I-Team: Hamilton County Juvenile Court struggles with problem of more kids using guns

Solutions, intervention missing from court system
Hamilton Co. struggles with more kids using guns
Hamilton Co. struggles with more kids using guns
Posted at 6:00 AM, Nov 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-03 23:34:05-04

CINCINNATI -- He's 13 years old and baby-faced, with a tattoo on his left arm. One day earlier this month, he was in Hamilton County Juvenile Court to face a charge of felonious assault, accused of shooting a 14-year-old at a busy intersection Aug. 29 in East Price Hill.

During his hearing, the boy's attorney told a magistrate he needed more time to present a stronger defense.

So, the child in an inmate's uniform went back to the Hamilton County Youth Center, a place most people would call a jail. For the past two months, he's been held there with about 100 other children -- more than half of them charged with crimes involving a gun.

For kids, Ennis Tait said, guns are about power.

Ennis Tait, pastor of Church of the Living God in Cincinnati's Avondale neighborhood, says he saw firsthand why a child would turn to a life of violence. Photo by Anthony Mirones | WCPO

"It gives them the power to defend themselves," he said. "It makes a statement for them that they can't make on their own."

Tait is a pastor, guiding his congregation at Avondale's Church of the Living God. But as a child, Tait felt the rage of the boy in the courtroom.

Tait grew up watching his father abuse his mother, he said. They were poor, and his home was crowded and uncomfortable. His family carried guns, and they fought. Tait said he looked for hope in the streets, where he found other kids living in pain. They tried to reclaim power they couldn't get in their owns homes, he said, and in the process, became criminals.

"You will typically find the children who are most disturbed are trying to process things that are going on at home, in their community, in their city and wherever their surroundings are," Tait said.

The influence of family

Like Tait, the people who were supposed to protect the 13-year-old defendant determined his surroundings: His 15-year-old brother is also being held in juvenile detention, facing charges of grand theft of a motor vehicle and robbery. And the 15-year-old took cues from their oldest brother, now 18 years old and with an even longer criminal record than his brothers. He's in juvenile detention, too.

According to court records, police have arrested their mother over the years for a variety of charges; many of them were dismissed. When the youngest of the brothers was 5 years old, she moved at least five times. Three years later, when he was 8, they lived in a shelter.

The 15-year-old brother also is in Hamilton County's juvenile court system. Photo by Anthony Mirones | WCPO

In court, and in front of her 15-year-old son, the mother refused to tell the judge where she was living; she insisted the people monitoring her children were disrespectful and out to get her family.

"I don't want them coming to my home," she said.

Battles with the mother are courtroom legend. During the past five years, judges have repeatedly singled her out for not being able to control her sons. They've said that returning them to her home placed the children at risk and presented a danger to the community.

All three boys spent months in detention and residential programs. The oldest also spent two years in the custody of the Ohio Department of Youth Services. But the judges kept sending them home to live with their mother, even though they recognized the same unstable environment in her home.

"That's the cycle," Tait said. "You see the cycle."

'Recipe for disaster'

The 13-year old's problems got worse last year. He was expelled from school. That started another series of criminal charges that ended when he was arrested in connection with the shooting. Police found him in juvenile detention, where he was being held for a burglary. Prosecutors said his accomplice was his 15-year old brother.

"All of this combines to create this recipe for disaster that we're seeing," Administrative Judge John Williams said.

Williams said the Hamilton County Juvenile Court caseload has declined about 50 percent over the past decade, but gun-related cases are up: A juvenile court report shows the most serious gun cases -- the kind that carry mandatory penalties -- increased 175 percent from 2005 to 2015.

At the same time, funding for the Hamilton County Juvenile Court has been cut by 40 percent.

"It's got to have an impact on the kids, the families and the people who are trying to help them. It does," Williams said. "It's some level in decrease in service, because you're chasing cases."

Chasing cases means rushing to connect with troubled kids after they are charged with a crime, an effort often ending in failure. The juvenile court's most successful program targets high school seniors. Williams said students who complete it have a much higher graduation rate than those who don't.

"The juvenile court has done a lot to try to prevent some things from happening, but it's hard for us to even have confidence in the juvenile court system right now because of the inappropriate sentencing, the discrimination and the racism," Tait said.

The city-funded Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence, or CIRV, is a widely touted model to reduce shootings in the city through outreach to known criminals. But Kevin Hardman, Hamilton County Juvenile Court administrator, told the I-Team that CIRV has never been actively involved in juvenile court -- even though the court has detailed current family histories and contact information for thousands of at-risk families.

Instead, a 2012 University of Cincinnati study noted CIRV sent uniformed police officers to find adult gang members at their homes and hangouts. If the officers found them, which was unusual, police would hand them anti-violence pamphlets. The initiative considered that "successful." But the definition of success never included how to identify and support children like the 13-year old.

 Hardman said now, nine years after the CIRV was created, there are finally discussions about how the initiative can get involved.  

"The system has failed the children and the system has failed the parents or the mother," Tait said.

Since CIRV began in 2007, violent crime in the city is down 27 percent. But many other big cities have experienced deep cuts, too: The WCPO I-Team examined FBI crime data provided by The Marshall Project. That information shows 13 different large metro areas have cut violent crime more than Cincinnati, including Pittsburgh (29 percent), Chicago (29 percent), Columbus (30 percent) and Orlando (46 percent).

The office of Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley did not respond to our request for an interview. City Manager Harry Black referred us to Police Chief Eliot Isaac, who was not available for an interview.

Problem of poverty

The mother's history may indicate why she, and others, feel angry at the court system: Records show that she has missed some hearings for her children. On one day, when she said she couldn't get money for a bus ticket Downtown, she called ahead, and the case was continued to the next day, meaning her son would have to spend another night in juvenile detention. He was released a day later when she could get to court.

"We need at this point, after care and other types of care that would reach out into the community more aggressively, to work with families, because the families are really where it's either going to get better or not," Williams said.

In court, she reached toward her 13-year-old son and asked if he was OK. He turned to her, looking confused. His defense attorney promised to help; a court-appointed guardian who'd just met the boy tried to reassure him, too, telling him to "just hang in there and be at peace."

As the boy walked out of court, no one in the room seemed to be at peace.

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