The very last thing Family Court’s overworked judges wanted to see was more parents filing cases against their wayward teenagers.
Parents whose children play hooky, or run away, or stay out past curfew, can take them to court, accusing them of being “Persons in Need of Supervision.” These “PINS kids,” some as young as age 9, have been part of the city’s landscape ever since the early 1960s, the golden age of juvenile law reform in New York.
Nearly everyone in the Family Court system acknowledges that in the face of years of family dysfunction–so bad that parents have decided that only the law can resolve their personal crises–a judge can’t accomplish much. “Parents have this expectation that we’re going to be able to force this kid to come home and stay home,” says Family Court Judge Sharon Townsend, who has presided in Buffalo for 11 years. They hope, she says, that “I’ll wave my magic wand and fix the problem.”
Instead, the best Judge Townsend can usually do is refer the family to social service agencies for counseling. She can send teens to live in a group home run by the Administration for Children’s Services or one of its private contractors. But supervision at many of those residences is notoriously lax. Teens in group homes routinely run away, and more than a few of those who stay spend their nights hanging out on the streets and testing the limits of what the city’s toughest neighborhoods have to offer.
What Judge Townsend cannot do is force a child to come home on time, start attending school, or stop seeing her boyfriend. Nor can she force parents to take care of their own problems–be they drug use, domestic violence or unrealistic rules–even though they may have a lot to do with why their child has gone out of control. Under PINS, the young person is by definition the problem; the parent, the beleaguered supplicant seeking warrants from the courts.
For all these reasons, Townsend, as well as Family Court Judges Ruth Jane Zuckerman, then sitting in the Bronx and president of the New York City Family Court Judges Association, and Joan Kohout of Monroe County spoke out during legislative hearings three years ago against a plan to expand the reach of New York State’s PINS law.
“As I talk to judges across the state, there are few cases that they report to me are more challenging than the cases involving Persons in Need of Supervision. These are social problems that often don’t lend themselves to easy resolution in our court settings,” testified Kohout. “The tools we have and our skills are not sufficient to end up with good results for most of the young people who come in before us.”
But in the end, the New York state legislature and Governor Pataki listened not to the judges and social workers, but to a coalition of parents, mostly from rural upstate counties, seeking to bring New York in line with 37 other states. For generations, young New Yorkers under the age of 16 could be brought to court under PINS. As of July 1 of this year, the law applies to anyone younger than 18.
The Vera Institute of Justice, which has studied the change closely, predicts it will double the number of PINS cases that end up in Family Court, from about 2,500 to 5,000 statewide. In New York City, more than one in five of these kids will end up in group homes, at a cost of $170 a day.
The city’s social service system will not have any easier a time handling these older teens than their parents did. Counseling, mediation and other alternatives to court are woefully underfunded, forcing families to wait anywhere from 30 days to three months for an initial appointment, according to Vera researcher Ajay Khashu.
Now add to that the lunacy that is late teen life under the best of circumstances–and these are the worst. These adolescents have had their problems for a longer time than their younger peers, and they’re the most likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. Many older teens are basically living on their own and fending for themselves, and they are unlikely submit to a court’s authority. “We know their needs are different,” says Phil Coltoff, CEO of the Children’s Aid Society, which has a city contract to provide assessment services to families in Brooklyn and Manhattan to prevent them from ending up as PINS cases in court. “We are likely to see more aggravated cases.”
Whether the allegations are “keeps late hours” or “uses physical force,” the ritual in Family Court leads to the same dead end. On a Thursday in mid-September, Rosnay, a quiet and somewhat shy 16-year-old, sat in the hallway of Manhattan Family Court. Bored after waiting half a day for her case to be called, Rosnay rests her head on her mom’s shoulder, while Maria puts her arm around her daughter.
But their coziness belies bitter conflict between the two of them. In August 2001, Rosnay discovered she was pregnant. She ran away from home, and though she won’t say where she went, it was most likely to her boyfriend’s place.
“She didn’t want to live with me. She didn’t want to hear that I wanted her to come back,” says Maria after the hearing. “I hoped they would put in some sort of legal agreement so that she had to be here, so that she would know she couldn’t leave. I thought maybe a little bit of pressure would work, maybe it would help if she could hear it from another authority.”
Maria is typical of the parents whose children end up in PINS. “They file as a last resort,” says Coltoff. “They are frightened, scared, angry, looking for some sort of magical solution, and hoping that a man or woman in a black robe will give it to them.”
PINS is deeply ingrained in social service lore. Parents learn about it from schools, police, and social service agencies, and most of all from friends and neighbors. Asked how she heard about PINS, Maria, who moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic 20 years ago, says simply, “Everybody knows about the court.”
Typically brought by a mother, complaints cover the whole wild spectrum of teenage behavior, from staying out past curfew and talking back to potentially serious problems, such as chronic truancy, gang membership and drug use.
For girls, who constitute the majority of PINS cases brought to court, mothers often have an additional complaint: sexual activity. “Parents, especially single moms, tend to be more watchful over the girls’ sexual behavior than the boys,” observes Sonia Smith of the East New York Family Center, which works with troubled families. Some mothers fear that a teen pregnancy will saddle them with a new baby in the house. Many, afraid their daughters are following in their footsteps, will say, “I don’t want my child to go this way, because I went this way,” according to Smith.
Almost unavoidably, however, PINS cannot deliver on parents’ hopes. They end up disappointed. Judges end up frustrated. And the kids remain stressed and adrift.
Last August, Family Court granted Maria a warrant to retrieve Rosnay and bring her to the courthouse. The police carried it out and took Rosnay away under arrest. The court sent her to a group home in Corona, where she lived with a dozen other girls. But after two weeks, Rosnay’s mother decided to retrieve her. “The group homes aren’t so great,” says Maria now. “They let them go out at night and stay out until 1 in the morning. My daughter will take advantage of that.”
Maria’s concerns are well placed. Youngsters who weren’t doing well at home don’t exactly thrive in group homes, where supervision and structure are almost nonexistent. For instance, although truancy is a common reason why parents bring PINS petitions, school attendance actually decreases after teens enter group homes on these cases, according to a joint study by the Vera Institute and ACS.
But Rosnay’s current living situation is not exactly acceptable, either: She has been living with her 16-year-old boyfriend and his mother. Rosnay’s boyfriend happened to have a hearing in the same court that day, charged with stealing Maria’s credit card and spending $500 on it.
When Judge Mary Bednar finally hears the case, she’s apoplectic about Rosnay’s living arrangement. “They’re 16 years old!” she exclaims. “I’m not gonna let them live under the same roof!” Judge Bednar asks Maria if she’ll take Rosnay back; Maria says yes. Rosnay says she won’t go. And the judge adjourns the case for three weeks.
A very different kind of scenario was envisioned by the parents who mounted the high-energy lobbying campaign to expand PINS in New York. From upstate, the suburbs and Staten Island, these parents asked for the revision to the law in the hope that it would help them control their 16- and 17-year-old children, who were on the cusp of drug addiction or running away. Courts may not have power to control PINS kids, but these parents felt that simply having the law on their side would carry moral weight with their children–and they say their own experiences prove them right.
Dawn Balak, a parent from Schodack Landing whose lobbying efforts included staking out the Capitol Building in Albany with 15 balloons–“each one represented a kid I knew who was out on the street”–says she campaigned for the law after filing a petition against her own daughter.
“I had trouble with my 15-year-old and found out there was very little I could do once she was 16,” says Schodack, who accused her daughter of dating a 20-year-old drug addict. Schodack didn’t know where to turn, until she heard from other parents about PINS petitions. “I was lucky enough to meet the right people, and I PINSed her.”
They saw a judge who ordered family counseling–“the best thing that could have happened to us ever,” Schodack now says. Like many parents in these cases, Schodack needed counseling herself as well. “My parenting skills weren’t the best,” she admits, adding that an argument with her daughter had escalated into a physical confrontation before going to court. “I learned how not to put the fuel in the fire and learned to walk away.”
As for her daughter, the mere threat of going to a group home was enough to keep her in line: “It was kind of like an out for her,” says Schodack. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, this is it. I don’t want to go away. I don’t want to go to a home.’… Just the scare would have saved her.”
Gerald Grayson of Melville, another parent who lobbied for the law, says he became convinced of the need to give courts jurisdiction over 16- and 17-year-olds based on complaints he heard from other parents in the “tough love” group he runs. “The kids just pretty much did what they wanted to do,” says Grayson. “Young girls were living with drug pushers, things like that.” The constraints on law enforcement, he adds, were immensely frustrating. “The cops’ hands were tied. They couldn’t bring back runaways if they were over 16.”
