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Getting children back on track

Putting young people back on the path toward success is the main objective of Washington County Juvenile Services, according to Director Angel Blackwell.
“We do whatever we can to make it work, and hopefully they will succeed,” she said.
Blackwell was appointed director in July 2011.
“This is the first year of knowing all the decisions fall back on me,” she said with a laugh. “Now I’m the ‘go-to’ person.”
Prior to being hired as a Washington County youth services officer in 2005, Blackwell worked as an adult probation officer.
“You break the law as an adult, you go to jail,” she said. “Here, we don’t just work with the juvenile, we have the whole family to work with.”
Though she now has the responsibility of running the Juvenile Court, she continues to carry a caseload and write grant applications.
“I still want to work with the public, and it makes me feel better to have that connection,” she said.
The goal in trying to help young clients, according to Blackwell, is to figure out what’s not working.
“It’s not an overnight process,” she said. Meetings are held with the parents or guardians, and input is often requested from the school system and the Department of Children’s Services.
Truancy, unruly behavior, dependency/neglect on the part of parents, and delinquency are the primary reasons children and youth are referred to juvenile services. Other rulings made in Juvenile Court relate to custody, parental rights, traffic violations, and recommendations for treatment of medical or mental problems.
Often the parents calling or coming in the office don’t want court intervention yet, Blackwell said. In these cases, Juvenile Services makes referrals to outside agencies serving emotionally and behaviorally troubled young people.
Even all offenders will not go through the system. If the youth is a first-time delinquent, completing community service or an anger management class and staying out of trouble afterward can result in the charge being dismissed.
“We always start with the least restrictive, such as an alcohol class or driving school,” Blackwell said. “Juvenile Court is supposed to be about rehabilitation and prevention.”
Blackwell, who has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from East Tennessee State University, said the lack of intensive programs means most repeat offenders go on to state probation.
“Politicians say children are our future, but the first things to go in budget cuts are group homes and after school programs, which is frustrating” she said. “We have very few local resources.”
The denial of parents is another challenge, according to Blackwell.
“They don’t want to believe their child could have done anything wrong, especially drugs, even after the screening,” she said. “It makes it harder to work with the juveniles if the parents think there is no problem.”
Blackwell said peer pressure, which starts during the middle school years, is the major cause of problems for juveniles. “Bullying seems to be on the rise again,” she said.
The number of calls about synthetic drugs are also increasing, she said. Even juveniles on probation who must submit to drug tests in the Juvenile Services office are testing positive for PCP, which can be an indication of synthetic drug use.
The majority of cases referred from schools are for truancy, fights and drugs. “Our highest point is when school is in session,” Blackwell said.
When school attendance becomes a problem, Juvenile Services works with the Washington County Truancy Board to determine why the child is missing class. Parents can be fined $50 a day for all days missed and may have to do community service hours.
“I think it works out by the youth taking on some responsibility to know their parents can’t afford $250 a week for them not to go to school,” Blackwell said. “This is a relatively new program, but we’ve seen a big turnaround.”
Juvenile Services also receives a lot of domestic calls regarding sibling fights. If the responding officer, after speaking with the family, cannot locate a place for the juvenile to spend the night, the youth is brought to the Upper East Tennessee Regional Juvenile Detention Center on Wesley Street in Johnson City.
A hearing is held for those taken to the detention center. “If they call us, it’s because the juvenile is the primary aggressor,” Blackwell said.
Unfortunately, many become repeat offenders and can stay in the system for years. “It’s not rare to have juveniles until their 19th birthdays,” she said, which is the cutoff date for service from the Juvenile Court. Many of the resources are no longer available after the offender becomes 18 years old.
And those coming in for help are getting younger, according to Blackwell, who says they work with many as young as 8 years old, the earliest age a juvenile can be charged with an offense.
“In a lot of cases, they have mental health problems, they’re not just defiant,” she said.
Washington County is participating in a pilot project with the State of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University aimed at improving mental health services for juveniles. The Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths survey is completed for all youth referred to juvenile court as unruly or delinquent.
“This allows us to recommend what we think would be the most appropriate home service or mental health support before they ever get in the court,” Blackwell said. “We get to know them and their history.”
Juvenile Court hears cases on Mondays and Thursdays. Blackwell said the volume has increased and the position being considered by the state legislature to instate a third General Sessions Court judge who would have Juvenile Court jurisdiction would help. Judges Robert Lincoln and James A. Nidiffer currently hear up to 30 cases per day.
Despite the challenges, Blackwell feels they are making progress. “I just heard one success story about a former repeat offender who is now an adult with a good job who is working hard,” she said.
Former clients also visit her office to share information about joining the service or to show her photos of their children. “It’s very rewarding,” she said.