families in Need of Services cases in 2016 and 4,974 cases in 2014, about a 35 percent increase. Between 2012 and 2016, such cases made up about 26 percent of all juvenile cases -- when tallying Families in Need of Services, delinquency and dependency-neglect cases.
Arkansas laws offer little guidance on how the Families in Need of Services program should be used. State statutes refer to Families in Need of Services intermittently throughout a chapter that deals with Juvenile Courts and Proceedings, also known as the Juvenile Code. The code also covers juvenile delinquency and dependency-neglect.
As a result, youth advocates say, the program has become punitive, pushing even children who have committed no serious offenses into the juvenile justice system.
This claim can be backed up only anecdotally, because Arkansas doesn't track how often children in Families in Need of Services cases are later jailed.
But a nearly 2-year-old study found the way the Families in Need of Services program operates is often in "clear violation of civil liberties of both the parent and the child."
The study titled "Unfulfilled Promises: The reality of FINS in Arkansas," was compiled by Disability Rights Arkansas, a nonprofit group that operates under federal authority, and a team from Hendrix College in Conway. It was presented to the Legislature's committees on children and youth in December of 2016.
Since then, there has been little movement on overhauling the program, a recommendation included in the report. Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, says that could change next year.
The nonprofit group is working with lawmakers to piece together legislative recommendations, namely, funding alternatives to jailing youths, that would steer the program back to "what it was intended for," Masseau said.
"It should be a wrap-around for the youth, to give them the services they need," he said. "It's not supposed to turn into a punitive measure. That's how they get in the [juvenile penal] system."
Gross didn't know that she ceded parental control when she filed the Families in Need of Services petition with Independence County Circuit Judge Lee Harrod.
Thomas was assigned a probation officer. He had to wear an electronic monitoring device. There were to be no unexcused tardies and no trouble at school. Gross was ordered to pay $45 every month to cover court and supervision fees.
"Any violation of the orders of this Court may result in the juvenile's and/or parents'/custodians' incarceration," the judge's order reads.
But Thomas was addicted to drugs.
The court-ordered weekly therapy sessions didn't tackle his addiction to prescription pills and marijuana, and they often lasted only about 15 minutes, Gross said.
Thomas went off to party with his friends one weekend, cutting off his ankle monitor before leaving.
And with that, he violated a condition of his probation. The damaged ankle monitor cost more than $2,500, leading to a felony criminal mischief charge.
That's when Thomas was first assigned a lawyer, Gross said.
Under Arkansas law, a child involved in a Families in Need of Services case should get a public defender, but a "general strain of resources" prevents many public defenders from showing up, the "Unfulfilled Promises" report found.
The juvenile code doesn't grant public defenders to parents in Families in Need of Services cases, but the families are allowed to have private attorneys present in the court.
Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, says as a lawyer she's seen how Families in Need of Services proceedings can set up children to fail when they are placed on juvenile probation.
State records show 52 children in 2017 and 43 children the previous year were locked up for violating probation.
The terms of probation, depending on the judge, are often too restrictive and difficult for any teenager to follow, Flowers said.
For instance, children can't skip school, not even once, she said, reciting a client's court order.
They must pass every academic exam, she said. Shirts are to be tucked in at all times. No sagging pants. No earrings. They can be subjected to a $50 drug test at any time, which they or their parents must pay for.
"When they violate any part of this order, they're now criminals," Flowers said.
"And these are just boilerplate conditions," she added. "All they're doing is putting in the child's name and some other specific information. ... These children aren't being served competently.
"This is not something you just boilerplate."
In 2015, Flowers sponsored an unsuccessful bill that would have eliminated the "unwarranted" drug screenings of parents in the Families in Need of Services program.
After Thomas violated his probation, the judge committed him to the state's Division of Youth Services in February, court records show.
The judge recommended that he be sent to Youth Bridge, a Fayetteville-based residential treatment facility that works with young men who have behavioral issues and substance abuse disorders. Youth Bridge is the only state-approved residential substance abuse program in the state.
