Juvenile courts are very different than adult courts. Juvenile courts deal exclusively with matters concerning minor children. Minors are children under eighteen (18) years of age.
Juvenile courts try to address problem behaviors or lapses in necessary care for minor children. Juvenile courts often partner with schools, other state agencies, health care and mental health professionals, and law enforcement.
The courthouses that handle juvenile cases are protected environments, and the general public cannot attend these court hearings. The court records and the court hearings themselves are strictly confidential, and they are not disclosed to the general public. For instance, unlike in an adult courthouse, you can’t just walk into a juvenile courtroom. Only the people with a direct connection to the juvenile matter will be allowed to come inside of the courtroom. In the same way, you can’t just get information about a juvenile case from the court clerk’s office. Information about juvenile cases is only disclosed to those having direct involvement in the particular case like parents, lawyers, or juvenile court officials.
Juvenile courts hear three types of cases: (1) delinquency; (2) child protection; and (3) status offenses. Each of these types of cases has an entirely different focus.
Delinquency matters are cases where the minor child has been arrested for an alleged violation of criminal laws. The purpose of delinquency matters is to provide individual supervision to correct the problem behaviors, as well as any necessary counseling or treatment, in a manner consistent with overall public safety.
Delinquency cases do not result in criminal convictions. Unless the offense is serious – like an act of violence – delinquency matters are usually resolved without a formal finding. Typical results include counseling, acts of community service, and active monitoring by a juvenile probation officer for a short time period. Even if a serious case requires a formal adjudication as a juvenile offender, these findings are not public, and do not have the same consequences as an adult criminal conviction.
Child Protection Cases
Child protection matters involve situations where the Department of Children & Families (DCF) files court documents alleging abuse, neglect, or imminent harm of a minor child. These are not cases where the minor child is accused of having done anything wrong. Instead, the focus of child protection cases is on implementing corrective steps to protect the child from continued and future harm.
These cases arise when DCF receives information, usually from a mandated reporter, that the minor child is being harmed or neglected. DCF, on behalf of the State, acts to investigate and remove the child from the harmful environment. These cases are often complex, and can require the assistance of school, health care and mental health professionals to address the situation. Typical results for child protection matters can range from intense family counseling and active DCF monitoring to outright termination of parental rights and removal of the minor child.
Status Offense Cases
Finally, juvenile courts also address status offense matters. These cases, also called Families With Service Needs (FWSN) matters, address behavioral problems that do not rise to the level of criminal offenses. Common examples include running away from home or truancy. Many times there is a problem in the family environment that needs to be addressed in order to correct the minor child’s problem behaviors.
FWSN cases are often resolved through referrals for education, counseling, and treatment services from local outpatient providers. The idea is to stop and correct the minor child’s problem behaviors before they turn into more serious criminal behaviors (such as delinquency matters or adult crimes).