By ROBERT PIERCE
• Daily Leader
Youth who get in legal trouble in Seward County go through a process when being rehabilitated, and the county is now looking to implement a new step in that process which would save money.
Tuesday at a joint meeting of the Liberal City Commission and the Seward County Commission, county commissioner C.J. Wettstein spoke of the need for a step he believes needs to be put in place to keep many local juveniles from being transported to a facility in Garden City.
Wettstein said when kids skip school, the local Tri-Agency is the first step of attempting to get them back in school, thus keeping them out of the court system.
“If they still create problems after getting them back into the school system, the next option is sending them to Garden City,” he said. “They really don’t have anything in between where we can go.”
What Wettstein suggested was creating a juvenile farm, something he said was going to be a fairly expensive program, but law officials likely do not want to send the youth back to their parents, nor do they want to send them to Garden City.
“Just the cost of Garden City is a tough deal,” he said. “They’ve always said, ‘Maybe, we could have a step in between where they could have a facility where they come where they were in there and taken care of, watched over. They could go back to the school and see if they could work.’”
Wettstein said creating a juvenile farm would require many steps. It would be, he said, an alternative to sending juveniles to Garden City. He said the cost of sending youth to the Finney County community is about $140 to $145 a day, with an estimated yearly cost of about $300,000.
“I’m wondering if there isn’t something that we could look at as a step between the juvenile detention facility in Garden City and turning them back to their parents,” he said. “It sounds pretty good, but it’s going to be an expensive deal.”
Wettstein said with recent financial problems in the county, he is not sure whether the juvenile farm is feasible from a money standpoint. He said the county commission has decided to look into the idea, but it will take some time to plan.
“I think it’s something we really need to look into,” he said. “I think it may be something that we may have to try to work with the school system, the city and the county and all of us to work together. Right now, Tri-Agency is a three-way deal, and I think we’re going to have to maybe be looking at this and thinking about something like this to make it kind of a halfway house for kids.”
Wettstein said officials with the court system have said a place to do interventions with juveniles.
“See if it’s really a bad enough kid to go to Garden City or if it’s a kid where we might be able to utilize a local facility and save some money,” he said.
Wettstein said in past years, one assistant county attorney was not doing book work on some juveniles, meaning the youth would be spending as many as 90 days in jail. That stay has been shortened in recent years.
“Now, they’ve kind of got it down to where our average stay is about 30 to 45 days, and we’re even working with (county attorney Don) Scott to try to get it down lower than that,” he said. “I would say right now, the average stay is about 30 days.”
Both Wettstein and fellow county commissioner Toby Hale serve on the board for the 26th Judicial District’s Juvenile Correction and Prevention Services office, and Hale said the agency has been charged with working on the issue of correcting youth.
“JCAPS was designed to do that very job, and we need to go to work and make JCAPS work right,” he said.
Wettstein said after juveniles go through Tri-Agency, the next step is JCAPS’ Adolescent Support Services program.
“The next step is the kind of house they may have to stay in,” he said. “There’s a couple of houses – one in Pratt and one in Goddard – that we do send kids to in certain instances. Part of that problem is we have to send the ISOs to Pratt or Goddard to handle that. It’s a possibility. That would be something that would fit right in between right after adolescent support.”
Wettstein said while the legal system does need to play a part, so do parents.
“I’ve stressed all along we need to have parenting classes to teach parents how to be parents,” he said. “The problem is we’ve actually tried having some of those, and about the only time you can get them to come is when they’re court ordered. We had a judge that was doing pretty well. She was sending kids back to school, and she was requiring the parents to go with the kid. She was doing a very fine job, and it makes a difference.”
Wettstein said parenting is the biggest problem in the process.
“We have about 75 percent of the parents who really don’t give a damn what their kids are doing,” he said. “It’s a tough situation. Now, Kathy Bloom out at the Extension is working on parenting classes. We’ve tried working parenting classes through Tri-Agency. With JCAPS, (director Mike Howell is) working on a parenting classes where we could go there. It’s just a tough situation, and until we figure out a way to teach parents to become parents, it’s going to be a problem.”
County counsel Dan Diepenbrock said, however, there are legal problems with a juvenile farm.
“A juvenile farm may be a good rehabilitation program for juveniles, but the reason juveniles are transported to Garden City is because they meet the criteria for being incarcerated,” he said. “If you’re thinking of a juvenile farm, it’s going to have to meet the specs and standards for incarcerating violent juveniles.”
Wettstein said many of the youth in question are not violent, however.
“There’s some that really need it, but there are some that go to Garden City that actually would not have to go Garden City, but we have no other place for them to go,” he said.