By CURTIS KRUEGER Photos by CHERIE DIEZ
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000
After throwing a tantrum in music class, and kicking and hitting a St. Petersburg police officer who was taking him home, this kindergartener was handcuffed and arrested on a charge of battery on a law enforcement officer. Both of his wrists fit neatly into a single cuff.
Mikey Rao was 8 when he got arrested.
He didn't want to go to the principal's office, so he ran out of his class and kicked and scratched a teacher's aide. He spent several hours in the Citrus County Jail.
Demetri Starks turned 9 last week.
One day this summer, when he was still 8, he swiped a neighbor's jar of change. Police stopped the 60-pound St. Petersburg boy wearing a T-shirt covered with monsters from the cartoon Digimon. They handcuffed him and sent him to a detention center where he stayed locked up for nine days.
Grade school felons sound like anomalies or misprints. They're neither. Elementary school kids who once got a stern lecture from a cop or a store clerk now are regularly arrested on felony charges.
Six-year-olds in handcuffs are taken in police cars to assessment centers, where they often wait for hours. Kids as young as 7 spend the night in detention centers. Kids as young as 10 are sent away for a year or more.
And in a very few cases, children enter the justice system at even younger ages, such as a 5-year-old St. Petersburg boy charged this year with burglary; and incredibly, a preschool arson suspect who went through a pretrial diversion program in South Florida at age 3.
More than 4,500 kids 11 and under were charged with crimes in Florida during the fiscal year that ended in June -- including 413 in Pinellas County, 372 in Hillsborough, 61 in Pasco, 23 in Citrus and 17 in Hernando -- and many were arrested more than once.
In fact, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties lead the state in cases of under-12-year-olds charged with a crime.
Across Florida, we're arresting more little kids than ever before and treating them more harshly. No one planned this, and few are even aware of it. The system has come about by evolution, not design.
Many police, parents and mental health professionals worry that arresting and incarcerating kids who still play on jungle gyms undermines the chances of getting them lasting help.
"Why in our society is it necessary to criminalize what might have been considered naughty behavior 20 years ago?" asks Hillsborough Circuit Judge Claudia Isom. "It's just kind of an indication, I think, that our society is gravitating toward delegating to government and institutions a lot of things that in a smaller community could be handled on a less formal basis."
Still, little children can commit big crimes. In May, an 11-year-old boy brought a loaded .357 Magnum handgun to West Zephyrhills Elementary School. Police charged an 8-year-old in Tampa this year with raping a 6-year-old girl. Some grade school kids hit their teachers and hurt them.
So what should teachers, police and parents do?
In what often is a desperate attempt to find help for a troubled child, they increasingly reach for the option of last resort: an arrest. But silver handcuffs usually lack silver linings. Often, the only solid result of an arrest is this: A boy or girl still in grade school has become part of the criminal justice system.
Among the 'tall boys,' Demetri gets his 28 cents back
Demetri Starks craves Skittles candy and loves the animated show Dragonball-Z. Most mornings, the 8-year-old straps on a Winnie the Pooh backpack and rides the school bus to second grade, where he learns math and spelling words.
But one morning in June, he rode into the Pinellas Juvenile Detention Center in a transport van, past the metal fence and gleaming razor wire. Hands cuffed, legs shackled. Tense and scared, he hobbled inside and obeyed the officers hovering over him. Street clothes came off his bony frame.
His skinny fingers handed over his belongings -- quarter, penny, penny, penny -- to wait for the day of his release.
After showering and getting checked for lice, Demetri put on the blue uniform his jailers gave him. He followed them to a cellblock filled with others he called "tall boys" -- offenders as old as 14, with whom he would be living for the next nine days.
Scenes like that one are a relatively recent development. For most of the past 100 years, America has tried to treat young people more gingerly than adult criminals. The nation's first juvenile court opened in Chicago in 1899, so delinquent children could be rehabilitated instead of going to prison.
Even before that, common law prevented authorities from charging kids under 7, because they were considered too young to form criminal intent.
In recent years, however, the pendulum has swung back, and the juvenile justice system has in many ways become more punitive.
One well-publicized example: the growing tendency of courts to prosecute juveniles in adult courts and send them to adult prisons.
But the fate of especially young children -- handled in the juvenile system, rather than adult courts -- is a subtler trend that has received little attention.
Last year, 2,491 children 10 and under were charged with crimes in Florida, including 1,252 kids 9 or younger, according to data provided by the Department of Juvenile Justice, and analyzed by the Times.
The increase in under-12-year-old offenders has not been huge -- the number rose 22.3 percent since 1982, according to state figures. That's less than the 52.4 percent increase in the total number of children 14 and under in Florida, the most comparable figures available from the Census Bureau.
What those figures don't show, many within the system say, is that:
Children are more often handcuffed and transported in police cars than in the past, partly because they can now be taken to "assessment centers" set up around the state to deal with children right after their arrests. Six-year-old kids in cuffs have arrived at the centers.
In some areas, such as Citrus and Hernando counties, arrested children are taken to an adult jail until they can be released to parents or a juvenile facility.
