Churches asked to help rescue youths from trouble

By Greg Gelpi

Determined to end the cycle of repeat juvenile offenders and prevent them from becoming adult offenders, one judge is rallying support from county churches.

Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracy Graham met with the Clayton County Ministers' Conference Thursday. She asked the group to pool their resources in an attempt to provide help to juvenile offenders and their families.

"The whole goal of the juvenile court is for them to never have an adult record," she said. "I guess God tapped me on the shoulder and said ?Psst, try the churches.'"

With dozens of churches in the county already conducting programs from parenting classes to after school basketball leagues, the judge is collecting a list of the programs. Graham said she would direct those interested to the juvenile court office for more information.

"A lot of times kids get in trouble because they get bored," Graham said. "We don't really have any bad kids here in Clayton County. We just have kids who make bad decisions.

"If you wear their little fannies out, they're too tired to get into trouble," she said, explaining that children need about 80 percent of their time occupied.

Although Graham can't order offenders to participate in programs sponsored by faith-based organizations, she can direct offenders and their families to the proper resources, she said.

For instance, a mother who says her son needs help in school, but can't afford to pay for a tutor, can attend free tutoring sessions at Shiloh Baptist Church in Jonesboro, she said.

"The children I see in court are really open to this," Graham said. "If I would have known to turn to God when I was growing up, it sure would have been a whole heck of a lot easier."

Sharing her sentiments, John C. Johnson III, an attorney who represents children, told the judge he is working to get his own youth programs going.

"We need to keep kids busy between the first hearing and disposition," he said.

The grant money he received will fund a program to help juveniles begin their paths towards a career, he said.

About 6,000 to 7,000 children went through the juvenile justice system last year in Clayton County, Graham said. Many of those have little brothers and sisters who are at higher risk of becoming offenders themselves, she said.