‘State Has Been Shortsighted’

Connecticut Law Tribune
February 18, 2008

Advocate says more programs needed to help at-risk youth

By Gary Lewis 
CT Law Tribune
Monday, February 18, 2008

Attorney Martha Stone is eager to have the resources to address truancy and children’s destructive behavior before those children become part of the criminal system.

As co-chair of the legislature’s Families With Service Needs Advisory Board, she and her group are asking state officials to invest more than $5 million from this summer through 2010 to help fund initiatives that will better serve at-risk youth.

Last week, the committee released the year-long study with the funding requests, arguing that to address the problems immediately would save the state millions of dollars in the long run by helping children avoid the juvenile justice system.

Stone said the legislature has revamped the status offender system from a punitive system to a “much more therapeutic model” and said no cases can be filed against status offenders unless those children had received support services. Status offenders are juveniles under the jurisdiction of the court because of acts that would not be criminal if committed by an adult but that indicate the child is beyond parental control.

In its report, the advisory board made several core recommendations. The first is to provide funding for six additional Family Support Centers, which offer services such as 24-hour crisis intervention, family mediation and mental health services. The second is to involve the state Department of Education in important truant initiatives, and also to enhance funding for Youth Service Bureaus that work with Juvenile Review Boards, which offer an alternative to the court system.

The board also recommended that the state create flexible funding for after-school recreational activities, mentorship or mental health services not met by an existing program in a child’s community.

Stone, who is also executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, a non-profit organization based at the University of Connecticut School of Law, recently spoke with Managing Editor Douglas Malan about her work with the advisory board.

LAW TRIBUNE: Where does the value lie in the Families With Services Needs Advisory Board recommendations?

MARTHA STONE: If you can provide services to these kids, you can stem the pipeline into the juvenile justice system. That’s where I think the state has been short-sighted. I challenge the legislature to look at the front end of the system. If they’re serious about prevention, then they need to put money into initiatives focusing on truants and status offenders.

LAW TRIBUNE: Who are considered high-end or high-risk kids?

STONE: These are kids who are very truant and losing credit in school and who may be disrespectful to a parent and the parents don’t know how to handle them. The lower end kids are missing class but not losing credit, and they may be talking back to their parents but not staying out all night.

TRIBUNE: What are some factors that lead to truancy?

STONE: A lot of kids who are truant are undiagnosed special ed kids. They’ve been pushed through grade after grade, but if you look at them they’re either undiagnosed special ed or they’re not getting the special ed services that they need in their school. They can’t do the work, they get frustrated and then they stop going to school. Other truants are bilingual students who don’t get the support they need through programs and then stop going to school. There also are the students who feel lost in big middle school settings.

TRIBUNE: Do you ever get frustrated in trying to convince people of the value of your initiatives or when the process doesn’t move along quickly enough?

STONE: I never take the frustration point of view because I would’ve stopped doing this years ago.

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