But an adjudicated child placement is decided by the state Division of Youth Services, not the judge.
Instead of rehab, Thomas went to Independence County's Juvenile Detention Center for nearly 90 days, where he was shackled and wore a jumpsuit like the other teenagers there, Gross said.
He spent another few weeks locked up in Hot Springs, before arriving at Dermott on April 6, she said.
His incarceration "time" didn't start until he got to the Dermott facility.
Unlike sentencing in the adult criminal system, juveniles' sentences are indefinite. The weeks, often months, that a youth spends in county-run juvenile jails before being transported to a state-run treatment center -- as the youth lockups are called -- don't count.
On average, incarcerated Arkansas youths spend seven months at the treatment centers, state records show. In fiscal 2017, Arkansas jailed 451 youths, ages 11-19, down from 526 youths in fiscal 2015.
About 86 percent of them are locked up for nonviolent offenses, according to the Youth Services Division's fiscal 2017 report.
Youths being held too long in the county juvenile jails before going to treatment centers has long been a concern for children's advocates. Confining youths in any setting beyond six months is more harmful to them than doing nothing at all, research shows.
Two years ago, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Earnest Brown challenged how long the Youth Services Division kept kids in detention. In a juvenile case, he ruled three teens committed to the division were to be assessed and assigned to a treatment center within 30 days.
Officials from the Department of Human Services, which oversees the youth agency, objected to the 30-day window and said statutes permitted the agency to transfer youths as it sees fit.
Other research has found using electronic monitoring devices can create conditions that increase kids' chances of being jailed. In a 2017 study, University of California, Berkeley researchers suggested instead of helping with youths' rehabilitation, such monitoring can lead to them being jailed for rule violations, essentially keeping children in the justice system longer.
Masseau said "putting a FINS kid in Dermott is evidence of there not being enough community-based programs" for at-risk youths.
The Youth Services Division's fiscal 2019 budget allotted $27.6 million of its $49 million total to state-run juvenile detention facilities, including the one at Dermott. About $16.9 million of the total budget would fund community services.
During an annual meeting, Yell County Circuit Judge Terry Sullivan told Arkansas Juvenile Officers Association members tight juvenile court funding means there aren't enough community-based programs for kids who end up before judges, meaning judges turn more teens over to state custody.
Sullivan also expressed concern about the lack of drug court programs for Arkansas children.
"Options are limited," he said at the meeting. "Things aren't getting better, as far as how many kids we see, the community services they get."
Days before Gross' first visit to the Dermott lockup, Thomas was jumped by other youths detained there and was rushed to the hospital. When she saw him, his face was puffy and bruised, and the whites of his eyes were red.
Thomas' case manager called Gross on April 22, the night of the fight, and informed her he had been taken to an undisclosed emergency room, Gross wrote in a letter to Bryce Brewer, a Little Rock-based attorney assigned to her son.
Brewer declined to comment about the case because it pertains to a juvenile, he said.
Disability Rights Arkansas inspectors visited the juvenile correctional facility last month and found conditions for the youths there were as dangerous as they had been last year. They sent their findings to the Youth Services Division in a two-page letter on April 24.
Staff members seem "terrified of ... youths and accordingly have no control over them," the letter said.
Disability Rights inspectors also shared concerns over the inability of the Dermott facility's staff to handle the detained teenagers and the reliance on local police to subdue youths after the staff failed to de-escalate disruptions. At times, police officers used chemical irritants, such as pepper spray, to stop youths' fights -- a tactic frowned upon by youth advocates.
Dermott Police Department call logs show between January and April, staff members at the lockup asked officers to help with at least eight incidents, including "riots," youths hitting and physically threatening staff members, and escape attempts. Most of these incidents occurred on weekends.
The staff at the Dermott lockup didn't call police on the day Thomas was assaulted, the logs show.
But a police call log entry dated April 5 says "it's out of control at the camp." Officers refer to the Dermott facility as "the camp."
In her letter to Brewer, Gross also said she filed a complaint on May 1 against a Dermott center worker for allegedly threatening her son.
