• 48°

Failures in criminal justice system harm children, families

By KATHY MILES

Boyle ASAP

The failure of our country’s “War on Drugs” came home to hit Boyle and Mercer Counties hard on Sept. 21, when jail consultants Brandstetter Carroll presented their initial findings on our jail problems. Their report also showed that we have not escaped a national trend in recent years to incarcerate our way out of many problems — not just addiction.

The Advocate- Messenger has been reporting on key findings in that study. There will be more to come.  We should all pay attention. This is a time of opportunity to make significant changes that can result in a healthier, safer, and more stable community. If we ignore this report, or think it is only about a building — whether a new jail is built, or our present one is renovated — then we will miss some of the key pieces to a complicated puzzle.

There are some back stories in this report that should not be overlooked. One of the most important and far reaching has to do with the children growing up in Boyle and Mercer County families. Some might say that the jail doesn’t incarcerate children and youth, so how is this relevant? This is, they could say, about adults who make bad decisions.

But the fact is that problematic decision making by individual parents, the justice system, and all of us who vote and have input into community priorities, continues to disrupt family life and put the next generation at risk. It looks like we could all use a course on the basic needs of children, and what it takes for parents to maintain a stable family life. If we reviewed that information, we might see that substance misuse and addiction have a profound effect on our children. So does a parent spending even a few days in jail.

In their discussion on the effects of slow case processing and pretrial detention in our local courts, Brandstetter Carroll’s document says, “family members who depend on the defendant for caretaking — the elderly, the young — are left without caretakers.” That’s not a small effect — there are serious ramifications for children and families.

Of course, the people incarcerated should have thought about that before they did what they did. No one can argue that. It is important to point out though, that once people reach the stage of addiction in their substance use, without treatment, the disease naturally results in poorer decision making. It’s a symptom of the need for professional help.

Our local teachers and other school staff know that too many children come to school in the mornings with a family story that would knock a lot of adults to their knees. Students are expected to pay attention, learn and manage their emotions at school, while at home, they are living a roller-coaster life. They are being cared for by a variety of family members and neighbors. And they are in foster care in increasing numbers.

Last week, at the Bost Memorial Health Policy Forum in Lexington, Kentucky’s deputy secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services shared that we now have over 9,600 Kentucky kids in the custody of the state. Addiction and incarceration are major contributing factors.

Over the past few months, our jail’s chaplain has been soliciting donations for children’s toys because of the large number of children in the jail waiting room.  They are there to visit parents and other family members who are incarcerated.  We should be thankful for the kindness and sensitivity of our jail staff; we should be saddened to action that there are so many little ones there.

Last week, our local CASA organization put out a plea for more volunteers to be trained advocates and supportive adults for local children in foster care. The needs are so great that they currently don’t have enough adults for the number of children being referred by the Family Court Judge.

People in treatment for substance use disorders learn a lot about relapse prevention. The importance of stopping and thinking in advance about the potential outcomes of returning to their addictive substance is stressed.  They learn (or relearn) how to slow down impulsive decisions and anticipate as accurately as possible what the results could be, then act responsibly. Our entire community — not just people with addictions — might learn a lesson from this, as we contemplate how to respond to the jail study. If we do it right and anticipate effects on families, our children’s stories could have much happier endings. And Boyle and Mercer counties could have a brighter future.

Kathy L. Miles is coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy Inc.