The Little Thief

To Petersen, who became a juvenile judge in March of 1989, the Carrie Jones case was to be a choking baptism into the defects of the state's response to delinquency. Alarmed at the number of weeks she had already spent in limbo, he sentenced Carrie to a residential delinquent program, an order he reiterated December 5 and 7. Though state law mandated that Carrie be placed in a program within five days of the judge's sentence, Carrie remained in detention another two weeks. "It was rough at first," Carrie says in the petulant rasp she reserves for such recollections. "But after a while I just called it home."

On December 21, Petersen demanded that HRS take immediate action. The agency placed Carrie in a Cutler Ridge foster home. Ten days later she ran away. Although HRS was informed the next day, it took the agency three weeks to seek an order from Petersen to have her picked up. But the judge says neither caseworkers nor police -- who are officially responsible for rounding up runaway delinquents -- made any attempt to find her. More than a month after Petersen's order, Carrie wandered into court on her own. She told the judge she had heard from her aunt that a pick-up order had been issued and she wondered about the status of her case. With no place to stay, Carrie had been staying with friends, sleeping on porches and in cars when necessary.

Outraged, Petersen filed a criminal contempt motion on February 28 against HRS, claiming agents had broken state law and failed to follow court order. "I wanted to hold HRS accountable for its actions," the judge recalls. He certainly got their attention -- all the way to Tallahassee. The case dragged on for seven months. At one point Petersen brought charges against then-HRS Secretary Gregory Coler. In a series of motions for dismissal, HRS lawyers argued that Carrie's prolonged stay in detention was not a basis for contempt. They noted that the programs to which she was referred were full and asserted that Petersen's proceeding was, in fact, an attempt "to effectuate systemic change."

"That was the whole point," asserts Petersen, whose concern for the children he oversees has become the stuff of lore around Dade's Juvenile Justice Center. "To show that the system wasn't working." The most obvious problem, Petersen says, is the juvenile system's inability to deal with girls, especially in Dade, where there is no residential program for female offenders. But the contempt hearing also revealed a host of subtle problems. Carrie's initial HRS counselor, for instance, admitted she did not recall the state law requiring that a child be placed in a program no more than five days after a judge's order. Counselors from HRS's delinquent and dependent branches had never held a mandatory conference to coordinate their plan for Carrie. And one of the programs recommended for the girl, who was homeless at the time, was nonresidential. "If the system's going to make any sense," Petersen stresses, "you can't let kids rot in detention centers and become totally turned off to our efforts. And you can't forget about a fourteen-year-old kid who lives on the streets. If we really care about Carrie Jones, we can't just wait for her to come back into the system when she gets rearrested."

Petersen says his unorthodox legal maneuver, and his strident advocacy on Carrie's behalf, also bucked the unspoken power structure in juvenile court, "the idea," he says, "that what we're supposed to do as judges is sit there and issue pick-up orders and follow HRS's recommendations." But by October of 1990, Petersen had vowed to change his tack. Figuring he could do more good working with the agency than against it, and heartened by the previous spring's passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which promised to address many of the system's flaws, he dismissed his motion. "There was a little while there when everyone was getting along great," Petersen remembers. In November, a scant month later, the honeymoon ended. Desperate to mitigate fiscal shortfalls and a slumping tax base, legislators gutted the new act's allocations.

The decision was merely the latest setback in a grim chronology that has seen delinquency steadily fade from public consciousness. Petersen recalls an era when rehabilitating up-and-coming criminals was juvenile court's primary role. But in the past fifteen years, he says, the new sensitivity to child abuse has shoved delinquency to the back burner. With the unwitting aid of the media -- always anxious to hype a tragic tot story -- shrinking resources have been funneled into "dependency" matters, those that involve child victims who are dependent on the state. Yet as attention has waned, arrests of delinquents have rocketed; last year's 17,000 arrests yielded 27 percent of all Dade's criminal indictments.

Part Two
This May a Dade County grand jury issued a scathing, 30-page report sketching a woeful picture of the county's delinquency response system: HRS counselors so overburdened they can't conduct proper intake interviews, residential programs and specially designated schools for delinquents that operate as "little more than warehouses," a regular school system unable to help more than ten percent of its at-risk kids, and state legislators content to spend more on incarceration than prevention.

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