A mentally disabled Pennsylvania boy took photos of a disabled girl's genitals while on the school bus.
The boy, 11, was charged with harassment and invasion of privacy, according to court records, and ordered to wear an ankle bracelet.
He was allowed to go to school and required to stay at home the rest of the time. But he left the border of his yard three times, stepping onto the quiet country road in front of his house to greet playmates, according to his stepmother.
And since he could not follow the rules, he was placed in the temporary legal custody of Pike County Children and Youth, placed in therapeutic foster care and directed to get a psychosexual evaluation.
At first, the placement was a relief for his parents.
"We had been fighting like hell to get him some help," his father told the Pocono Record.
The boy, who suffers from a range of disabilities, including Asperger syndrome and oppositional defiant disorder, had behavioral problems starting at age 2.
Once in county custody, parental contact was not allowed for the first 30 days while he became acclimated to the foster family. After 40 days, his parents started calling every day to ask when they could visit. It was 70 days before they met in a park for their first, one-hour visit.
"It was the first time we have ever been separated for so long in our lives," said the stepmother, whose name and other identifying information are not being disclosed to protect the juvenile's identity.
Today, the boy is 13, still under state care, and his parents feel that despite attempts to stay connected, their relationship has been marginalized by the system.
This Pike County boy is one of nearly 40,000 juvenile justice cases in the state.
His story provides a window into the way Pennsylvania has traditionally handled troubled youths, the long-lasting problems the system can sow and the heartache it can cause families.
Juvenile offenders are often placed into one of a number of programs provided by vendors contracted by counties for therapeutic foster care with counseling, sex offender treatment or juvenile detention centers.
Once involved with the system, a judge, Children and Youth, Juvenile Probation and the contracted service provider decide what happens to the child.
The result? Families lose control, and often, daily contact with their child.
Families reported receiving confusing or conflicting information about their children, according to a 2009 report "Family Involvement in Pennsylvania's Juvenile Justice System," written in collaboration with the Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Council of Chief Juvenile Probation Officers.
"Families said they did not understand the system," said Wendy Luckenbill, lead writer of the report and chair of the Family Involvement Committee of the Pennsylvania Council of Chief Juvenile Probation Officers.
In many instances, the report said, there was no single point of contact to inform family members about the status of their child. Some parents were unaware of the physical location of their child. Parents were confused about how and when juvenile probation and court proceedings would be conducted.
In the case of the Pike County boy, he could not go home until his behavior improved, but the family could not get a clear definition of what needed to change. And his parents were not allowed to talk to him about any of these topics during supervised visits.
"We wanted more family involvement. We had no clue what school he was going to until a report card was handed to us. We were cut out of his life," his stepmother said.
Families need to understand that the child's welfare is not the sole interest of the juvenile justice system, Luckenbill said. The system has three responsibilities: to rehabilitate the child, repair the home and keep the communities safe.
"There are a lot of competing interests there, and that is where things get confusing for parents," Luckenbill said.
Enhancing family involvement in the juvenile justice system has been getting closer attention by the Pennsylvania Council of Chief Juvenile Probation Officers.
Service providers for juvenile offenders were taught in the early '90s to see families as the cause of a child's problems. Keeping problem parents away from the child seemed the right thing to do.
Some providers have not yet changed that view, Luckenbill said. But because the child still has to go home to the parents, the system must work with them.
"The state is developing a curriculum. The system is changing based on research. That is, you keep a kid in their own community, in their home, and don't criminalize them for normal adolescent behavior," Luckenbill said.
It is part of the Juvenile Justice System Enhancement Strategy, a policy guide published in 2012, that shows that, although it is well known that families play an important role, the challenge has been building effective relationships between juvenile justice agencies and families.
Only have a short time
But Steven Houloose, chief of Monroe County Probation, says every case is different and the consequences of the system making the wrong turn when choosing a response to juvenile offenses can be life changing.
"Kids get introduced to you at 13 or 15 years old — you only have a short time to be effective. If a kid needs structure, you do something now, or at 18, they are going to prison," Houloose said.
In-home programs only work when the child and family are invested in the outcome, he said.
"If a kid is disruptive at school and at home, I want to get him out of the neighborhood. They need structure that they are not getting in a home environment," Houloose said. "Family involvement is the single most important thing you can have to keep a kid out of the system."
But most of the kids involved in the system don't have it.
A small percentage of kids in juvenile court come from invested parents; most, Houloose said, come from dysfunctional families.
"People expect the government to rear a child. Don't expect miracles when we have to step in. The whole crux of this thing is the family. We do our best. Believe me, we do our best. But there is no substitute for two good parents. The thought that government can come in and replace parents is garbage," Houloose said.
The first-ever study of juvenile recidivism in Pennsylvania was released this year by the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission.
It tracked juvenile offenders for two years after their cases closed in 2007. The study found that re-offenders were 1.5 times more likely to have had an out-of-home experience, such as a detention center or foster care placement, compared to non-repeat offenders.
Only 15 percent of juveniles who stayed home with their families ended up back in the system, while 30 percent of juveniles who had at least one out-of-home placement ended up back in the system.
But that could be because judges and probation officers put kids at high risk to re-offend in out-of-home facilities more often than those with fewer indicators of offending in the future, said Justine Fowler, program analyst and lead author of the report.
The study also found that 80 percent of repeat offenders were from disrupted family situations (parents were dead, never married, separated/divorced), while only 20 percent of repeat offenders were from family situations where their biological parents were married.
Fowler expects future studies will measure the effect family involvement has on recidivism.
At last, some hope
In the case of the Pike County boy, the parents were allowed two one-hour supervised visits a month, plus a strictly timed 10-minute phone call once a week. It amounted to 24 total hours of face time in a year.
While he was in foster care, the parents received notice that their son may have been the victim of sexual abuse by another, older foster child in the home. An investigation declared the abuse to be "unfounded."
They started advocating for him to come home, or if he couldn't yet, they at least wanted more visitation time and the family counseling that had been court ordered, but not regularly scheduled.
After showing virtually no behavioral improvement for more than a year, the boy was recently moved from a foster care home and daytime counseling program to a barbed-wire institution on the other side of the state.
The boy's family is now allowed to visit every other weekend for up to three unsupervised hours.
He is doing better in the structured environment, his parents say.
And although they still do not know when or how he will come home, for the first time in a long time, they are hopeful about his future.
"They have control over every aspect of his life and ours," the boy's father said of the juvenile justice system. "We had no problem with him getting help. We just wanted to be involved in the help he was getting."