Written by Tana M. Fye
So your child got into a fight? Or stole something? Or ran away from home? Or is smoking marijuana? Now you're wondering what happens. Look no further. I intend to give a brief guide as to what happens after a child gets into trouble with the law, step by step through the process.
Step 1: Petition
After a child gets into trouble, law enforcement may give them a citation to court, or may choose to simply provide reports to the County Attorney's Office. In either scenario, the County Attorney's Office files a Petition with the Court. The Petition states the allegations that the County Attorney is making about what occurred. Typically the juvenile and the parents also receive a summons, telling when to be at court to answer those allegations.
Step 2: First Court Appearance
The first court appearance has different names in different counties. It may be called a First Appearance, an Admit/Deny Hearing, or an Arraignment. No matter the name, the purpose is the same. The judge advises the juvenile of his/her rights, the allegations in the petition, and the dispositional options that the judge has (these will be discussed in Step 4). The judge determines whether the juvenile and his/her parents intend to hire an attorney, or whether they'd like a court-appointed attorney to be appointed. The judge also determines whether the juvenile wants to admit or deny the allegations. I encourage people to hire an attorney or ask for a court-appointed attorney if they can't afford to hire an attorney. I also encourage people to enter a denial so that they have the chance to talk to their attorney before proceeding further. There are often offers made by the County Attorney to the defense attorney, so it pays to wait and see.
Sometimes the Court will set the case for a continued admit/deny hearing if an attorney is appointed, and the purpose of that hearing is very similar to the first appearance. The judge wants to know whether the juvenile is ready to admit or deny, or if an adjudication needs to be scheduled.
Step 3: Adjudication
If the juvenile chooses to admit that the allegation in the Petition are true at an earlier hearing, this step is omitted. However, if the juvenile denies the allegations, then an adjudication happens. An adjudication is the term used in juvenile court to describe a trial.
The County Attorney presents evidence, through witnesses and exhibits to establish that their allegations are true. The juvenile with his/her attorney can choose to present evidence (witness testimony and exhibits) or not. The juvenile with his/her attorney can make arguments to the Court (the judge) about why the State (the County Attorney) has not proven their allegations. The trial is to a judge only, as there is no right to a jury trial in juvenile court. The judge can make a decision immediately at the end of the trial, or can take the matter under advisement (meaning issue a written decision later).
If the judge rules in favor of the juvenile, and finds that the State has not proven the allegations, then the case is dismissed. The juvenile has no further court appearances to make. If instead, the judge rules in favor of the State, and finds that the allegations have been proven, the next step is disposition.
Step 4: Disposition
Disposition is similar to sentencing in adult court. The attorneys make arguments to the judge about what the consequences and services should be for the juvenile. The juvenile and his/her parents can make statements to the judge.
The judge can also consider a document called a Pre-Dispositional Investigation (PDI). Judges sometimes order these after an admission or an adjudication, to get additional information and recommendations. The PDI is completed by the juvenile probation office, after testing and interviews with the juvenile and his/her parents. It includes information about the juvenile's family, friends, hobbies/interests, employment, education, and any juvenile or criminal history. This document is provided to the judge and the attorneys after its completion. The juvenile's attorney will review it and then discuss it with the juvenile and his/her parents.
After considering all of the statements, arguments, and the PDI, the judge decides what the disposition will be for the juvenile. The most common outcome is probation, either supervised by the juvenile probation office, or unsupervised court probation. There are a whole host of services that can be ordered as part of probation. These include, counseling, classes, group therapy, community service, school contracts, curfew, family support, and really anything that the judge or probation believes will be beneficial to the juvenile. If the juvenile is placed on probation, then no other hearings will be held, unless a probation violation is filed.
If instead, the problems are more severe, the judge can also place the juvenile out of his/her parents' home. This could be a foster care placement, a group home, a shelter, detention, drug treatment center, or at YRTC (Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center). I tell clients that if a placement out of home is coming, the family and the juvenile will know it. The problems are pretty bad, and there should be no surprise about it. There are two YRTCs in Nebraska--Geneva for girls, and Kearney for boys. A placement at YRTC only comes after all other placement options and probation services have been exhausted. If the juvenile is placed out of home, then the case is reviewed at least every 6 months until the juvenile is returned home.