Court Intake Personnel

Section 2.7

Court Intake Personnel Should Not Accept Jurisdiction Over Any Status Offense Case Until it has Been Determined that the Applicable Statutory Requirements were Met and that the Agency that First Responded to the Claim Made Reasonable Efforts to Avoid Court Involvement by Exhausting all Available, Culturally Appropriate, Pre-court Assessments, Services, Entitlements and Treatments

The juvenile justice system is based on the assumption that courts are capable of responding to youths’ needs with resources.  But this assumption is increasingly unfounded.  As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in McKiever v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528, 547 (1971), the “juvenile concept” holds promise but, “[s]o much depends on the availability of resources, on the interest and commitment of the public, on willingness to learn, and on understanding as to the cause and effect and cure.”  Overloaded case dockets and the paucity of services available argue for diverting youth away from the courts and redirecting them to other parts of social service systems’ safety nets. 

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In light of this and recent research showing the deleterious effects court processing can have on youth and families (as discussed in Section 2.1), court systems should make every effort to avoid petitioned status offense cases.  An important way for courts to do this is to critically assess what efforts first responders made to identify the reason the youth was referred to them and to implement a proper course of action that exhausts all available resources to help the child and family resolve their problems outside of court.  In many instances, courts’ ideal role is to coordinate responses and warn parents of the consequences of failure to address the circumstances and causes of their children’s behavior while directing cases into other appropriate systems.

Courts should develop clear protocols for intake officers to follow for each type of status offense to assure that no case is petitioned before the intake officer has determined that every reasonable effort was made to avoid court involvement.  The phrase “reasonable efforts” has long been a benchmark in child welfare cases for courts to critically analyze agency efforts to preserve and reunify families.  Laws in every state require the provision of services that will help families in the child welfare system remedy the conditions that brought them into the system.  Generally, agency efforts must include “accessible, available and culturally appropriate services that are designed to improve the capacity of the family to provide safe and stable homes for their children.”1   The types of services that may be offered to comply with the reasonable efforts mandate include services like respite care, family therapy, home visiting programs, parenting classes or parent and family support groups.  

For all status offense referrals, intake officers should similarly review pre-court efforts with an emphasis on diversion services and assessments and treatments that identify the cause of the case referral, enhance the family’s capacity to address its own problems and provide a safe environment for the child.  They should also ensure that the child and family were able to reap the benefits of any applicable federal or state entitlement programs that would make formal court processing unnecessary. (See Section 3.11 and commentary.)  

Courts should develop clear protocols for intake officers to follow for each type of status offense to assure that no case is petitioned before the intake officer has determined that every reasonable effort was made to avoid court involvement.

Intake officers must also assess whether the behaviors alleged in fact meet the statutory definition of the status offense charged and that all statutory pre-requisites to court involvement were followed.  For example, many state statutes use terms like “habitual,” “without good cause” or “intentional” to describe status behaviors.  They may also require education or juvenile justice systems provide certain services or assistance before they can petition cases to court.  Yet, petitioners often fail to show how the alleged behaviors meet these criteria, or courts fail to fully assess whether the statutory definitions or pre-requisites were met.  As part of the intake officer’s reasonable efforts mandate to avoid court, he or she should screen out cases that do not meet statutory criteria.2

Efforts first responders must make will vary, depending on the alleged status behavior charged, the services available in the jurisdiction and state law or policy requirements. However, as discussed in more detail in Section 2.7 and Section 3.11, best practices suggest that intake officers should not accept jurisdiction over an alleged status case without minimally reviewing the extent of pre-court diversion efforts, whether statutory criteria for the alleged offense are met and whether other laws or entitlement preclude petitioning a status offense court case.

1 Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2006) Reasonable Efforts to Preserve or Reunify Families and Achieve Permanency for Children.  Washington, D.C.: Department of Health and Human Services, ACYF/Children’s Bureau.

2 For a more in depth discussion of meeting statutory criteria before petitioning a status offense case, see Smith, T. (2010). “Pre-adjudication Strategies for Defending Juveniles in Status Offense Proceedings” in Representing Juvenile Status Offenders.  Washington, D.C.: American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, 62-66. Available at: