Citizens Academy learns about those protecting the county’s youth
During week five of the Macon County Sheriff's Office 10- week Citizens Academy, participants learned about the services provided for the community's youngest residents. The juvenile investigation unit is designed to not only protect the rights of children in Macon County, but to also investigate incidents where minors are suspected of a crime. Led by Amy Stewart and Dani Burrows, the juvenile division of the MCSO is charged with the special task of working with the county's youth.
Detective Amy Stewart has 17 years experience with Macon County law enforcement which first began when she interned with the department while obtaining her associates degree from Southwestern Community College. Stewart first worked as a transport officer for the detention center before being promoted to a road officer. In 1998, Stewart was again promoted to Detective and in 1999 joined the Juvenile unit.
Stewart holds a Criminal Investigation Certificate from the North Carolina Justice Academy and is a member of the N.C. Juvenile Officers Association. In 2006, Stewart was named North Carolina Juvenile Officer of the year.
“Macon County is fortunate to have the talent and experience that Amy brings to the table,” said Macon County Criminal Investigations Lieutenant Charles Moody.
Stewart explained that the Juvenile division of the MCSO is responsible for any cases involving children 17 and under, regardless if that means a crime committed by a child or a crime committed against a child.
Juveniles in Macon County are placed in four categories. The categories allow MCSO to determine how the child will be handled in the court system if suspected of committing a crime and what services to provide if he/she is a victim of a crime. The four categories are delinquent, undisciplined juvenile, neglected juvenile, and abused juvenile.
If involved in a crime, juveniles are considered either delinquent or undisciplined. Delinquent juveniles are between the ages of six and 15 and are suspected of committing a crime. “In North Carolina, regardless of the crime, if a child is 16 or older, they are considered an adult in the court system,” explained Stewart. “If the crime is especially heinous, we can petition a judge for a child under 16 to be tried as an adult, but I don't recall that ever happening.”
Undisciplined Juvenile is a term used for 16 and 17 year olds. Stewart explained that this classification is typically used in cases of truancy or if teens run away from home.
Juvenile offenders going through the court system are automatically given a court appointed lawyer and a court counselor. According to Stewart, a court counselor acts as a liaison to the child and the District Attorney's Office.
Because of the varying classification for juveniles in North Carolina, Stewart noted that at times it becomes difficult to investigate crimes. “Children 16 and 17 years old are considered juveniles under some laws, but under others they are not, so prosecution becomes tricky.”
After being arrested for a suspected crime juvenile offenders are typically released into the custody of a guardian instead of being housed in the jail. Macon County Detention Center does not house children under 16 and in extreme cases where a minor needs to be held in jail, they are transferred to the closest facility which is in Hickory.
In the event a child is a victim of a crime, they are classified as either neglected or abused. A neglected juvenile is a child under the age of 18 who has not received proper care, supervision, or discipline from a parent or guardian. Neglected juvenile cases are handled jointly between MCSO and Department of Social Services (DSS). For a child to be considered legally abandoned and to be able to charge a parent or guardian for abandonment of a child, the child must be in an unsafe environment for a six-month period. Stewart explained because of the strict laws surrounding abandonment charges, she can only recall one case in 14 years in which it has happened in Macon County.
Abused juveniles are children under the age of 18 who have been physically or sexually abused. These cases are also handled jointly between MCSO and the DSS.
Cases involving abused juveniles are difficult to prosecute because in North Carolina, regardless of the age of the victim, they have to testify in court. “I think the youngest we had here was a four-year-old who had to testify against their abuser,” said Stewart.
In addition to providing services to victims of abuse, the MCSO is responsible for managing the child sex offender registry. In Macon County, there are 62 registered offenders. MCSO works diligently in checking up on each offender and providing the public with information and tools about offenders on the registry (sexoffender.ncdoj.gov).
MCSO and the Department of Social Services work closely with Macon County's non-profit organization KIDS Place when dealing with abused juveniles. KIDS Place is a private, nonprofit, nationally accredited children’s advocacy center. Local law enforcement agencies and DSS work with KIDS Place so victims will only have to do one interview, go to one place, which is designed to make children feel safe and comfortable. KIDS Place is equipped with a medical examiner room, a forensic interview room, has victim advocate services, and a family room. Victims are taken to KIDS Place and their interview is recorded for MCSO, Franklin Police and DSS purposes. By recording the interview, the victim doesn't have to relive the incident during multiple interviews by various agencies.
