Callie Thornton

Juvenile court judges cannot jail delinquent foster kids in county lockups just to keep the kids from running away, a Miami appeals court ruled Wednesday, ending a years-old practice that child welfare authorities have employed to protect runaway kids from themselves.

In a short decision involving a 12-year-old girl in foster care -- identified in records only as J.J. -- the Third District Court of Appeal said delinquent children can be held in secure detention only under ``strict statutory criteria.'' Protecting the child from herself is not one of the accepted criteria, the court wrote.

``Although we sympathize with the trial court's motive -- getting J.J. to stay in one place long enough to get the help she needs -- detention is not authorized under these circumstances,'' the opinion stated. It was signed by Judges Gerald B. Cope, Jr., David M. Gersten and Barbara Lagoa.

The opinion, a ruling on a habeas corpus petition, does not specify what charges J.J. was facing. But at a conference before a Miami-Dade judge, who is not named, the girl's guardian and school principal complained they were ``concerned for her safety and well-being.

``They indicated that J.J. needs medical and dental examinations, psycho-educational testing to determine appropriate school placement, and a psychiatric evaluation,'' the opinion states. But J.J.'s ``conduct'' made it impossible for her foster care caseworkers to get such testing done.

``With the best of intentions,'' the opinion states, ``and an effort to do what is in J.J.'s best interest, the trial court ordered her secure detention.''

J.J.'s situation is not unusual: Throughout the state, hundreds of children in state care have had some contact with the juvenile justice system.

``Some children need assistance beyond what they can get in their residential setting,'' said DCF's child welfare chief, Alan Abramowitz. But, he added, DCF has alternatives for getting such help.

First, caseworkers can ask a judge to order a dependent child into a residential treatment center for long-term psychiatric care. Under state law, such children are entitled to a lawyer and a hearing before they can be committed to a treatment center against their will.

DCF also can have a troubled child committed to a psychiatric hospital under the state's involuntary commitment law, called the Baker Act, Abramowitz said.

``We have a lot of safeguards,'' Abramowitz said. ``We want the youth in our dependency system not to be punished because they were abused or neglected.''

Of the roughly 2,500 children in the Miami-Dade's child welfare system under 18, about 7 to 10 percent have been involved with the juvenile justice system at some point, said Fran Allegra, who heads Miami's privately run foster care agency, Our Kids.

``Generally,'' Allegra said, ``these teenagers have resided in group care and have been in the system for a long time.'' Miami is one of seven U.S. cities that will be part of a Georgetown University study of how to improve coordination of services for youth in the delinquency and foster care systems, she said.

Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez, whose office represents J.J., said jailing children to protect them from themselves is both costly and counterproductive. Children in the detention center, he said, cost the county $281 per day.

``Locking a child up increases the likelihood of future criminal activity,'' Martinez said. ``This is the latest in a long line of appellate court opinions instructing a juvenile judge to follow the law. We remain vigilant.''

Frank Penela, a Tallahassee spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Justice, said his agency has not sought to lock up children who don't meet the criteria for secure detention.

``We just follow the letter of the law,'' Penela said. ``Current law establishes detention admissions criteria. Today's ruling reflects that law and we agree with the decision.''

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