Merlene Davis: Forum on juvenile offenders is important step

Kentucky is one of only two states in the union that incarcerate juveniles for offenses that would be overlooked were they adults.

When juveniles are truant, runaways or incorrigible, they need our attention. They need help. Putting them behind bars can only make things worse.

A group of people, representing organizations that are concerned with the treatment of some of Kentucky's children, will gather Monday at Imani Baptist Church, 1555 Georgetown Road, not only to highlight repercussions but also means of avoiding the pitfalls that await our youth.

Ministers who see this problem cropping up in their churches should be there.

Parents who believe detention is the only resource available to help their child should be there.

Police officers, social workers, public officials, teachers, school administrators and neighbors should be there.

Our children need each and every one of us.

State Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, plans to attend. Although she is sponsoring a bill that would curb the number of juveniles jailed for non-criminal offenses, she said, she will be there to observe and to listen.

"Only two states continue to incarcerate kids for non-criminal offenses," she said. "We are second in the nation. The other state is Oregon, and it is in the process of making it illegal."

The importance of the "Children and Youth at Risk of Removal and Detention" community forum is to give parents and advocates information about alternatives and to let them know what their rights are, Flood said.

Parents especially will be able to share their stories, voice their concerns and meet folks who can and want to help.

Representatives from the Race, Community and Child Welfare Initiative in Fayette County; Partners for Youth; the Children's Law Center; and the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice will discuss the rights of juveniles in our public schools and the justice system, and the rights of families who must interact with the child welfare system.

Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto, litigation director for the Children's Law Center, said studies have shown that jailing children for non-criminal behavior can aggravate the problem and create a pathway to criminal activity. "The children are in need of services," she said. "They belong in the Department of Community Based Services and not treated like mini-criminals."

DiLoreto said she will be at the forum to let parents know the center will represent for free children who are having difficulty navigating the child welfare system, or if removal from their families is a possibility, or if they believe they are being treated unfairly in the public school system.

"We want to share with those who are most impacted," she said.

A disproportionate number of African-American and minority children are detained or placed in foster care, said Marion Gibson, co-chair of the Race, Community and Welfare Initiative locally. Some of that inequity is due to unintentional bias, she said.

"We think we are doing the right thing, but African-Americans and whites have those biases," Gibson said.

We have a picture in our minds of how "smart" looks or what "beauty" is, and what "right" looks like, she said.

And while several organizations have been discussing how to be more aware of those biases, and how to change our way of thinking, Gibson said, the components missing from that discussion are parents. "We're making decisions about families and we need the input of families."

When parents leave the forum Monday, she said, "they will be prepared to be at the table to defend their children."

Parents will also learn of alternatives to detention. So when some become so frustrated with their child's behavior that they think detention is the only viable solution, they will leave Monday with an array of resources, said Larry Johnson of Partners for Youth.

Locking them up, he said, "only makes the child tougher. Their mind-set changes and they gain status from being in jail. Then, they are more likely to re-offend."

No one is saying don't lock up criminals, he said. "Disproportionality is not wrong if the right kids are locked up, kids who are threats to public safety," Johnson said. "But the commission of a status offense does not make the public less safe."