“KIDS Place is a great asset working in conjunction with MCSO for our community in serving the children that have been abused and neglected,” said Citizens Academy participant Belinda Gaines.
According to KIDS Place director Alisa Ashe, the organization sees 35 children on average each month. So far this year, KIDS Place has a 100 percent conviction rate for child abuse court cases. Only children referred by DSS or MCSO are seen at KIDS Place. “Our staff consists of one full-time executive director, a part-time victim assistant, and a parttime forensic interviewer/case coordinator,” said Ashe. “Counseling is provided onsite via contract, two days per week.”
Although KIDS Place is designed to directly supplement county departments, it is a private business. Funding is in majority provided by outside donors, with a small portion coming from county commissioners.
“In past years, KIDS Place has received $10,000 from Macon County through its Community Funding Pool,” said Ashe. “This is a pot of $50,000 that local nonprofits must compete for annually. As part of receiving this funding, KIDS Place has to sign a statement that it will not request any other funding in the county budget. Notification has not been made yet concerning this year’s funding through the Community Funding Pool. Town of Franklin funding – this year is the first time that KIDS Place has made a grant request to the Town of Franklin. I have submitted a grant request and now we wait to see what the town aldermen decide.”
“What KIDS Place does could not be more important to our county,” said Citizens Academy member and county commissioner Ronnie Beale. “The services they offer are invaluable.”
KIDS Place employee Brenda Taylor, who gave members of Citizens Academy a tour last Thursday, explained that while KIDS Place sees on average one new child a day, unfortunately some children are repeat victims and need the counseling services provided at the facility.
According to Stewart, MCSO handled 257 cases involving juveniles in 2012. Of those 257, 104 were cases involving children who were victims of physical or sexual abuse, 55 were cases involving juveniles as suspects in a crime, 51 were cases in which MCSO assisted DSS in noncriminal cases involving minors such as custody disputes, and 42 were cases in which MCSO provided counseling or other services in incidents involving juveniles.
While 2012 saw a 27 case increase from 2011, Stewart said she believes the increase is not due to an increase in crime, but an increase in reporting, which she attributes in part to having School Resource Officers (SRO).
Detective Dani Burrows presented to the Citizens Academy about the SROs in Macon County. Burrows began her career with the MCSO seven years ago in the detention center. She was then transferred to Franklin High School were she was assigned the duty of SRO. While at FHS, Burrows helped to implement the R.I.S.E. (Respect Integrity Success Empathy) club. She was named Macon County SRO of the year in 2010 and was supervisor of the SRO program before being promoted to Juvenile Detective.
Macon County employs a total of five full time SROs. MCSO has provided one SRO for Macon Middle School, one for Mountain View Intermediate School, two for Franklin High School and one to be split between Union Academy and South Macon Elementary School. The road deputy assigned to the Nantahala district of the county also acts as an SRO for that school. Sheriff Robbie Holland has also applied for a federal grant that would provide the district with two additional SROs.
Highlands Police Department supplies funding for a full time SRO at Highlands School. Franklin Police Department does not have any SROs but routinely visits East Franklin in addition to being present at the school in the mornings and afternoons.
Burrows explained that the role of SRO changes with the needs of the students. SROs act as a teacher in programs such as D.A.R.E., prom promise, and programs on cyber-bullying and internet safety. SROs also work to train teachers in safety issues and emergency situations in order to ensure optimal safety for students county-wide.
Since the late 1760s there have been 271 incidents across the country that have been classified as school shootings. That averages out to more than one a year. About 90 percent of those incidents occurred in rural or suburban areas. In 75 percent of those incidents, at least one death or serious injury occurred. Since the 1950s, school shootings have began to increase at a rate of five percent per year.
According to Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, between 2000 and 2010, there were 120 attempted or planned assaults that would have involved a gun or explosives on school campuses, but were stopped by SROs and other authorities.
SROs are an important aspect to the safety and education of students in Macon County. Not only do they provide a body on school campuses in case of an emergency, they are present to build relationships with students in hopes of acting as mentors and role models.
Next week’s Citizens Academy will learn about drug suppression, civil process and court security.