Despite the free time many children and teenagers have during COVID-19 shutdown, the number of juveniles arrested, held in detention and referred to a regional juvenile review board has dropped during the pandemic.
“In a lot of places, they just haven’t gotten a lot of referrals,” said Erica Bromley, the juvenile justice liaison for Connecticut Youth Services Association. “It could be for a couple of reasons. I do know in a couple of communities, police are now doing their best to do mediation on spot rather than just arresting the child. Why isn’t that done all the time is a good question, the answer to that is that now they have more time on their hands.”
Bromley said that although she wished police would always prioritize mediation, the pandemic has given them, as well as juvenile review boards, time to reflect on what she believes should be a focus of their work with youth: restorative justice.
“Police are trying to divert them elsewhere. For the kids that they are sending to court, summons dates are fairly far in the future. From the point of view of the police officer, do they really want to send this kid to court in 6 weeks? What are they going to getting out of it,” Bromley said.
Over the last decade, towns across the state have implemented juvenile review boards to offer first offenders or children with non-felony charges an alternative to court. In Lyme and Old Lyme, prior to 2011, when a juvenile was arrested they were sent to court. It didn’t matter if the offense was truancy, shoplifting or a felony, they went to court.
In 2011, with the help of a $4,000 grant from the state, Mary Seidner launched the Lymes Juvenile Review Board. East Lyme and Salem joined in 2012.
The purpose of these boards was to divert children away from detention centers and to help children and families address the root causes of the child’s actions, whether an unstable home life or underlying mental health concerns.
Often a case plan developed by a juvenile review board still imposes a punishment, including hours of required community service.
“It’s a restorative route, we don’t need to be doing straight community service,” Bromley said.
With the closure of most venues for community service, many juvenile review boards have started to alter and adjust these cases and their practices.
“This time is allowing for larger scale change and helping us round the corner from things that are still like punishment,” Bromley said.
Some juveniles currently in the diversion program are substituting their community service with a research report presented via video to the juvenile review board. Other juveniles are taking on virtual tutoring instead of in-school academic support or being granted extensions to allow them more time to finish their service projects.
“Nobody wants these kids to fail and not complete their recommendations,” Bromley said. “We want them to succeed, learn, get something out of it.”
Although the pandemic has helped the diversion program refocus their mission, a survey Bromley sent to all juvenile review boards in the state in April showed that there is also a lot of concern that some children and families are not having their needs met during the extended isolation.
We are “concerned about youth in families where there were struggles prior to stay-at-home orders and how those families are faring without the benefit of any face-to-face contact with support and the change from support to none,” one juvenile review board commented on the survey.
Other respondents expressed concern about juveniles who were came into the diversion program during this time.
“Lack of face-to-face contact is my biggest concern. Despite video-conferencing being better than phone calls, we haven’t established real relationships with the newer cases so I foresee challenges doing a video call panel. It’s still impersonal and sort of lacks the restorative/accountability aspect,” another juvenile review board wrote.
Although most juvenile review boards have found ways to keep in touch with current cases, many, including Lymes’, have been unable or unwilling to intake new cases because of these concerns.
“My concern is the number of cases that will surely be diverted back to the local JRB once the climate changes. We would be completely overwhelmed with cases if that happened with only one staff member to handle the current log and influx of cases diverted from juvenile court,” one respondent wrote.
According to Bromley, since the survey results were collected most juvenile review boards with pending cases have started the intake process remotely. They are continuing with remote therapy, tutoring services and connections to family support services.
It is possible there will be a backlog, but, “kids aren’t out and about as much, there are no school referrals and juvenile courts aren’t seeing anyone except high level cases,” so it is unlikely to overwhelm a community as the state slowly begins to open up this week.