Prevention and Intervention

Section 2.4

Law Enforcement Systems Should Focus on Prevention and Intervention by Connecting Children and Families to Needed Services In Lieu of Charging or Detaining Children Alleged to have Committed Status Offenses

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Juvenile court involvement should be the choice of last resort for law enforcement and used only after available alternatives have been exhausted.   In recognition of the limited effectiveness of court-based intervention for youth charged with status offenses, officers should manage their arrest and custody authority in ways that trigger court involvement only in limited cases where pre-court diversion efforts have been unsuccessful. Where safety appears to be a central issue, officers should strongly consider whether another system or community-based provider would provide better protections and services.  Likewise, officers should not detain youth who have allegedly committed a status offense.  (See Section 3.8) for a discussion of the dangers of detention). Pre-court detention can be avoided when officers critically assess whether the child can return home (which may include contacting another first responder, such as a social service agency, to help make this determination) or identify temporary kinship or respite care options for the child pending the implementation of services or assistance that would allow the child to safely return home.

Often, a youth’s behavior is a function of their perceived options.  When dealing with youth engaged in status behaviors, officers should investigate why the youth chose a particular course of action and how his or her environment—school, home or community—played a role in that choice. Officers should then contact the appropriate informal support system, community-based service provider or formal service system to further assist the child and family.  For juvenile offenders, the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies requires law enforcement systems to make an effort to understand the cause of the behavior, stating: “Beyond enforcing the law with respect to juvenile offenders, agencies should make a firm commitment to implement procedures directed toward addressing the causes of the behavior and to develop programs designed to prevent juvenile delinquency.”1 Just as an officer should not arrest a person accused of committing an offense without some level of probable cause or reasonable suspicion, an officer should not refer a youth for investigation as a status offender without some level of investigation as to the institutional dynamics that may be causing the conduct in question.  Using problem-solving techniques, officers should seek to understand the cause of the youth’s behavior and the role of adults in the youth’s choices and identify the best responders to it. This requires distinct police strategies for specific categories of status behaviors.

When dealing with youth engaged in status behaviors, officers should investigate why the youth chose a particular course of action and how his or her environment—school, home or community—played a role in that choice. 

Most American police departments use the community policing model to problem-solve, collaborate with other government and community entities and gather information and community input.  Community policing requires recognition of “policing as a broad function, not a narrow law enforcement or crime fighting role.”2  As applied to truancy, for example, this approach would require law enforcement to first determine whether the youth is out of school because of a school decision (i.e. suspension), an action by the parent (i.e. failing to provide transportation, requiring youth to stay home for caretaking or other reasons) or another reason (i.e. bullying, school failure due to learning disability, depression).  In a runaway case, it would require the officer to consider what situation the youth is running from, and the frequency of the running.  Key to officers’ responses in each situation is the understanding that the youth’s behavior is the manifestation of situations caused by adults as well as a call for help.

1 Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (2007). Standard 44 Juvenile Treatment and Custody.

2  U.S. Department of Justice, Community Oriented Policing Services, defines the key elements of community policing as problem solving and community partnerships with government agencies, community members and groups, nonprofit service providers, and businesses. Gordner, G. Community Policing: Principles and Elements. National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence.  Available at: