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Catch-16

Slipping through the safety net for juveniles.

"We don't have a magic formula to force a kid to come to school," Steinberg says. "We work with the Arapahoe County courts, but students who are older than fifteen can't be referred to the court for that kind of intervention. It's a bit of a handcuff for us."

"The level of funding to create an appropriate infrastructure to handle truancy doesn't exist," says Andy Lutz, executive director of the 18th Judicial District's Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC). "Look at the federal funding cuts for education, youth corrections, human services, the Medicaid changes that are coming down the pike. If you don't have the ability to access those resources, it really does put the family and kid in a situation of failure."

The JAC (www.jac18.org) works with Cherry Creek -- and 23 other school districts in four counties, as well as courts and community agencies -- to connect at-risk juveniles and their families with appropriate services. Although the juvenile population in the district is going up, Lutz has seen a notable decrease in the number of truancy petitions filed with the court in recent years, and an even greater drop in detentions, from several hundred a year to around eighty. That may be because of the lack of detention facilities -- in 2003 the state legislature put a hard cap on the number of juvenile-detention beds statewide -- or because of a growing recognition that the petition process takes too long to be of much use to students who are already approaching their sixteenth birthday. In any event, Lutz doesn't think detention is the answer in most cases; studies suggest that truant kids who go into detention often emerge as juvenile delinquents.

"They meet friends in there and start to model some of their behaviors," Lutz explains. "Arapahoe County has historically incarcerated a lot of truants. But does that address the issue? We want to figure out what risk factors exist and what system is going to best serve the kid."

Many of the programs for juveniles available through the courts are designed to target specific bad behavior, such as involvement in drugs or gangs. Kids whose contact with the law consists of petty offenses often slip away under the radar, with minimal attention from municipal or county courts, unless something happens to bring their case to the attention of the JAC or a district court judge.

"You run into what I call 'silos of funding and silos of responsibility,'" Lutz says. "Some resources are only accessible to youth and families that fit certain criteria. And insurance doesn't provide adequate coverage for kids who might need mental-health services or substance-abuse treatment. It's pathetic. What you're seeing is indicative of the dysfunction of youth services as a whole."

DeEtte says a social worker told her that if Kaeleigh committed a felony, the system could do more for her. The family also visited the JAC, but thought the recommended program would only introduce their daughter to more serious offenders. "I thought it was a great program for gangbangers," DeEtte adds.

Lutz acknowledges that teens like Kaeleigh are too often ignored by the system. When they're young, there's a tendency to "give the kid a break" and let violations slide, until the offenses become too serious to dismiss. "Sometimes the most difficult kids are bumping up against the system on minimal stuff," he says. "We've had some scary kids at the JAC who came here on some low-end cases -- curfew, shoplifting, things like that. The tendency is to look at the offense without looking at the kid. There has to be a way for them to access resources without having to commit a felony or get involved in D&N [dependency and neglect] court."

Lutz's center lost a third of its funding in budget cuts two years ago but still manages to see 3,000 juveniles annually. (There are about 10,000 arrested in the judicial district each year.) The center takes what Lutz calls a "strength-based approach," looking not just at what's going wrong but what might be working well within a family -- for example, whether the juvenile has a connection to a particular class, sport or positive role model that could be further developed into a plan of action.

"Families have to learn how to deal with a crisis without overdosing on consequences, and they have to tie the kid into that discussion from the start," he says. "We run into situations where a family will strip the kid's room, for example -- but then you limit your ability to provide any meaningful level of consequence after that."

By fall of last year, the Altvaters had all but run out of options. Kaeleigh, now a sophomore at Eaglecrest, was barely bothering to show up at school. Not surprisingly, she was flunking almost all of her classes. The notable exception was band; DeEtte says her daughter has perfect pitch, taught herself to play the piano and has a natural talent for music and art. Although Kaeleigh was frequently at odds with the rest of the family, emancipation was out of the question without employment, and she couldn't even seek a GED without a special waiver until she turned seventeen.

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