Orange County sees increased reliance on behavioral and mental health disciplinary resources, which provide diversion options for adolescents and children who would otherwise enter the juvenile court system.
Tami Pfeifer, the county’s youth behavioral health liaison, said she has seen children get stuck in the juvenile justice system for long periods, which creates a greater risk of them later being involved in the adult court system.
Pfeifer began coordinating the Orange County Youth Deflection Program (YDP) in 2021.
Instead of sending youth who commit low-level, nonviolent offenses into the juvenile justice system, law enforcement can send them to the YDP, where Pfeifer supports students and connects them to community resources.
In 2021, 64 percent of reviewed allegations against N.C. juveniles were approved by a juvenile court counselor for court. Nineteen percent were diverted, meaning the juvenile was entered into a diversion plan, and 16 percent were closed.
These diversion or deflection programs include therapeutic and educational resources, as well as service referrals to support those individuals.
Pfeifer said it is important that deflection programs help address the roots of children's issues, like mental health and substance use.
“When I talk to kids and families, I always tell them to use the deflection program as an opportunity to address any unmet needs or challenges that they’re currently having, because I feel like kids tend to get in trouble when there are other things that are unaddressed,” she said.
According to the N.C. Department of Public Safety, 89 percent of delinquent youth — people under 18 whose action would be considered a crime if committed by an adult — have at least one mental disorder.
“We need to be addressing those roots so that people can be healthy and function the best that they can in their communities," Pfeifer said. "By having more deflection types of programs that address those issues instead of just the consequences and, again, it being tied up in the court, it’s very important for our overall community health."
Volunteers for Youth is a Carrboro-based organization that creates community service work opportunities for children with diversion plans. It also hosts a teen court program for adolescents to be judged by a jury of other teens with sentences that include jury duty service and community service.
According to Susan Worley, the organization's executive director, Orange County has a lower rate of children being committed to the juvenile court system than the rest of the state.
“That’s something that we’re happy with and I think everybody who works with kids in Orange County, I think, would like to see those rates keep going down, obviously,” she said.
Research from the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED) shows that students of color are more likely to face disciplinary action than their white counterparts across North Carolina.
CREED found that Black students were 160 percent more likely to be given in-school suspension than white students and 84 percent more likely to be given an out-of-school suspension.
In the 2021-22 school year, about 65 percent of the 48 students expelled in North Carolina were Black.
Jerry Wilson, the director of policy and advocacy at CREED, said personal bias plays a "huge" role in whether students are referred for punishment by teachers.
“Where there’s a lack of guidance where educators are left to make a judgment call, when (about) 80 percent of teachers in North Carolina are white, students of color are unfortunately often unfairly punished relative to their white classmates,” he said.
“One way that schools can achieve equity is by being intentional about how they engage with law enforcement,” Wilson said.
Pfeifer said a majority of the students referred to the YDP are white, which reflects the demographic makeup of the county. Over 70 percent of residents in Orange County are white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Still, there is a disproportionate number of people of color represented in the juvenile court system,” she said. The YDP is working to decrease the influence of unconscious bias in referrals to court and diversion programs.
Pfeifer said she believes that schools' leaders and administrators are beginning to think more about deflection as an option for students.
"I think we just need to give our kids some room to get support so that they can come to those places as they develop and not just respond, like I said, in a punitive way," she said.
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