In Richland County Family Court, judges handle all truancy cases on Tuesday afternoons. So one Tuesday afternoon, a girl we will call “Jane” found herself among a group of 10 children standing before a family court judge. The judge lectured Jane and the other children about the importance of staying in school.
What the judge did not know was that Jane had already experienced more pain and challenges in her young life than many of us experience in a lifetime.
The state placed Jane in foster care when she was a young child. After she was raped in her foster home, Jane suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress. After she returned to her mom’s care, Jane did better but sometimes missed school because of her mental and physical issues (she has chronic asthma and other health problems).
Jane’s court order stated that she “must attend school regularly, having NO unexcused absences without a doctor’s excuse, class cuts, tardies, suspensions, or discipline referrals.” But when Jane became sick again, her mother was unable to take time off work to take her to the doctor.
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So Jane had to go back to court. This time the judge sent her to the Midlands Evaluation Center, a prison-like facility in Columbia.
A new report from the S.C. Children’s Law Center reveals that Jane’s story is not unique: Richland is among a handful of counties that incarcerate a large number of children for “status offenses” — truancy, running away from home and other behaviors that violate the law only because the person committing them is a minor.
A majority of status offenders sent to Department of Juvenile Justice facilities come from just three counties: Richland, Lexington and Horry. Like Jane, 61 percent were there for truancy violations. Two-thirds of all children incarcerated for status offenses are girls. These children are sometimes placed in environments that closely resemble an adult prison: They enter these facilities in handcuffs and leg irons. They wear prison jumpsuits and live in cellblocks. Assaults and violence are commonplace.
Judges sometime send children to these institutions in an attempt to teach kids a lesson or “scare them straight” — into staying in school or listening to their parents. However, this approach does more harm than good. Incarcerating children — even for very short periods — increases the likelihood that they will have further involvement in the juvenile justice and adult prison systems.
Not surprisingly, Jane’s life has been on a downward spiral since she was incarcerated. For children who have experienced trauma, the brutal conditions of these facilities often re-traumatize them. Moreover, incarceration disrupts their education and reduces the likelihood that they will return to school after their release.
Instead of sending children to secure-evaluations centers, judges have the option to order a community evaluation, in which a psychologist comes to the home and conducts a complete assessment of the child and family’s needs. Community evaluations cost a lot less than a facility evaluation, which costs $154 a day per child. The extent to which judges use secure-evaluation centers varies widely by county. In 2013-2014, judges in Richland ordered facility evaluations in 74 percent of all juvenile cases; statewide the average is 57 percent.
The Children’s Law Center report recommends that community evaluations should be the standard for all cases and that judges should order secure-facility evaluations only in extremely rare cases.
The report also recommends that South Carolina and communities such as Richland invest in community programs such as family-based services. These programs can reduce the incarceration of children for status offenses by working directly with families to address the underlying problems that cause a child to act out, skip school or run away from home.
We owe it to children like Jane to find a better way.
Mr. Gilchrist is chairman of the S.C. African American Chamber of Commerce and a volunteer guardian ad litem; Ms. Middleton is executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina. Contact them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.