Nearing her 20th birthday, a Lake County teenager believes that she's probably only alive because of help she got from Indiana's juvenile justice system.
Tiffany is a product of a state system that many say is lagging and falling short of meaningful reforms, but she's an example of how alternatives to juvenile detention can be beneficial to those going through the legal system and what can happen when those options are available.
Her story is ongoing in that she remains under juvenile court jurisdiction and is under the supervision of the same magistrate who's been with her since she entered the system at age 15. By staying in the juvenile system she's been able to graduate from high school, enroll in college classes, and work to piece her life together after almost five years in the criminal justice system, mostly as a juvenile.
Although she's an adult and no longer bound by juvenile confidentiality rules, Indiana Lawyer agreed to omit Tiffany's last name in this story at her request to accommodate her probation officer's wishes. But she agreed to talk publicly about details of her experience in the juvenile justice system, and those directly involved in her juvenile case describe her as a success story that can help paint a picture of juvenile detention alternatives that now could be in danger because of recent legislative reforms.
“She's an example of a kid where you could have made her very criminal," said Janet Peterson with the Indiana Juvenile Justice Task Force, who was initially assigned Tiffany's case through a court-ordered, home-monitoring program. “She could have gone through a DOC program, not received the same treatment and learned more sophisticated ways of supporting criminal habits. But the judge believed in her, went over and above, and he was right. I don't know if she'd still be alive otherwise."
Neither does Tiffany, who considers herself “very lucky" because she knows she could be either dead or facing the first part of her adult life in prison.
Her story starts when she first entered high school. She attended a Catholic school through eighth grade and admits now that she wasn't ready for the new world. Drugs and alcohol became a part of her life. She made the varsity swim team as a freshman, left the team by her junior year, and her grades plummeted as a result of her getting hooked on partying with marijuana and hard-core drugs like cocaine and ecstasy.
What followed was a handful of arrests on drug possession and minor in consumption charges – five while she was a juvenile that included parties and once for having drugs in the high school parking lot, Tiffany said. She's spent a total 60 days in juvenile detention off and on over the years, mostly weekend stints but once for 47 days after refusing to comply with a court-ordered psychological evaluation, she said.
The detention experience was one she'll always remember, from the bad food and regular fights to the detention officers she observed didn't seem to care about the kids at all.
But what has enabled her to overcome obstacles is that Tiffany was put in placement programs and given chances to clean up her act, the teenager and Peterson say now.
Numerous drug-test failures over the years kept her in the juvenile justice system, but she was constantly put in placement programs – counseling, inpatient and outpatient programs for suicide and anger issues, and mental health diversion programs – rather than being sent to a Department of Correction facility.
Court figures show about 20 to 30 percent of the juveniles have been placed in these secured detention alternative programs in recent years.
From the beginning, her courtroom experiences have involved Lake Juvenile Magistrate Jeffrey Miller, who Tiffany and Peterson credit for “thinking outside the box" and aiding the teenager in overcoming obstacles.
“To know that he cares and he's not just dishing out punishments, he's given me chances to succeed. He's given me way too many chances, and I've overdone my welcome with chances, but I'm glad he has," Tiffany said. “It's taken all this time to realize what I'm doing with my life and that I want to make something out of myself rather than just being in the system as a drug addict."
While she had an attorney in juvenile court, Tiffany doesn't recall ever meeting or talking with him. He just appeared in court and didn't seem to do anything, she said. But “Judge Miller" always seemed to analyze her case well and explained what was happening, helping her understand, she said.
Tiffany recalled putting on the front that she didn't care what happened and that she wasn't concerned what the court did.
“But deep down, I cared. When it comes right down to it, you're detained. No one wants that, even if you deserve it," she said.
A referral from the juvenile court brought Tiffany and Peterson together in May 2005, about two years after first entering the system and after an array of other court ordered counselors and caseworkers. Peterson had worked on substance abuse cases for about four years in Gary before joining the Indiana Juvenile Justice Task Force and handling the Family Support Services program – an intensive home-based intervention designed as an alternative to placement. Through the Indianapolis-based task force, about 10 counties have used the program that is funded through a fee-for-service agreement with those jurisdictions.
