Juvenile crime sometimes begins at home

Editor's Note: This is the last in a series on issues related to juvenile crime and rehabilitation.

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   As Juvenile Services Officer II for Carter County Juvenile Court, Samantha Burgner has seen a lot of juveniles who have made their way into the court system. Some won't make it out. They'll end up in lock-down facilities such as Mountain View and Taft, be placed in state custody, or graduate to General Sessions and Criminal Court.
   There are five probation officers affiliated with Carter County Juvenile Court System, including one at Helen Ross McNabb Center, a non-profit mental health agency in Knoxville. The workers have about 400 cases among them.
   In the juvenile court system a first-time offender is known as a status offender.
   "Status offenses are offenses that can only be attributed to a juvenile such as runaway, truancy and unruly/ungovernable. If they're charged with anything beyond that, other than a traffic citation, that's considered a delinquent offense -- vandalism, drinking under age, burglary, theft -- anything that an adult can be charged with is considered a delinquent offense," Burgner said.
   A child must have three felonies against him to be referred to Mountain View or Taft. "Taft is just like a prison. You need to associate yourself with a gang to get by everyday. If you don't affiliate yourself with some kind of gang, you don't have protection from anybody else. It's just like the adult prison system: You get yourself in a gang or you're going to get the crap beat out of you, get raped, whatever.
   "The boys from around here that probably do have a few felonies under their belts and have committed some pretty risky crimes, I've told so many of them: 'You say you're not scared to go to Mountain View; you're not scared to go to Taft,' but then they go down there and they end up with gang-banger kids from Chattanooga and Nashville and Memphis, and they're in a totally different world.
   "They're in a place with kids who have done things they haven't even imagined doing -- kids who have killed people, rapists. I would think it would be a dose of reality for them, but I've seen them come out and in no time, reoffend again," she said.
   In the five years Burgner has been in the juvenile system, there have been many angry children pass through her doors. Not knowing a healthy way to express that anger, it often is manifested in criminal activity, she says.
   "They're trying to get attention, I think, to some degree. Their home lives are not good for whatever reason -- the parents could be alcoholics, the parents could be drug addicts, the parents could be in jail themselves; they could be living with a grandparent because the parents abandoned them.
   "A lot of times, it's a one-parent household because, say, dad took off 10 years ago. A lot of the kids don't like to talk about their feelings, but whether or not they want to admit it, when a parent abandons you, it's going to bring about repercussions. A lot of them have had a death of one parent and they simply do not know how to deal with all of the emotions," she said.
   If Burgner had a wish list, it would be for more counselors and smaller caseloads. "Counseling will work for people if they want it to work. But I think one thing a lot of people don't want to realize is that if the child is going to make changes in his life, the parent has to also. It can't just be the kid doing everything or the parent doing everything. They've both got to work together. If the family is not open to change and not open to the fact that maybe they made mistakes in the past, nothing is going to change."
   Burgner said she works with parents who are cooperative, want advice, and want to do things differently. She also works with those who are not going to change.
   "I guess one of the most frustrating situations that I encounter is a child that really is open to change and wants to do things differently, but the parent isn't going to be cooperative. Or vice versa.
   "We want to work with the parents as much as possible. Some of them will come down here with their child every time I tell them to; they'll be at home when I ask them to. Other ones just don't."
   In home-based, or intensive probation, the parent has to cooperate, said Burgner, who began her career as a home-based counselor. "They have a lot of requirements they have to fulfill. They have parent peer group meetings, they have recreation events. The parent has to be a part of that."
   Basically, it's getting parents involved in their children's lives, whereas before, they might not have been, she said.
   Children who are committed to state custody are there either because of a neglect issue or because they have committed crimes. Many times, they go into custody and end up running, vandalizing or stealing to try to take care of themselves, Burgner said.
   While she could not pinpoint any specific reason for the rise in juvenile crime, "I think a lot of it does start at home. Parents need to spend more time with their kids, they need to give them activities rather than letting their child run wild and do whatever they want to do with whomever they want to do it. The parents, a lot of times, don't take time to meet their friends ... They have no idea who their child is with."
   Burgner said she is "blown away" by some of the things kids are doing. "The times are changing. There are a lot more accessible drugs -- and I don't mean smoking pot. There's heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and the kids can get their hands on any of it right here in little old Elizabethton.
   "I think a lot of the community wants to think that this stuff is not here. It's here. Because I've had kids sit in my office and test for it. ... The temptations are just everywhere, and you've got to keep a hold on your child to make sure they're not going to go get mixed up in it. There are drugs within five minutes of your house. Don't think your kid can't run out the door and within 15 minutes, go get high and come back," she said.
   Burgner also suspects that physical and sexual abuse have a part in juvenile crime. "Upon questioning, a lot of times the kids will tell me the truth. But then when they think I'm going to call CPS (Child Protective Services), they'll say they made it all up and it wasn't true. They will tell me, but they don't want me to report it to anybody else," she said.
   Peer pressure often is a factor in juvenile crime, Burgner believes. "A lot of times, I'll come to work and they'll say: 'They picked up three kids that just went on this spree last night.' And I'm like: 'What all did they do?'
   " 'Well they broke into three cars here, stole something there, and did this ...'
   "When you have a spree like that, where they commit, say, five to 15 felonies at once, they're not doing it alone. There's always three or four together and they cook up this idea in their heads and then go make it real."
   Burgner said she feels that the only time some families communicate is when they are in her office. "And it's because I sit here and I say, 'OK, you two look at each other and talk.' It's like I have to force it on them. Then they go out the door and they come back in two weeks and they do it again. That's not enough. You've got to communicate with your child every day so if they have a problem, they can come to you."
   Some of the kids who come into Burgner's office take their anger out on her, and that's fine, she says. "They're still going to come back here in two weeks and talk to me again. I've been called names by a few kids, but I think maybe I've been called more names by their parents. I think the parent feels that they have more of a place to speak their mind to me than a child does, because the child is still in the position of I have some kind of say in what happens to them.
   "They need to get their feelings out. That's where it all starts. ... They've kicked a chair against a wall and ran out of my office. I let them stay outside for five or 10 minutes and then I go out there and get them and say, 'Are you calm now? Ready to come back in?' Generally, once they just get that one little bit out, they're OK," she said.
   Of the 40 to 45 juveniles Burgner handles at present, "The majority of them are not bad kids. They're never going to kill anybody or rob the old lady walking down the road -- but then there are a couple that might. And there are some of these kids I will never forget the rest of my life. I will never forget their names and I will never forget their date of birth, because I have spent so much time with them.
   "They need somebody to sit and listen to them, whether they're talking about the color of their nail polish, the color of their hair, or the fact that their dad hit them last night, or the fact that their mom is an alcoholic who takes pills all the time and she can't get her off of the couch. I've listened to many, many a story -- about things from nail polish to being abused," she said.
   Burgner serves on two boards, reviewing sex abuse and child abuse cases.
   "That's always hard -- to look at a piece of paper and read about what an adult has done to a child and it's the most heinous thing you can imagine. It makes you sad. That child will have repercussions because of that event for the rest of his life. When someone takes a piece of you away, you're going to feel it for a long time," she said.
   Working in the juvenile system can be a drain on the caseworkers' emotions.
   "You can't do this job unless you put your heart in it. It takes a lot of patience because you get extremely frustrated sometimes, but you just have to keep going," Burgner said. "I don't think you ever learn to completely shut it off."