Marci Manley, spokesman for the Department of Human Services, which oversees the youth agency, said the worker resigned on May 4.
Gross is concerned not only about the apparent lack of safety at the youth jail and the fact her son is housed with older teenagers, but also that her son isn't getting the help he needs.
Thomas has received only three individual drug therapy sessions and two family counseling sessions since he arrived there in April, she said.
Manley said teenagers at the Dermott facility attend daily psycho-educational lessons, and undergo family counseling and group and individual substance abuse therapy at least once or twice a month.
Manley declined to comment on Thomas' case, citing rules that prevent the agency from commenting on specific cases.
"Prior to a youth being taken into ... custody, an initial treatment plan is put together, which involves a variety of stakeholders as part of the team that can and often does include the youth, parents, probation officers [and] ... service coordinators," Manley said. "During that treatment plan meeting, issues are discussed and histories are reviewed that factor into where the most appropriate placement for a youth might be."
The treatment plan looks at a youth's criminal history; flight risk; and social, behavioral, emotional and educational needs, she explained.
The Dermott facility's failure to provide adequate drug treatment and therapy has been cited in past watchdog investigations.
"Youth feel concerned that they are being held without any opportunity to complete the treatment which will lead to their release," read a Disability Rights letter to state officials last year. "Youth feel like they are trapped in a bad situation without any hope."
Youth Services Division staff members say they want to ensure only the most serious young offenders are incarcerated.
"The only kids who should be committed are kids of whom we are afraid," said Adam Baldwin, the agency's system reform manager. "Not ones we're angry with."
Baldwin's comments during a meeting last September were directed to members of both House and Senate committees that deal with youth issues. Legislators questioned the division staff about how the agency would reduce the youth incarceration rate.
"We've built a school-to-prison pipeline," said Flowers, chairman of the Senate Children and Youth Committee. "It's offensive to me, and it ought to be offensive to all of us."
Since the meeting, the Youth Services Division said it will change how it determines where to place juveniles by focusing on results that come from assessments conducted by a court staff, according to an action plan released by the agency in April.
Some juvenile courts already use an assessment tool in which parents and children answer questions about the children's homes and school lives. Assessment results paint a more complete picture of a child, taking into account mental health, family history, drug use and other factors.
Courts in 18 of the state's 75 counties use a preferred assessment known as the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth, also called the SAVRY. Ten additional counties are expected to begin using the assessment by the end of the year.
Gross said she was never asked to complete an assessment.
Independence County -- where her son went to court -- does not use the assessment tool consistently and isn't part of the plan to expand its use this year, according to Arkansas Administrative Office of the Court records.
Rolling out the assessment statewide is just one goal of juvenile justice advocates.
The joint panel of the Arkansas Supreme Court's Commission on Children, Youth and Families and the Youth Justice Reform Board also wants to improve data collection so youths are linked to programs that best meet their needs rather than serving jail time.
Flowers told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette she wasn't able to build enough of a consensus years ago when she spoke with juvenile court judges about changing how the Families in Need of Services program is used.
But Garland County Circuit Judge Wade Naramore thinks that, through the efforts of some juvenile court judges and youth advocates, "Arkansas is ready for reform," including changing its family services program.
Naramore sends staff members who are trained as restorative justice facilitators to meet with school officials so certain children in Families in Need of Services cases and facing other court orders can avoid entering the courtroom. Restorative justice focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders by having them reconcile with victims and their communities.
Naramore said that almost 90 percent of families -- 190 of 213 cases in 2017 -- successfully completed his "early intervention" program and didn't have to go to court for what would have been Families in Need of Services cases.
Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell diverts truancy cases from being prosecuted as Families in Need of Services cases. Instead, families can access services normally offered through the Families in Need of Services program without facing the threat of detention.
"Criminalizing adolescence is a real cause of concern," Naramore said. "There are a lot of FINS cases. We need to ask what we can do to help these kids better than we have been."
NW News on 05/28/2018