Tuesday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

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Mothers are Tougher on Kids During Recession, www.newsfeed.time.com

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy is broaching how a down economy can impact family life. New York University sociologist Dohoon Lee contends that an uptick in strict maternal behavior stems more from anticipation of hard times rather than actual exposure. In fact, mothers treated their children harsher for each 10% increase in the unemployment rate in the city where they resided.

Lee examined data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which tracked more than 4,800 children born in 20 U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000 as well as unemployment rates and consumer sentiment index to measure the health of the economy. The mothers, mostly single parents, were interviewed periodically throughout the child’s life over a span of nine years. Harsh behavior was  determined by a scale of 10 psychological and physical measures, including spanking, swearing and yelling, and participants were asked to identify how often they engaged in this type of behavior ranging from “never” to “more than 20 times.”

DNA samples were also take from the mothers and children during the ninth year, adding a genetic nuance to the study. As Pacific Standard explains, women with a sensitive gene variation of the DRD2 Taq1A genotype, which is connected to the release of dopamine, were most inclined to engage in maternal misbehavior during the recession.

The study also looked at the effects of changes to individual family income but found no statistical significance resulting in an increase in harsh behavior. Moreover, the study underpins how fear of future adversity can lead to more negative behavior, according to Princeton University sociology professor Sara McLanahan, who co-authored the study. “People can adjust to difficult circumstances once they know what to expect, whereas fear or uncertainty about the future is more difficult to deal with.”

Nurse Suspected of Killing Up to 46 Kids to Get Out of Prison, www.abcnews.com

A nurse convicted in 1984 of killing an infant and suspected of murdering dozens more will be released from prison without completing her 99 year sentence because of an expired Texas law that grants a “mandatory release” to inmates with good behavior.

On May 14, 1984 Genene Anne Jones, now 63, was sentenced for the murder of 15-month-old Chelsea McClellan in 1982 in a small-town pediatric clinic where Jones was a nurse.

Jones began injecting the child with a lethal dose of the muscle relaxant succinylcholine while the baby was still in her mother’s arms, according to McClellan and court records.

Jones was also convicted of injuring a child in another attack in which the child survived. She was sentenced to 60 years on that conviction, but it was ordered to be served concurrently with the 99 year sentence.

Ron Sutton, the criminal prosecutor who won the murder conviction, estimates that Jones is responsible for the deaths of between 11 and 46 infants in Bexar County from 1978 and 1982.

Jones is scheduled to be released from prison on Feb. 24, 2018, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. She will have served 35 years, about one-third of her sentence.

Jones will be released because of a Texas law called Mandatory Supervision. Enacted in 1977, the law allowed all convicted criminals to be automatically released on parole after they complete a certain amount of calendar time and good conduct time, which includes participating in work and self-improvement programs, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice parole and mandatory release guide.

Mandatory Supervision was amended in 1987 to exclude violent criminals. But any violent criminal convicted in Texas before 1987 is still eligible for early release, according to the guide.

“We need to find another case, another victim, whose death we can charge her with sufficient evidence,” Andy Kahan said.

Adoption Numbers Rising for Kids in Foster Care, www.usatoday.com

The percentage of kids adopted from foster care is swinging upward, a new report suggests.  Last year, 13.1% of children in foster care were adopted, an increase from 12.6% in 2011, according to statistics released today by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. The report highlights data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System.

Of the 1.8 million adopted children in the USA, 37% came from foster care, according to the 2007 National Survey of Adoptive Parents. Private domestic adoptions accounted for 38%, and international adoptions were at 25%. These numbers don’t include step-parent adoptions.

“The data suggests states are striking a balance between improving the quality of child welfare services and moving children to permanent families,” the agency’s Bryan Samuels says in a statement. “Our role will be to continue to help states find that right balance with limited resources moving forward.”

Adoption is not the goal for all children in foster care, the agency says. Many kids are reunited with their parents or other relatives.

The number of foster-care kids waiting to be adopted dropped from 106,345 on Sept. 30, 2011, to 101,719 on Sept. 30, 2012. Also, the number of foster-care kids waiting to be adopted whose parents’ rights were terminated fell from 62,759 in 2011 to 58,587 in 2012.




Monday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

Appeals Court Backs Coaches in Disclosure of Students Sexual Orientation, Education Week

A federal appeals court has ruled that two Texas high school softball coaches are immune from a student’s privacy lawsuit because there was no clearly established law barring school officials from discussing a student’s private matters, including her sexual orientation, with the student’s parent.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, comes in the case of a mother who sued the Kilgore Independent School District and various officials, alleging that the two softball coaches confronted her 16-year-old daughter about whether she was a lesbian and then “outed” her during a meeting with the parent

Texas Sentences for 17 Year-old Murderers Fine as They Are: No Need for Special Session Call, Grits for Breakfast

So far, Gov. Perry has resisted adding anything to the special session call besides redistricting and Grits’ must admit I’m grateful. Unless he surprises me and put warrants for cell-phone location data on the list (which he should), not much good can come of any of the criminal-justice topics the Governor is most likely to add to a special session which some, like Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, would like to fill with right-wing red meat.