Grayson acknowledges that a PINS case only serves as leverage if a child does not want to go to a group home, or will not be dissuaded from running away from wherever the court sends her. He still believes this is the rare case. “If they’re so hell-bent on destroying themselves,” he says, “there’s probably not a lot that can be done.”
Parents usually don’t bring a case until there’s a crisis. They discover a child’s truancy, or a youngster runs away, or a girl’s pregnancy becomes obvious. Beyond the immediate problem, however, big trouble has likely been brewing in the family for years.
“In at least half the cases, the problems referred to in the petition belong to the parent, not just the kid,” notes Coltoff of the Children’s Aid Society. Parents might themselves use drugs, allow unsavory adults into the home or use corporal punishment against their children–activity that under other circumstances the very same judges would rule as neglect or even abuse by the parents. (In a sample of 200 PINS cases in Brooklyn and Queens, the Vera Institute found that ACS had open neglect or abuse files for 18 percent of the youngsters; counselors subsequently referred an additional 21 percent to ACS for investigation.)
As for the kids, Coltoff estimates that one-third are severely depressed. Many, he says, have already experienced the death of a close friend or family member.
What these young people urgently need, say service providers, is intensive psychiatric therapy. While they might get referred for family counseling or mediation through a PINS case, few youngsters with psychiatric issues receive adequate help. If adolescents go to a group home, the chances of receiving good mental health services are extremely remote. A much-repeated refrain is that teens need services located in their neighborhoods, including counseling, mentoring and after-school programs. Without these programs, courts can offer no solutions. They may even be making problems worse when they send kids to group homes.
Sometimes, these adolescents’ family lives are so chaotic that going to a group home is a welcome relief. (Some arrive at the court house carting an extra set of clothes.) But even when teens are okay with being in a group home, they often object to being placed on the defensive in court. When the adults in the home file a PINS case, the kids rightly feel they are being scapegoated for the family’s problems.
“Getting a PINS taken out on you makes you feel like garbage, plain and simple,” wrote Alene Taylor about her experience in Family Court in the pages of the magazine Foster Care Youth United. Taylor, who was being mistreated at home, ultimately decided that going into ACS care was for the best, but she bitterly resented the accusation that she was at fault. “My mother took out the PINS on me because she claimed I was running away and causing problems at home. Really there was a lot more going on. I was being abused at home and when I told my mother, she said that it was my fault,” wrote Taylor.
PINS cases are, by definition, litigation, pitting parents against children in an adversarial role. That situation can in itself be an impediment to solving the family’s problems. “Part of the issue is getting parents to be involved and not just pointing the finger at the kid,” says Judge Townsend. What’s more, some parents see the PINS law as an easy way to have the government take a troubled child off their hands. “Courts become a dumping ground,” adds Townsend, with parents effectively saying, “‘I can’t handle this kid. You take him.'”
Although parents can arrange to have their children go into a group home simply by signing a voluntary placement agreement with ACS, many would rather go to the courts for a PINS. “ACS, for a lot of parents, is not a positive place to go for help,” says Smith of the East New York center. “ACS blames the parents,” she notes, whereas in a PINS case it’s the child who’s on the defensive.
In the last year or so, some Family Court judges have tried to up the ante. In the past two years, Judges Myrna Martinez-Perez and Paula J. Hepner of Brooklyn and Judge Ettore Simeone of Suffolk County have held young people in contempt of court for running away from group homes. Appellate courts have overturned the orders–but they’ve also begged the state legislature to modify a 1975 law that prohibits courts from sending youngsters in PINS cases to locked facilities.
The idea behind the 1975 law was that youngsters shouldn’t be sent to jail for behavior that isn’t criminal. Skipping school, staying out late or running away, no matter how self-destructive, is not a crime in New York.
Not every state uses such a punitive model as even the one New York has now. Louisiana and Florida, for instance, employ the concept of “Families in Need of Services,” or “Children in Need of Services.” Rather than condemning the teens for all that is wrong in the home, those models acknowledge that young people don’t run away, or stop going to school, in a vacuum. The distinction is not simply semantic: A judge who has jurisdiction over the entire family can order parents to comply with services; currently, parents’ participation in counseling or mediation is completely voluntary.
Alene Taylor, for one, thinks a broader approach makes sense. “Lots of times the situation is a lot more complicated than that you’re a bad kid (that you’re a person in need of supervision),” wrote Taylor. “Often it’s your entire family that really needs help. But when they take a PINS out on you, it makes you feel like you’re the only one to blame.”
Additional reporting by Hilary Russ.