Thursday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

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Lawmakers Study Neurology Along With New Juvenile Justice Policy Ideas, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

“Why do most adolescents drive like they’re missing part of their brain? Because they are,” said Elizabeth Cauffman, professor of Psychology & Social Behavior and Education at the University of California, Irvine.

She was speaking to a group of state lawmakers, staff and others at a forum at the National Conference of State Legislatures summit in Atlanta on Aug. 14. The forum topic was using brain science to craft new policies.

The specific pieces that are missing can have much to do with judgment, impulse control and other behavioral aspects of interest to people who work with juveniles.

Physically, the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain right behind the forehead — is not fully formed until about age 25. That’s the part that handles things like impulse control and emotion, Cauffman said.

According to her research, the brain is still pruning away indirect, inefficient paths among synapses. And those neural pathways are still growing the special cells that speed information among nodes. Additionally, dopamine, the chemical that contributes to happiness, is at its greatest circulation during the late adolescent years.

DJJ chief: Funding woes could lead to shut down of juvenile detention centers, The Florida Current

Thanks to a court ruling and new federal guidelines for Medicaid payments, the Department of Juvenile Justice could face a $54.5 million budget shortfall this year, potentially leading to the closing of some juvenile detention centers.

Most of the cash shortage comes from a ruling from the 1st District Court of Appeal in June siding with counties disputing payments to DJJ for juvenile detention costs. The ruling stated DJJ was overbilling counties by misinterpreting state law and created a $35.5 million shortfall into its budget.

The rest of the shortfall stems from new guidelines from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services prohibiting federal matching grant money for Medicaid services for juveniles in residential commitment centers operated by DJJ. The guidelines also came down in June, but the 2013-2014 fiscal year budget passed by lawmakers in early May was counting on those federal funds. It means an additional $19 million hole in the department’s budget.

DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters wrote to Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders Aug. 1, alerting them to the possible shortfall. She suggests putting off “non-critical” contracts and the early release of general revenue and dedicated trust funds to minimize the shortfall in juvenile detention costs, reducing the shortfall to $18.4 million and allowing the Legislature to address the shortfall in the 2014 legislative session. But even those measures would still leave the department needing a loan if county payments fell.

Without a loan, DJJ would have to start closing some juvenile detention centers.

Wednesday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

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Illinois Debt Crisis Leaves Treatment Centers Strapped, More Kids in Prison, Childrensrights.org

Illinois is $6 billion in debt and the state’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has lost $250 million of its budget over the last 10 years. The mounting debt and cutbacks have resulted in significant collateral damage for children served by DCFS providers, according to an article in Reflejos:

The cuts have “forced the elimination of programs primarily aimed at preventing child abuse and many of the well-being programs that provide kids with opportunities like summer camp and musical enrichment, which we as legal parents like to provide just [as] any parent would like to provide,” [DCFS] spokesman Dave Clarkin said.

Lutherbrook, a private residential treatment center, cares for about 50 Illinois children aged 8-18 and has received just one funding increase over the past 12 years. Officials for the institution have conceded that the situation is a “struggle.”

MacArthur Pledges New $15 million to Juvenile Justice Reform, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

ATLANTA — The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced it will increase its juvenile justice reform funding by some $15 million, a major part of which will be used to establish the new Models for Change Resource Center Partnership.

“Right now there are no go-to places to get the kind of information, resources, toolkits, [and] access to colleagues who have ‘been there done that,’” for would-be juvenile justice reform advocates, said Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform for the MacArthur Foundation.

Garduque said the Partnership aims to be that place people call when they want to make the kind of policy changes the MacArthur Foundation says result in better outcomes for kids and communities: rehabilitation, treatment in home communities and competent legal defense, among other things.

Creating the Partnership is the latest round in nearly two decades of MacArthur research, funding and advocacy on juvenile delinquency treatment and prevention.

Let’s Change How Police Question Young Suspects, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

When I had been practicing in North Carolina’s juvenile courts for about a year, I represented a client charged in the same case as a 13-year-old special-education student named J.D.B. I remember sitting in a large courtroom and watching J.D.B.’s public defender skillfully cross-examine a police investigator.

Weeks earlier, J.D.B. had been pulled out of his social studies class and brought to a school conference room where this same investigator had questioned him for nearly 45 minutes about a string of neighborhood burglaries. Although the assistant principal, an administrative intern and a uniformed officer on detail to the school were also present, no one had contacted J.D.B.’s grandmother, who was his legal guardian, nor was J.D.B. given his Miranda warnings, told he could leave the room or allowed to make a phone call. The boy initially denied any wrongdoing, but after the assistant principal pressured him to “do the right thing” and the police investigator threatened to put him in juvenile detention, he quickly confessed.

