The transformation of the teenage girl can be traced in pictures.
The sandy-haired pre-teen, thrilled to be a big sister, had morphed into a troubled 16-year-old with face piercings, her hair streaked fire-engine red and black.
She began running away. She was drinking. She wouldn’t go to school. Her mother eventually called police.
And since then, she has been sitting behind bars. In Georgia, truants, curfew violators and runaways can be punished with what is effectively prison time: confinement in one of the state’s juvenile facilities. It’s a practice the General Assembly decided to outlaw this year. But the ban on sending low-level juvenile offenders to a lock-up doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1.
So in the meantime, teens like M.H. (her name is being withheld to protect her identity because she’s a juvenile) are serving time for incorrigible behavior that hurt no one but themselves. M.H. spent every day of what would have been her senior year of high school locked in isolation at the Macon Youth Development Campus, a prison for teenagers.
“It’s just nuts to me,” said Steve Reba, the juvenile’s attorney. “This offense doesn’t warrant detention.”
M.H. defied her mother even after her mother warned her that she would call the authorities if the girl continued to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night. Her record also included some misdemeanor charges for possession of tobacco or alcohol by a minor, but nothing to suggest she was endangering anyone but herself, according Reba.
There were other red flags. The family of three — M.H., her mother Cheryl White and her young brother — moved often and had come to the attention of social services. Those details are not public and White would not discuss them.
At the time she was locked up, M.H. was on court-ordered probation for two years and under the supervision of the Department of Juvenile Justice. According to Reba, her detention in the YDC is considered a “placement,” the term used for assigning juveniles to foster care or a residential facility for delinquents.
“I don’t think DJJ has the authority to detain a child, on a two-year commitment, without going back before the court,” Reba said.
If this was 2014 and M.H.’s issues were before a juvenile court judge, she would be assigned to community-based programs — not to DJJ and locked up with girls who are potentially dangerous — where experts could focus on reasons for her struggles and how to help her.
On Jan. 1 when reforms to the juvenile code take effect, the state will not be allowed to detain for more than 24 hours teenagers like M.H., those who commit tobacco or alcohol possession misdemeanors or who are runaways, truants or unruly.
Under the new guidelines, local programs will provide individual and family therapy or drug and alcohol abuse treatment. Juveniles will also be sent to non-secure residential facilities for more intensive care.
According to DJJ, there are few juveniles in their secure facilities for “status offenses” such as running away or truancy. On one randomly picked day, DJJ reported having five runaways, including three from other states. Spokesman Jim Shuler said the average stay for a status offender is less than 10 days.
M.H. was apparently not one those five but Shuler declined to explain her status because of privacy issues.
“All these laws that are going to be changing aren’t going to help us,” said White, M.H.’s. mother. “I should never have asked the juvenile court system for help. When she started sneaking out, I should have kept my mouth shut.”
At a Tuesday hearing in Macon to argue whether M.H.’s detention is legal, the judge wouldn’t rule and instead asked the lawyers to filed more briefs on the issue.
The DJJ has said M.H. could be released as soon as Oct. 28 or as late as the end of February, a year after she was first locked up.
Under the sweeping reforms adopted by the 2013 Legislature, juveniles like M.H. will never be locked up longer than 24 hours.
“We’re dealing with families much like this girl, who is frustrating the heck out of us,” said Clayton County Chief Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske, who is on the DJJ governing board as well as on the commission that drafted the reforms. “The whole reform is around addressing entire families. I can’t predict that the new system is going to change her. I am saying the new system will increase the odds that positive change will come to her.”
M.H. was picked up Feb. 28 after postings on Facebook reported that she was planning to run away again, a violation of her probation, according to White, a single mother. That could not be confirmed; juvenile court records are not public. DJJ declined to discuss the girl’s case, citing laws that keep such details sealed.
“The probation officer was mad at me.” White said. “She said, ‘Ms. White, I think you’re doing the wrong thing.’ … She asked the judge to transfer my daughter to DJJ because (she felt) I was not doing what I was supposed to do with my daughter.”
Eventually M.H. was transferred from the Cobb Regional Youth Detention Center, a temporary lock-up, to the long-term secure facility in Macon. She is being kept in isolation because, according to Reba, her attorney, “She’s being treated incredibly poorly by other residents.”
Because of some of those incidents, Reba said, DJJ has said it was probable M.H. will remain locked up until next year.
While White blames the court system and DJJ for for her daughter’s situation, letters from DJJ place the responsibility on the mother. DJJ deputy commissioner Carl Brown, in a letter dated June 23, asserted White created a problem when she refused intensive family therapy.
“That’s a lie,” White said. “It was all about me not having child care (for her 3-year-old son).”
Brown also wrote that White resisted “several residential treatment options” for her daughter.
“Moreover [M.H.] would not comply with treatment and DJJ had difficulty locating suitable placements because of [her] high-end needs,” Brown wrote. He concluded DJJ had no other “rehabilitative efforts in the community.”
According to White, her daughter’s troubles started when she was 14.
“She was sneaking out of the house for quite some time before I found out,” White said. “She wanted to go and hang out with her friends. … Sometimes she would be in contact with me and sometimes she would just let me worry. She would be gone as long as two or three days and then she would finally call me and say, ‘Mama, would you come get me?’”
In January, White promised to call her probation officer if M.H. left the house. But soon White found herself running down the road, chasing a car that had just picked up her daughter.
“So I just told the probation officer she went off without permission,” White said.
M.H. has not been home since.
How we got the story
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been covering the juvenile justice system extensively, as well as the reforms that are to take place in the next few months. For this story, we identified a teenager who is locked up now but would not have been if she had come before a juvenile court judge after Jan. 1. Her situation illustrates the complexity of the issue of juvenile justice and the damage that can be done to teenagers who are a danger to no one but themselves and yet are still jailed under the present system.
New year, new approach
The Georgia General Assembly passed reforms to the state’s system of juvenile justice that seeks to reserve confinement mainly for violent juveniles. What the reforms would do:
- Bed space in secure state facilities will be reserved mainly for dangerous juvenile offenders.
- Juveniles who commit nonviolent crimes will be diverted to community-based programs such as home confinement.
- Status offenders, such as truants and runaways, would be sent to counseling to address the cause of their problems, which could be linked to drug or alcohol abuse, bad parenting or emotional or psychological issues.