What Should I Know About "Status Offenses?"

Mary E. Muscari, PhD, CPNP, APRN-BC

Disclosures

June 22, 2010

Question

One of my adolescent patients was recently arrested for a status offense. Are status offenses something that clinicians need to worry about?

Response from Mary E. Muscari, PhD, CPNP, APRN-BC
Associate Professor, Decker School of Nursing, Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York; Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, Psychiatric Clinical Specialist, and Forensic Clinical Specialist, Sex Offender Assessment Board / Pennsylvania Board of Probation & Parole, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Although they may seem immaterial to healthcare, status offenses are anything but irrelevant, and should be of significance to nurse practitioners and other clinicians who work with children and adolescents. Status offenses can lead to more serious offending and continuous psychosocial consequences.

By definition, status offenses are acts that are considered criminal only when committed by a juvenile. They include truancy, running away from home, underage drinking, disobeying parents, and even purchasing tobacco products. In some jurisdictions, a status offense is a delinquent act committed by a person under a certain age. Rhode Island recently proposed a bill to consider sexting[1] by minors a status offense.[2] Albanese notes that different states may use different terminology.[3] For example, in New York state, status offenders may be called "persons in need of supervision."

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention[4] during 2004, more than 400,000 youth were arrested or held in limited custody by police because of status offenses. During that same time, courts in the United States formally processed an estimated 159,400 status offense cases. The more common petitioned (formally handled cases) status offenses include[4,5,6]:

  • Curfew violation: A curfew violation is committed when a juvenile is in a public place after a specified time (eg, 11:00 pm). Towns pass curfews to keep potential troublemakers and potential victims off the streets at night. For example, in the City of Los Angeles it is unlawful for any minor under the age of 18 years to be in any public area or unsupervised place between the hours of 10 pm on any day and sunrise of the immediately following day. However, certain provisions do not apply, such as a juvenile accompanied by a parent, parents, legal guardian or other adult person having the lawful care or custody of the minor, or by his or her spouse 18 years of age or older.[7]

  • Underage drinking: US Federal law essentially establishes 21years as the national minimum drinking age. The reasons for prohibiting minors from using alcohol are considerable. According to statistics compiled from other sources, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that approximately 5000 young people younger than the age of 21 years die as a result of underage drinking every year. This includes about 1900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, 1600 as a result of homicides, 300 from suicide, and hundreds from other injuries such as falls, burns, and drownings.[8]

  • Truancy: Truancy is a defined period of school absenteeism. For example, in Connecticut, a youth is considered truant if he is absent without a proper excuse 4 or more times in a month or 10 or more times in a school year.[9] Chronic absenteeism can lead to poor school performance, dropping out, reduced (healthy) peer association, and increased risk for delinquent behaviors.

  • Disobeying parents (also known as incorrigibility, ungovernability, unruliness, and being beyond the control of one's parents): According to Benton and associates,[6] incorrigible behaviors range from a child refusing to consistently follow a parent-imposed curfew to physically abusing a parent. Most of these cases involve dysfunctional family dynamics that are perceived as unmanageable by the petitioner, who is usually the parent. The petitioner may request the child's removal from the home to have a break from the behavior, or the parent may hope that additional threats or punishment will cause their child to be "scared straight."

  • Running away from home: fortunately, several states define a runaway youth as one who has been neglected. However, some states still consider this a status offense. For example, Texas' runaway statute contains several requirements, including what they term "voluntary absence" without the parent or guardian's consent, for a substantial period of time.[10] Teens usually run away to leave behind physical or emotional abuse, school problems, peer pressure, family conflicts, or difficulties with drugs and alcohol.[11]

Bartol and Bartol[12] note that criminologists vary in their views of status offenses. Many argue that these offenses should not be criminalized. They believe that status offenses label youth as delinquent for behaviors that are not harmful to others and that these offenses are often symptomatic of the youth's environment. Other criminologists claim that tracking status offenders is important to ensure that they get the help they need, because some will commit other crimes.

What happens to youths who commit status offenses? Jennings and colleagues[13] note that the juvenile justice system has struggled with an effective response to status offenders and their negative behaviors. Status offenses may be processed in juvenile courts or by family crisis units, county attorneys, or social service agencies. Juvenile courts may divert status offenders away from the justice system and to other agencies for service, or they may decide to formally process the juvenile. If juvenile courts adjudicate juveniles for status offenses, they may order sanctions, such as probation or out-of-home placement (eg, a group home), or they may order the juvenile held in a secure detention facility. Possible sanctions include fines, mandatory counseling, and suspension of the driver's license.

Where do nurse practitioners come in? Given that status offenses can act as the gateway to more serious offenses and that many of these youths come from dysfunctional families, nurse practitioners are instrumental in identifying youths at risk of committing status offenses and for ensuring that those who do commit these offenses receive proper treatment.

The purpose of designating certain behaviors as status offenses is to prevent predelinquent behavior that can lead to juvenile delinquency -- especially because adolescence itself is a risk factor for delinquency. Developmentally, adolescence is a time of emotional upheaval and risk-taking behavior. While redefining their self-concepts, teens may experiment with illegal and dangerous behaviors including underage drinking, driving when intoxicated, texting when driving, and vandalism. However, Bartol and Bartol[12] note that normal development can be adversely affected by a number of factors that place the adolescent at increased risk for status offenses and more serious behaviors:

  • Poverty;

  • Chronic illness;

  • Negative peers or peer rejection;

  • School failure and/or lack of parental involvement in school;

  • Neglectful parental style;

  • Poor parental monitoring;

  • Family dysfunction;

  • Close relationship with older siblings who engage in criminal behavior;

  • Parental psychopathology (depression, alcoholism, and aggression [especially parental intimate partner violence]);

  • Lack of attachment;

  • Lack of empathy;

  • Cognitive and language deficiencies;

  • Psychiatric disorders in the youth (untreated attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, mood disorders [depression and bipolar disorder], borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse); and

  • Sexual abuse of the youth.

Most interventions are already familiar to clinicians. Juveniles with chronic illnesses should always be monitored for psychosocial issues. Youth with other risk factors, and those who have committed status offenses, warrant proper referrals that may include psychiatric evaluation and counseling, substance abuse treatment, educational support, and family therapy. Teens who have been victimized by sexual and other abuse should receive treatment as victims and may require forensic evaluation and further intervention from law enforcement.

The only potentially unfamiliar intervention may be recommending to the parents that they obtain legal counsel (an attorney) for their child to ensure that the child receives due process.[5] Status offenses may seem like just minor nuisance behaviors of adolescence. However, they may be precursors to future criminal behavior, and are most likely symptomatic of the juvenile's psychosocial problems. Thus they warrant full attention from healthcare professionals.

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