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Helping kids in trouble
"What would be a fitting punishment for a teen-ager who is caught throwing eggs at a house? Maybe a weekend of picking up garbage and washing windows or researching and writing a report on chicken farming.A group of six local people will get to make these types of decisions beginning this month under a new Island County Juvenile and Family Court Services program.Island County Superior Court judges Alan Hancock and Vickie Churchill recently presented members of the new Community Accountability Board with plaques and thanked them for volunteering to help the county's youth. The accountability board was something we wanted for a long time, Churchill said. We really want to make a difference with the youth who make it to our court system.According to Mike Merringer, the administrator of Juvenile Court Services, the board's role will be to meet with juvenile offenders who agree to go before the board, interview them and possibly some family members. Then the group will have to come up with a contract, he said, that includes appropriate sanctions and resources. Depending on the crime and the child's situation, they can come up with creative conditions that the juvenile will have to fulfill in order to complete the contract.They can be far more flexible than the normal disposition in court, Merringer said, but noted that there are statutory limits on the hours of community service work. They can assign educational requirements, such as reading a book and writing a report. They require counseling or drug and alcohol treatment.The board members are meant to represent a cross-section of county residents. They include Theresa Rogers, Big Brothers/Big Sisters administrator Dawn McMasters, Red Cross director Jean Hermanson, local pastor and counselor David Chittim, Health Department employee Carol McNeil and Oak Harbor developer Rick Almberg.The board is really an extension of the regular diversion program, which allows juveniles who commit their first offense - which cannot be any more serious than a gross misdemeanor - to avoid court by completing certain programs. But instead of a case worker deciding the conditions of the diversion from a limited set of choices, with the Community Accountability Board, Hancock said the child must go before a group of community members who can apply their own experience and wisdom to the situation.It has far more of an impact to walk into a room with a panel of community members than to walk into an office with just me sitting there, Merringer said. He added that many counties have already had much success with accountability boards.Beyond making an impression, Merringer said the program will also give the board members, and hopefully the community, a better appreciation of the problems many juveniles and their families face - things like domestic abuse, drug use, poverty and homelessness. The six board members have already gone through training that included an overview of court procedures, interviewing techniques, juvenile law and strategies for dealing with hostile participants.The board begins work later this month. They're going to start out dealing with just two kids a month, though Merringer said that could increase the number after the members have more experience. "