Uniting to save children

By Ed Brock

By the time she came before Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske the woman had done all she could to help her son.

"Gail" said the trouble with the oldest of her three boys began when he was 2 years old.

"It's just a lot of problems. It's been ongoing for a long time," said Gail, a 31-year-old single mother.

Her son, now 11, killed and mutilated six cats belonging to a neighbor when they lived in New Orleans. He has broken into cars, exposed himself to his classmates, fondled members of his own family and tried to burn her house down.

"He has done a lot of things that warrant his being arrested," Gail said.

But now Gail's son is one of several cases that have been brought before the Clayton County Collaborative Child Study Team, or "Quad-C ST Program." Formed by Teske on March 4, Quad-C ST is an early intervention program designed to bring together representatives from several different agencies to help troubled children before they enter the juvenile criminal system.

Research shows that many children who enter the juvenile court system suffered from abuse, neglect, mental or emotional disorders or have other special needs, Teske said.

"If we know for a fact that a considerable amount of delinquency in adolescence is a manifestation of maltreatment and other special needs from early childhood, then the system should do a better job responding to these needs early on through a process of identification, assessment and treatment," Teske said. "By intervening early in a child's life to address those factors that give rise to delinquency, we can significantly reduce the risk of that child becoming delinquent."

Members of the Quad-C ST panel are drawn from the Clayton County Department of Family and Children Services, the Clayton Center for Behavioral Health Services, the Clayton County Public School System, Clayton County Juvenile Court and the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

"Working together has allowed us to come up with new and creative ways to help families," said Adolphus Graves, Quad-C ST chairman.

In Gail's case she was brought before the panel to discuss the details of her case, including the fact that her son is now in state care after accusing her of strangling him and saying he was afraid to go home. A juvenile court officer told the panel that scratch marks were found on the boy's neck.

But Gail, who moved to Clayton County in December, said her son is mainly trying to get out of the house and away from her disciplinary influence. Her two other sons and daughter are all well behaved, Gail said, and the two sons who accompanied her to the hearing seemed obedient and cheerful.

After he was taken from her, Gail's son's record drew the attention of Teske who recommended him for the Quad-C ST program. The program was like nothing she had seen in New Orleans, Gail said, where people would offer to help but would never follow through.

"What made me want to participate was the willingness of everybody to help me," Gail said.

The advantage of the program, Teske said, is that it brings all the participating agencies together at once for a "single point of entry," allowing for more immediate communication and, thus, more immediate results.

After hearing Gail present her case the members of the panel began discussing a plan for helping the family. It involved arranging a psychiatric review of the boy, where to house him (he was causing trouble at the shelter where was sent and the shelter was on the verge of kicking him out) and even how to help Gail receive financial assistance from the state.

Before the panel members had left the building they had made an appointment for the boy with a doctor that would be held the next day.

That never would have happened before, said DFCS Administrator Aundria Cheever. Under the previous approach it could have take up to 45 days to arrange the appointment.

"If it wasn't for this committee I would not have known about this case," Cheever said.

A lack of communication between agencies was common under the usual system of allowing each agency to handle only their part in a child welfare case, Clayton County Public Schools Director of Special Education Tom Erdmanczyk said.

"We all may be working on the same child and working at cross purposes because we don't know what other agencies are involved," Erdmanczyk said.

In some counties a "turfishness" exists between agencies that keeps them from working together, Teske said. He said the Quad-C ST program, along with strong leadership among Clayton County agencies, will eliminate that problem.

Even if the efforts to keep Gail's son out of the court system fails, Erdmanczyk said, there will now be a plan on how to handle him if that happens.

Quad-C ST is an extension of the county's FAST-START Program that focuses on providing alternatives to detention for some juvenile offenders. The panel now meets every other week, but as the program progresses it will meet every week so they can handle more cases.

Also, each participating agency has criteria that help them to define cases that should be brought to the Quad-C ST panel, but Teske said he also hopes to "broaden the net" in the future to open the program to more youths.

The FAST-START panel has reduced the number of young people detained in the county's youth detention center by 30 percent in 2003, Teske said, and there is no reason why the same model can't work in early intervention to reduce the overall rate of delinquency and deprivation.