When the Police Are Called on Your Child: Our Introduction to the Juvenile Justice System

March 26, 2012 by

“Welcome to the Juvenile Justice System. We will do our best to ensure you have a pleasant visit so that you will return again and again!” This is what I believe the guide I read recently for parents to acquaint themselves with the Juvenile Justice System SHOULD say. Why am I reading about the DJS, you ask?

A short time ago I wrote a blog about my twelve-year-old stepson who steals. He moved in with his dad and me at the age of nine. At that time he was stealing, lying and destroying property. His mother was at her wit’s end and was unable to meet the demands of caring for him. He was going to therapy weekly, seeing a psychiatrist, and there were frequent meetings at school.

When we took him in we were very excited. We were sure we could provide the structure and consistency and love that he needed. We have actually seen some progress. He used to hoard food and that has stopped. There is definitely a difference between hoarding food and stealing food. The hoarding was bringing anything to his room and hiding it — cheese sticks, juice boxes, cookies, etc… He has always “stolen” food, meaning he will eat ice cream that he knows his brother’s girlfriend bought, or eat the donuts we were going to take to work the next morning.

We saw stealing at home — he’d take his brother’s cell phone or game boy. If he was angry he’d get revenge on the person he was mad at. When he had a time-out on the steps, he’d sneak a pair of scissors in his pocket and poke holes in the wall of the stairway and pull out the carpet strand by strand. Sometimes there would be no apparent reason for damage — he’d be watching TV in the basement and rip every button off of the couch and chairs. We provided consequences, found a new therapist with more of a background in Reactive Attachment Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and communicated with the school. Sadly he has few friends, although he is able to “blend” so the school seems to see a polite, social child.

Although we have been doing everything the doctors are telling us, we still feel like we are watching a train wreck. We felt we could see where he was heading and nothing we were doing was stopping it.

Last Saturday evening a police officer came to our door asking if my stepson lived here. The officer had our child’s first name and was going door-to-door looking for him. Apparently my stepson had taken a walk earlier in the morning and introduced himself to some new children who were just moving in. Later that morning the police were called and proceeded to take 6 (SIX!!) reports of cars being ‘keyed.’ The officer asked if our son was outside at that time and what he was wearing. With his past history, our hearts sank. WE KNEW. We told the officer to go ahead and question the boy — hopefully it would scare him! This boy looked directly into the eyes of the policeman and denied it. (I probably would have wet my pants at that age, being questioned by a police officer.)

Apparently one of the homes has surveillance cameras and caught him on both sides of their car. The image wasn’t clear, but again, WE KNEW. Even though it was black-n-white, I could tell what he had on. When asked if he wore that outfit earlier in the day, he said, “I don’t believe so,” which is standard for him — totally non-committal.  I showed the officer the clothes on the bedroom floor and coincidentally they looked eerily similar to those in the photo. The officer talked to him about honesty and laying his head down on his pillow that night knowing if he told the truth or not.

The officer called later, after checking with his supervisor to see if they had enough “evidence” to charge him. He was switching shifts and told us he’d be back on Tuesday and we should bring him to the station to fill out the charging papers then. He thanked us. I guess most parents do not allow their kids to be questioned. We were very cooperative. We will support him however we can, but maybe this is what he needs to scare him enough so he does not enter a world of crime!

The next day our darling boy confessed. He was angry at us because he’d been grounded to his room for fighting at school last week. So, let’s take out that anger on complete strangers? We had always been his victims in the past, but now he has moved to the real world. We told him we could no longer provide the consequences and that it was out of our hands. When Tuesday rolled around, we called to see what time we should bring him in. My husband had another appointment that day also, and was willing to still bring him in, but the officer said since he confessed, there was not the same sense of “urgency.” He was going to be on vacation, so told us we can bring him in two weeks from now. I am not clear what will happen next exactly, but he will give his statement and have charges filed. I do not know if this involves fingerprinting or a mug shot. Since we told him he would be going in that day and he didn’t, we were worried he would feel he “got off easily.” We told him that he is on house arrest and has been placed on the “docket” for the date in 2 weeks. We felt we had to take matters into our own hands because he has been “threatened” with arrest by us a million times and here he actually commits a crime and nothing happens!

From what I am told, he will probably get nothing for this first offense. We want him to be held accountable and learn that his actions have serious consequences so he doesn’t continue this behavior. We are hoping this involves some community service and other consequences for making amends.

And of course we feel terrible for these people whose cars have been damaged. He took a rock and scratched them from panel to panel. We drove by to see. We are unclear about restitution on our part at this time, but obviously we want to do something. I can only imagine the cost to these people as well as how we will be able to afford to help fix 6 (SIX!!) cars!!

The psychiatrist and therapist say this is due to the trauma my stepson experienced as a young child and we are doing everything we should be doing, but it is up to him to make changes. He will have to deal with the consequences his whole life — he cannot just say, “Oh, I had a traumatic childhood…” as an excuse.

I’d love to hear anyone’s experiences with the Juvenile Justice System.

Editor’s Note: Children who exhibit signs of Reactive Attachment Disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder need a comprehensive psychiatric assessment and an individualized treatment plan. Because of that, if your child has either RAD or PTSD, we recommend that you work closely with a local counselor or therapist to coordinate your approach to challenging behaviors such as those Emmie has described here. Close and ongoing collaboration between your family and the treatment team will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.

Emmie is the mom of two boys, ages 15 and 21, both with ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. She is remarried and her husband also has two boys, ages 12 and 14.

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