When your teen is in trouble with the law, you need to know how the juvenile justice system in your state works and how to proceed for your child’s best outcome.
Despite a parent’s best efforts, some young people find themselves in trouble with the law. Peer pressure, the need to assert independence, or misjudgments can place your child at risk of involvement in activities that result in arrest and processing through the juvenile justice system.
There are three kinds of juvenile cases:
Juvenile dependency cases, in which the youth has been abused, neglected, or mistreated by the parents or guardians, and it is necessary for the court to take over legal custody, removing the child from the home, and placing the child with relatives or in foster care.
Status offense cases, which are unlawful behaviors because the youth is a minor (under age 18), such as running away, being chronically truant, possessing alcohol, purchasing cigarettes, and violating curfew. More information on status offenses >>>
Delinquencies (law violations), in which the child has committed an offense that would be charged as a crime if the child were an adult. Read Juvenile Delinquency: What Happens in a Juvenile Case? >>>
If your child becomes involved in the juvenile justice system, your first step is to learn how the system in your state works. This knowledge will allow you to advocate for an outcome that teaches your child about the results of inappropriate behavior without hurting his or her prospects for the future. Visit Think Before You Plead: Juvenile Collateral Consequences in the United States >>>
Begin by asking the processing officer at the police station (usually an officer in the juvenile division) to explain the process to you:
Why was my child arrested?
Will you have to detain my child or can he or she be released in my custody?
Will we need to post bond?
Will my child have a record simply as a result of the arrest?
What happens next?
Whom should I speak with to get assistance if my child is referred to juvenile court?
In many cases, particularly for minor offenses or a first-time arrest, your child will be released into your custody. Your child may be diverted into a community service program where he/she will be expected to perform volunteer service in exchange for the charges being dropped.
If your child is referred to juvenile court, what happens next will depend on the structure of your state’s juvenile justice system, the actions of the prosecutor’s office, and the availability of diversion or treatment programs. The prosecutor and juvenile court staff can tell you what to expect from this process. (Juvenile court staff include intake or probation department staff who often conduct preliminary investigations. These investigations provide juvenile court judges with background information they use to decide on dispositions.)
It’s essential to get legal counsel if your child is referred to the court system. Youth of families without financial resources can request counsel from the local public defender’s office. Read Constitutional Rights in Juvenile Cases >>>
Even if you get legal representation for your child, you should accompany your child through all juvenile justice system processing ― intake, meetings with juvenile court staff and diversionary or treatment program staff, and any court hearings. Parental concern and involvement, along with legal representation, and the demeanor and appearance of the teen and family (e.g., neat, clean, appropriate dress), are factors in the court’s decision.
Keep in mind that the main intent of most juvenile justice systems is to help young people redirect their lives, not simply to punish them. Still, your role in advocating for your child is crucial. There are several alternatives to a court hearing, court decision, or detention. For example, your child can be diverted into a treatment program. Courts view a parent’s involvement positively when making a decision.
It is often in times of crisis that bonds between parents and adolescents are reaffirmed. At those times, youth turn to their parents for support and protection. Troubling circumstances may present parents with opportunities to show their love and support, to help their child obtain services to deal with specific problems, and to strengthen interpersonal connections that will benefit the family for years to come.