Nearly 5,000 young people get in trouble with the law and land in Oahu’s Family Court each year, but their cases are confidential by law so few people know who they are, how they wound up in court or what happens to them.
Concerned that "out of sight" often means "out of mind," Senior Family Court Judge R. Mark Browning allowed the Star-Advertiser behind the veil of secrecy at Family Court in Kapolei in hopes of raising awareness of the challenges these children face. He sees them as individuals with names and faces, on the brink of peril, who deserve more help than society gives them.
"We think we put a high priority on our kids," said Browning, who left private practice 16 years ago to become a full-time judge. "We don’t, not based on what I see. We need to understand that these kids belong to all of us, and for the most part they are all good kids."
A common thread in their cases is a troubled home environment. Eighty percent of youthful offenders abuse alcohol or drugs, and many have mental health issues, Browning said. Often they resort to substance abuse to cover up trauma at home.
"A lot of times, these kids have never had anybody tell them their life is worth anything," Browning said. "The youngest addict I ever dealt with was a 10-year-old. I can’t tell you how many kids end up cutting themselves just to mask the pain."
VIOLENT CRIMES LESS THAN COMMON Violent “index crimes” account for just 2.5 percent of juvenile arrests in Hawaii. Most arrests are for running away, truancy, theft and drug paraphernalia.
2011 JUVENILE ARRESTS
>> 131 robbery
Soaring stained-glass windows at the Kapolei Judiciary Complex feature swirling ocean waters that filter the light in soothing hues. Inside, the raw torment of domestic discord plays out every day. Family Court of the 1st Circuit handles all cases involving children and families on Oahu, from youthful offenses to child custody disputes, domestic violence to divorce, paternity to guardianship.
"Any issue having to do with a child, whether civil or criminal, comes under one roof," Browning said. "We have a policy of one judge, one family, which allows our cases to have continuity."
The law requires confidentiality for juvenile proceedings to avoid stigmatizing children who are vulnerable and not held responsible as adults for their behavior, Browning said. The Star-Advertiser attended court hearings with the permission of participants and on the condition that minors not be identified.
More than 18,000 cases were filed in Family Court of the 1st Circuit the last fiscal year, according to the Judiciary’s annual report. About 4,900 cases involved juveniles: 2,292 for law violations and 2,596 for what are called "status offenses" — infractions that would not be crimes for adults, such as running away from home or violating curfew.
Violent crime is rare among Hawaii youth. The bulk of arrests of those under age 18 are for infractions such as running away, truancy, theft and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Of the 9,299 juvenile arrests statewide in 2011, just two youths were accused of murder or manslaughter, according to data kept by the Department of the Attorney General. Another 235 arrests — 2.5 percent of the total — were for the other violent "index crimes" of forcible rape, robbery or aggravated assault. That’s 46 percent lower than the comparable national percentage, according to the FBI’s database.
While serious juvenile crime requires serious consequences, Browning also sees Family Court as an opportunity to heal children and their families.
"Our mission as judges is not just to determine guilt or innocence," he said. "Our responsibility is to help these kids be what they deserve to be."
Despite high rates of substance abuse, juveniles in Family Court have little chance of receiving intensive treatment. The court offers some outpatient substance abuse counseling, but the need far outweighs the money available, and it has no funds for intensive family therapy or residential treatment, Browning said.
Only one residential facility on Oahu is dedicated to substance abuse treatment for youth, the Bobby Benson Center in Kahuku, and just one of its beds is set aside for youth in Family Court, Browning said.
"There are a lot of residential substance abuse programs for adults," the jurist said. "There is only one residential program for kids. Even if they qualify, kids have to wait three to six months."
Recognizing that many youth and families need close supervision and support to move onto a more productive path, Family Court has developed several specialty courts. They serve just a tiny fraction of those in need.
» Juvenile Drug Court works with up to 50 substance-abusing youthful offenders and their families at a time, down from 60 due to budget cuts.
» Girls Court, which focuses on the special needs of teenage girls, has a cohort of 10 girls and their families, with plans to add a second cohort soon.
» Family Drug Court, which works with parents to break the cycle of addiction and neglect, used to handle up to 45 cases but now can support just 25 to 30 cases after budget cuts eliminated two social worker positions.
» The newest program, Zero to Three Court, expedites efforts to help infants and toddlers at risk of abuse find safe, permanent homes. It can handle just 15 cases at a time.
Only Juvenile Drug Court and Family Court receive regular funding from the Legislature in the Judiciary’s budget. Girls Court and Zero to Three Court have depended on grants.
"If we don’t pay attention to this, if we simply say, ‘It’s not my problem,’ then we as a community don’t invest in resources for these kids," Browning said. "If you’re a taxpayer you should be concerned. Ultimately, it’s going to save the taxpayers exponentially to invest in these kids as opposed to simply incarcerating them."