How a Blind Spot in N.H.'s Juvenile Justice System Keeps Some Kids From Getting Help

Jul 2, 2018

Credit Joe Gratz / Flickr Creative Commons

The juvenile justice system in New Hampshire is built around the idea of rehabilitation. Instead of going to jail, young people who commit crimes gain access to services like counseling and substance abuse treatment to address the underlying causes of their behavior.

But a blind spot in the state’s juvenile justice system can keep some kids from getting the help they need.

At 10 years old, Trent was a standout on his school’s track team in Somersworth. A photo in the local paper shows him mid-stride, his golden hair blown back by the wind.

But Trent’s dad, Rob Levey, says Trent showed some odd behaviors even as a young child. Things that became more serious as he got older.

“He has perception problems that as a young kid seemed almost cute and funny," says Levey. "But as he got older and social situations became more complicated, he struggled more and more.”

Teachers would call home to report Trent’s unusual behavior in class. His parents started him in therapy.

NHPR isn’t using Trent’s real name since this story involves events that occurred while he was a minor.

State of Democracy is NHPR's newsroom unit reporting on accountability, money in politics, and how policy intersects with every day life in New Hampshire.

Trent did not respond to interview requests. But his parents did share their recollections and records of his path through the juvenile justice system.

At 15 years old, Trent’s odd behavior took a more serious turn. He threatens a fellow student on social media. He’s caught with marijuana in his backpack.

These incidents were misdemeanors. They landed Trent in juvenile court. A judge assigns him a probation officer, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, and home-based therapy. Ultimately, the judge ordered him to attend a residential treatment facility for 6 weeks.

“He did really well with that," says Ruth Gessner, Trent's mom. Gessner and Levey are divorced and shared custody of Trent. "He graduated from the program, he came back sober. He was really good.”

Gessner says, that time, New Hampshire’s juvenile justice system worked for Trent. He got the help he needed, his behavior improved, his case was closed.

But it didn’t last. About 9 months later, Gessner received a serious medical diagnosis: a tumor on her spine. Gessner thinks the news of this is what pushed Trent into another downward spiral. But this time, the outcome was much different.

Gessner showed me a thick stack of the police reports.

Police find Trent on the street late at night. He’s so intoxicated he can hardly stand. Or he’s passed out on the sidewalk. They find him driving without a license. They find him so many times officers begin to recognize him on sight.

“I invariably get a call from the police department at midnight," says Levey. "They’ve picked up my boy. He’s drunk, he’s in possession of marijuana. Perhaps he has resisted arrest.”

Trent turns 17. He’s suspected in a robbery, he totals a car, he lights a fire in a dumpster.

His parents worry he’s going to drink himself to death. They try to get him to attend AA meetings. They try to get him admitted to New Hampshire hospital. They find him a bed at a substance abuse treatment center for youth in Vermont. But within a few weeks they say Trent got kicked out.

Trent’s parents tell police they can’t control him. They ask for help. Police say they have no choice but to release him.

The Somersworth Police Department, which had the most contact with Trent, did not respond to multiple requests for interview.

Finally, just a few months ago, Trent’s parents sent a desperate email to his former juvenile probation officer -- the officer who had shepherded Trent through the system before. They wanted to know what they could do to get Trent back in the juvenile justice system.

The response was disappointing. Trent’s former probation officer noted that he had been arrested 7 times within the last two months, but said “I am at a loss on how to help [Trent] at this point.”

So, why didn’t the juvenile system offer Trent the same services it did before?

Because even though Trent was breaking the law on a regular basis, he wasn’t getting charged with the right crimes.

To understand this, I spoke with Tim Harrington, a defense attorney and a former prosecutor. He explained to me that the juvenile justice system only has jurisdiction over misdemeanors and felonies. It doesn’t handle what are called violation-level offenses.

"And as a result," says Harrington," even if you’re found to have committed a violation-level offense such as criminal trespass is a violation, disorderly conduct is a violation, possession of alcohol by a minor is a violation, public intoxication is a violation. None of those would fall within the juvenile delinquency statute.”

These were types of violations that Trent was being charged with – over and over again. Each time, instead of receiving the services he got before, he was sent to adult court where he received a fine. Instead of going to a treatment facility for troubled youth, he racked up hundreds of dollars in tickets in Dover District Court.

Trent’s parents were frustrated. They felt like his repeated trips to adult court weren’t doing anything to help him.

Some state officials agree.

Trent’s former probation officer wrote that she believed habitual alcohol related offenses should be handled in juvenile court. The head of New Hampshire’s juvenile services told me he thinks they could help a lot of kids in Trent’s position -- if juvenile court had jurisdiction.

And Moira O’Neill, the state’s newly appointed Child Advocate, says there’s nothing adult about a teen who regularly gets arrested on alcohol charges.

“I mean the whole point of having a separate juvenile justice system is we know that children can learn," says O'Neill. "So, why would we push that kid into an adult system when in fact he’s still a kid and needs someone to address that before it becomes a lifelong problem?”

Some states have taken a different approach to underage drinking in the criminal code.

In states like New York, North Dakota and Utah, a judge can send a minor with an alcohol related charge to a substance abuse treatment or alcohol awareness program.

Other states can require teens to do community service or even to spend time in juvenile detention for alcohol charges.

Still other states try to avoid using the justice system altogether with diversion programs. In Vermont, for instance, teens charged with underage drinking are often referred to a program that connects them with substance abuse counselors.

But here in New Hampshire, all a judge can do with a teen charged with possession of alcohol is fine them a minimum of $300, then $600 for subsequent charges, or suspend their driver's license.

That is part of what has left Trent and his parents caught in this cycle of arrest and release, night after night.

New Hampshire does have a program for kids who refuse to listen to their parents but whose behavior falls short of juvenile delinquency. It's called Children in Need of Services.

It's unclear why a CHINS petition wasn't filed in Trent's case. His parents say a court official misinformed them of who was eligible to file one. The Somersworth Police Department, which also could have filed a CHINS petition, did not respond to interview requests.

But even if a CHINS petition had been granted in Trent's case, Michael O'Connor, Bureau Chief of DCYF field services, says it wouldn't have unlocked as many services for Trent as he received before.

"If police or the parents were looking for a placement, [CHINS] is a moot point," says O'Connor. "Even though the court could find that he is habitually disobeying the legal and lawful commands of the parents, the law doesn't provide for the court to place him in the treatment program, say, he was in earlier."

On the other hand, says O'Connor, if Trent had committed a misdemeanor, like shoplifting, a treatment facility might have been an option.

"The system is set up so you have two different tracks," explains O'Connor, "and to get into you one track you can steal a pack of gum. And that track can take you much farther than getting stopped with a DWI."

[Click to see a comparison of New Hampshire's underage drinking laws to other states compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures]

For Trent, the future is still uncertain.

His parents say he recently started a job at Walmart. He’s living with his mom, but still goes missing from home a lot.

When I asked what worries her the most, Gessner didn't hesitate.

"Him dying, other kids dying, that this is happening to other people," said Gessner, "because every time I talk about it somebody always privately messages me or says to me ‘we’ve gone through the same thing.’”

One thing that has changed: Trent turned 18. To get help now, he’ll have to navigate a whole new set of adult bureaucracies on his own. With the juvenile system, he missed his chance.