The initial months were tough with Tiffany trying to overcome defiance and anger issues, the two recalled. At the time, Peterson had about 10 or 12 other kids through the program. Tiffany and Peterson would meet about four times a week, mostly at home with the rest of the family but sometimes at McDonalds, a local park, or just to take a walk and talk, Peterson said.
“The joke was that I was in their home so often that they could claim me on their taxes," Peterson said. “It's not a sterile office setting, and that's the flexibility of the program."
Peterson hasn't been officially involved with Tiffany's case since March 2007; she is now a supervisor for the task force's Family Support Services program in that county. However, she keeps in contact with Tiffany, tries to attend every court hearing, and is listed as an emergency contact for the teenager. Peterson keeps in regular touch with the magistrate and probation officer on Tiffany's case, she said.
About a year ago, Magistrate Miller sent Tiffany away from Lake County to shield her from the same environment where she got into trouble. This independent living home is her second long-term placement.
She must get permission from her probation officer and case manager anytime she wants to go somewhere or make a call. Anyone who visits must first be approved, and they must be buzzed inside, and sign a visitor log at the front counter. Like every resident, Tiffany can get passes for work and, with good behavior, can get weekend passes to go out to eat with family. Her parents visit every few weeks, she said, and she's also enrolled herself in an intensive substance rehab program three days a week.
Currently, Tiffany is working her way up a five-level ladder that could lead to getting her own apartment, although she admits a failed drug test last summer and her subsequent running away dropped her to the ladder's lowest rung. Her adult case was reduced to a status offense, and she received community service but remains on unmonitored supervision until August.
Though she's encountered some obstacles and continues trying to overcome her own demons, Tiffany is proud that she's been able to earn her high school diploma after attending a local high school for two months last year, and get into college. She is completing her second semester with four classes and is also enrolled for the summer.
She's studying criminal justice.
“It's kind of ironic ... I want to be a narcotics police officer," Tiffany said. “I want to be on the good side of the law, eventually. I know I want to try and make things right and help someone before they get as far as I did."
Peterson looks to those accomplishments as the best measure of Tiffany's success, and of the court's ability to be lenient and offer alternatives to detention. But the General Assembly passed legislation earlier this year that the governor has signed to shift juvenile detention funding from counties to the state, and Peterson worries that the new law set to take effect next year could tie judges' hands on what alternative programs can be used. Part of the law gives the Indiana Department of Child Services oversight authority on what judges can authorize for placement as it relates to funding, sparking concern that programs like this one could be in trouble.
“That could be in danger, and it's sad because kids can make real change and progress," Peterson said.
In Tiffany's case, Peterson said each time the teenager came back to court – even as an adult – she'd progressed.
“That's why (Magistrate Miller) didn't give up on her. But she's one case out of so many. We have so many Tiffanys, kids who don't belong in juvenile detention."
Tiffany's next court appearance before Magistrate Miller is in May, and she already can hear him asking the question he has every time she goes before him: “Why are you in my courtroom again?"
This time will be different, she vowed.
“I think he'll be proud that I'm doing well in school, looking for a job, and that I've put myself in an intensive rehab program. I'm just going to tell him,‘I'm doing it for myself this time and not because you've ordered me to do it.' I hope he'll see a change, because there has been a change, and that he'll be proud of me."
She hopes to be released from probation later this year at some point, although she knows by law that she could be held until the day before her 22nd birthday.
In hindsight, Tiffany wonders if juvenile detention in a lockup would have accelerated her rehabilitation process or further ingrained that type of behavior into her life. She doesn't know.
“Now that I think back on it, I do like what he was doing and think it was for the better," Tiffany said.
She appreciates the magistrate's decision to send her to the place she's currently residing but doesn't think she needs to spend much more time there or under the court's guidance.
Tiffany knows the juvenile court retains control; she has recognized that symbolically it's up to her to decide what her fate will be. Her actions dictate the court's action so what happens is her responsibility.
“I feel I've grown up and am getting help on my own," she said. “I feel as though I'm ready to live life on my own and that it should be out of the court's hands now."