ONE COULD THINK of a juvenile's stay at the state's Cheltenham Youth Facility as a kid alternative to bail. Ideally, a child who otherwise might not report to court as scheduled is taken to the facility, spends the night, then is taken back to court for his hearing the next day.
Ideally, if the judge or court master finds him to be delinquent, he is assigned a placement - a group home, a treatment center - and a suitable program slot is open. He spends that night in his new situation, on his way to his state-promised shot at counseling, rehabilitation and timely return to his home, school and community.
Of course, it's not an ideal world, and despite the efforts of court and service workers, many juveniles are returned to the facility and stay much, much longer than overnight. In May, for example, 28 Cheltenham residents had been there at least 60 days, nine had been there more than 100 days, four more than 200 days.
For some five dozen of the 180 or so juveniles now there, the stay at Cheltenham is a term in limbo. It's hard to plan school projects, work on earning points for rewards they may or may not enjoy or contemplate a path to a future out of state custody. It's more a daily "Are we there yet?"
These are the "pending placement" kids, those who are already assigned to a service or home but somehow haven't gotten there yet. Often the placements are full, and they wait for another child to get better and move on before they can start. Some are hard to place because they are older, have a history of leaving facilities or have dual troubles, such as those needing treatment for both psychological troubles and drug addiction. A mental treatment center may say, "Wait, treat the drug trouble first, then we'll take him," while a drug treatment center may say the state should treat the psychological first. Meanwhile, the ward is getting little help at all, stretching his patience and Cheltenham's resources.
Sitting and waiting is a lot to ask of juveniles, especially those whose problems are crying out for help. It's hard to believe that some behavioral or emotional backsliding isn't happening as they go through the motions of the day, wondering if this is the last one. It's easy to believe that they feel abandoned by the system, made to promise that they will behave while their state caretakers don't keep up their end.
Cheltenham brass started a confinement review team about three months ago, and set it on the cases of kids who have been there the longest. The team has found such holdups as papers not filed and treatment centers turning down too-troubled kids, and it already has had some success in placing kids.
There shouldn't be a need for such firemen, but they are a welcome stopgap as the Juvenile Services Department, the circuit courts and cities and counties work to reform the state's stuttering juvenile justice system.
Fixing the system is a priority, but fixing the kids is paramount.