N.Y. Film Festival Unites New Yorkers to be Better Fathers, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

NEW YORK CITY, N.Y. — They sat in a room, father and son, with cash stacked to the ceiling, seemingly all the money in the world at their fingertips, yet they starved.

This is the story of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, told through the eyes of his son, Sebastian Marroquin in the documentary “Sins of My Father,” one of 10 films showcased at the Fatherhood Image Film Festival over the weekend throughout Harlem and the Bronx. The metaphor, a father and son flush with material wealth but emotionally starved, was one that spoke to the festival’s theme of driving home the importance of a father as something more than just being a breadwinner, but a source of emotional sustenance as well.

Monday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

Researchers Pursuing Novel Methods to Diagnose Autism, Education Week

A handful of recent studies are delving into new methods of screening children and adults for autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 88 children has this disorder, which affects communication, behavior, and socialization.

In one study, researchers suggest that “micromovements” some people with autism make when asked to point to a dot on a screen may be indicative of the disorder. These results have been published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience.

Also, Google Ventures has provided funding to SynapDx Corp., which is in trials to predict the risk of autism though blood testing. The blood tests examine the ribonucleic acids, or RNA, that becomes visible when white blood cells in a blood sample are dissolved. The behavior of RNA can be linked to autism risk, the company says. The test could be used for children as young as two years old; the average age of diagnosis of autism is 4.5 years.

The Dreary State of Juvenile Mental Health Care, Inside and Outside the Justice System, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

When Linda Pace began her career as a public defender, things were different in DeKalb County, Ga. She recalls a system in the 1980s where the Department of Human Resources and local courts worked in tandem, with several court psychologists and special education teachers on staff. Young people in the juvenile justice system routinely received evaluations to pinpoint educational disabilities, and the local school systems regularly helped refer students to therapists. There were even more Medicaid services available to youth and families.

But with sweeping changes in the 1990s — the era of the “super-predator, mythic nightmare,” she said — Pace noticed a gradual decline in the quality of system services for juveniles. “The focus became criminal logic in the juvenile system, and the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and the court kind of changed their focus to meet the needs of the protection of the community,” she said. “And that became inconsistent sometimes, with the needs of children that have mental or behavioral disabilities.”

The DJJ, Pace believes, is no longer a viable entry point for youth requiring mental health services, with numerous “gate-keeping devices” in place ensuring that only the most absolutely critical kids get into residential treatment.

Currently, Georgia’s $307 million DJJ budget allocates only 13 percent towards community-based juvenile detention alternative programs, with 2 percent of annual funds going towards intensive, at-home therapeutic programs. Pace said that services are so scant in the state that she often advises the parents of children with severe mental health needs to relocate to other parts of the country.

The de-emphasis of mental health funding in Georgia, however, is not an aberration across the United States. From 2009 until 2011, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported that 31 states had enacted major mental health budget cuts. And in terms of overall mental health care quality, the national portrait is even grimmer; in a nationwide analysis conducted in 2009, NAMI scored 27 state systems — among them, Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Texas — with overall rankings of “D” or worse.

Sugary Beverages Linked to Higher B.M.I. in Young Children, The New York Times

It sounds like another page from the files of obvious research: a study published in the journal Pediatrics reveals a link between regular consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (dubbed S.S.B.’s) and higher body mass index scores in 2- to 5-year-olds. Children who regularly drank sugar-sweetened sodas, sports beverages or fruit juice (as opposed to 100 percent fruit juice drinks) had both higher B.M.I.’s and “higher weight status” than those who drank them infrequently or not at all.

Sounds like an obvious case of consequences, but as with most research, this paper carefully notes a link, not necessarily a cause. In the same study, researchers also found associations between higher B.M.I.’s and television watching and failing to drink milk. Does increased television watching lead to more advertising viewed and thus to more S.S.B. consumption, or does the heavier child watch more television? Do the sugar-sweetened beverages squeeze out the milk, or does a refusal to drink milk lead to drinking more sugar-sweetened beverages?

It may not much matter, in this case, whether the egg precedes the chicken or vice versa. But as policy makers contemplate writing laws and pushing for change to address the causes of increasing rates of childhood obesity in this country, S.S.B. manufacturers have consistently lobbied against everything from taxes on their product to laws like New York City’s attempted ban on large sugary drinks. A lot of money (more than $40 million in 2009, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest) has been expended to convince the public as a whole, and our legislative bodies in particular, that correlation isn’t causation on this one.