One surprising omission so far has been the failure of the 83rd Legislature to establish a legal punishment for 17-year old capital offenders. Texas treats them as adults but the US Supreme Court considers them juveniles. So SCOTUS rulings banning the death penalty and life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles have left Texas with no legal punishments on the books for 17-year olds charged with capital murder. They can still be charged with “regular” murder, which could get them a sentence of up to 99-life, but with the eventual possibility of parole

Data: Juvenile Detentions Down, The Tribune-Democrat

HARRISBURG — The number of accused juvenile delinquents taken from their homes by court order dropped more than 29 percent from 2007 to 2011, government data shows.

While the trends are encouraging, advocates note that Pennsylvania had plenty of ground to make up.

Through 2010, the most recent year in which national data is available, Pennsylvania had the highest rate of juveniles in out-of-home detention, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice. And while most other big states had seen the number of juveniles placed in out-of-home detention decrease over the decade leading up to 2010, the number went up in Pennsylvania.

Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Cases Challenging Juvenile Life Sentences Without Chance of Parole

Today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases challenging the constitutionality of sentencing minors convicted of murder to life in prison without a chance for parole. The two cases are Miller v. Alabama (Case No. 10-9646) and Jackson v. Hobbs (Case No. 10-9647).

SCOTUSblog has provided a comprehensive background and analysis of both cases:

The facts in these two cases are typically tragic: youths who lived in violent homes, suffering from low self-esteem, moral neglect and worse, who then turn a criminal opportunity — maybe clumsily planned — into a homicide.

Evan James Miller grew up in a poverty-stricken family in rural north-central Alabama, with a father so physically abusive that the boy tried six times to commit suicide — the first time when he was five years old. Beginning at age 8, he was treated from time to time for mental health problems. He and his siblings were removed from their home and put in foster care, when Evan was ten. After returning home, he became an active drug abuser.

In the summer of 2003, when he was 14, his family was living in the Country Life Trailer Court in what is known locally as the Five Points community, near the small town of Speake, Ala. Cole Cannon, 52, was a neighbor in the trailer park, and on the night of July 15, in a drunken state, he came to the Miller trailer looking for food. While he ate a plate of spaghetti, Evan and a visiting friend, 16-year-old Colby Smith, decided not to go to bed, but to go to Cannon’s trailer. They found a collection of baseball cards, and decided to sell them to get some money. Later on in the evening, Cannon, along with the boys, returned to the trailer. After drinking whiskey and smoking marijuana, a fight broke out, and Evan began hitting Cannon with a baseball bat, inflicting a serious head wound and breaking several ribs.

The boys took about $300 from Cannon’s wallet, and split it. They tried to clean up the blood around the trailer, and then decided to burn it. Thinking that the fire could be put out after they left, they turned on a faucet in a stopped-up sink and left. The fire burned on, and Cannon, severely enough injured that he could not get up from the floor, died in the fire, apparently of smoke inhalation. Evan was charged with two counts of murder, one count during an arson, and one count during a robbery. Colby made a deal to testify against Evan. Evan was tried as an adult, convicted of the charge of murder during an arson, and was given a mandatory prison sentence of life without parole. The defense lawyer failed to persuade the judge that the sentence was invalid under the Eighth Amendment. The Alabama Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence.

In the Arkansas case, the youth is Kuntrell Jackson, of Blytheville. He grew up in housing projects there, the scenes of drug abuse and other crimes, and had a very troubled youth without his father and with an abusive father figure in his mother’s boyfriend. His mother and a brother were sent to prison. Kuntrell was often in trouble with the police, for shoplifting, auto theft and other crimes, and had served time in a juvenile detention center as a serious offender.

On November 18, 1999, 14 days after his 14th birthday, he and two older youths, Derrick Shields and Travis Booker, decided to rob a local video store, Movie Magic. The two other boys, older than Kuntrell, went in first. He would later say that his role was to be the lookout, but, he too, entered the store. The boys demanded money from the store clerk, Laurie Troup. She refused, and said she was going to call the police, so one of the boys who had brought a shotgun shot her in the face, killing her. Kuntrell would later claim that Shields had been the shooter. The three fled the scene without taking any money.

Arrested months later, the boys admitted the crime. Kuntrell sought to be tried in juvenile court, but that was refused mainly because of his prior criminal record. He was convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery, and sentenced to a mandatory life-without-parole term. Later, in 2008, after the Supreme Court had decided Roper v. Simmons, ruling out the death penalty for minors who committed murder as minors, Kuntrell’s lawyers began a constitutional challenge to his sentence. The state Supreme Court upheld the sentence, concluding that the Supreme Court’s more recent decision in Graham v. Florida had drawn a clear constitutional line between homicide and non-homicide crimes for purposes of a life-without-parole sentence for a minor.

Transcripts in the Miller and Jackson cases were made available by the Supreme Court today. Audio is expected Friday at the Court’s website.

Argument Recaps: Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog has written a thoughtful and comprehensive recap of the ninety combined minutes of oral arguments. Another brief recap can be found at the Huffington Post.

Additional information, court filings, and media coverage are available below:

Briefs for the Petitioners:

List of Amicus briefs filed:

Media Coverage (special thanks to NJDC for compiling):

UPDATE (24 Mar 2012): Audio files of oral arguments are now online at the Supreme Court’s website: Alabama v. Miller; Jackson v. Hobbs.