Juvenile detention centers -- essentially the same as jails in the adult system -- increasingly house young children. Several have taken inmates as young as 7. "A lot of the time, they'll go to that cell and cry, cry, cry," said Pinellas Detention Supervisor Terrence Bascom.
Nationwide, arrests of children between 7 and 12 increased 45 percent for violent offenses and 76 percent for weapons law violations between 1988 and 1997, according to an unpublished draft of a report financed by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The report said it was hard to tell whether young children were committing more crimes, or simply getting prosecuted more vigorously.
Although many assume the juvenile system mollycoddles small kids, grade school children can be taken away from home and housed in long-term rehabilitation programs; and contrary to popular belief, their records are not wiped clean.
Ask an adult if they can remember a child arrested during their elementary school days, and chances are they will say no.
But when the St. Petersburg Times asked the Pinellas school system for felony police reports of kids age 11 and under, it handed over 71 reports for a 16-month period. In other words, more than one per week, and that didn't include misdemeanors.
"We are seeing, from year to year, more things happening in the elementary division," said Joe Feraca, chief of the Pinellas schools' campus police.
Five years ago in Pinellas County, eight kids under 12 went through "juvenile arbitration," a counseling program mostly for young, first-time offenders. Last year the number grew to 139.
Children this age have been handcuffed and arrested in the Tampa Bay area for crimes that might once have been considered pranks or tantrums. For setting off a fire alarm. For breaking into a school and snatching a jar of candy. For kicking desks and throwing books in a classroom, even when no one was hurt.
At the same time, young children have been arrested for undeniably serious crimes such as setting a mattress on fire while another child slept on it. For throwing a rock that smashed through the front passenger window of a car, while someone drove it. For robbing a bank, armed with a steak knife.
As troubling as both kinds of cases are, they are even more disturbing because the justice system is not well-prepared to deal with such young children. Although some services exist, the system for kids under 10 is mostly waiting to be developed.
Historically, juvenile justice has focused on children between 10 and 17, said Timothy Niermann, who until recently was juvenile justice manager for Pinellas and Pasco counties.
"Dealing with 8- and 9-year-olds is going to add a new dimension to our services," he said.
Consider that at the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center, the staff fills out an extensive 24-page assessment form on the mental, physical and social needs of each child arrested and brought in -- but only if the child is 11 or older. The parents of younger kids get some information about community services, but only the older kids get the full assessment.
The reason? Younger kids cannot understand the ramifications of a consent form, said Lynne Walker, community liaison for the center.
Yet children as young as 6 are sometimes asked by officers if they understand their Fifth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, as they are read the Miranda warning.
In addition, mental health services often are not well coordinated with the justice system and often are insufficient besides, several officials said.
Overall the system "is not geared to handle very young kids," said Henry George White, who until recently was executive director of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, established to monitor the state bureaucracy. "Their programs, their facilities, the training of the staff are not very well suited for dealing with very young kids."
"I don't think they should arrest kids that young because they really don't understand what life is about," said Jessie Moore of Palm River in Hillsborough County. Her son was arrested last year at age 7, accused of kicking and punching his teacher, and pulling her hair. He later was ordered to perform "community service" by helping his mother wash dishes and rake leaves.
The arrests of such young children may be shocking, but there are some indications that the public and the bureaucracy are becoming resigned to them.
For evidence, look to the reaction nearly a decade ago, when a 9-year-old Hillsborough County girl was handcuffed and arrested by a sheriff's deputy. She had thrown rocks at a 13-year-old friend riding a go-cart, and he wound up in the hospital with severe leg injuries.
Because the arrest was so rare, her story made news from Australia to Alaska. The state attorney declined to prosecute. The deputy's bosses said he had failed "to exercise good judgment" in handcuffing the girl, even though he had probable cause to make the arrest.
Last year, however, 93 kids 9 and under were charged with crimes in Hillsborough County and and 1,252 were charged statewide -- without prompting international headlines.
This year it was a Gainesville police officer who generated statewide attention after handcuffing and arresting a 5-year-old boy. This officer's supervisors were more understanding. Although the boy was not formally charged in this case either, an Internal Affairs report said the officer's "arrest of the juvenile male appears to have been legal and within his discretion."
Why are such young kids getting arrested?
A look at Ruben Toledo -- an 8-year-old with a bristly blond buzz-cut -- provides clues.
Five felonies by the age of 7 for some 'bizarre behavior'
At home, Ruben soars into the air, falls to earth and bounces toward the sky again. Rising from the tattered trampoline in his back yard, he can see the roof of his house, the yards of his Pinellas Park neighbors.
But in school settings, Ruben can't bounce. He is supposed to stay in one place, no matter how much energy courses through his body.
Last year, when Ruben was only 7, he wanted to get off his school bus. He flailed his arms. He hit a 55-year-old school aide on board and then struck the bus driver three times. Police accused Ruben, who was in first grade, of two counts of battery on school employees, both felonies.
Two months later, Ruben sent a ball of Play-Doh sailing across a classroom. When a teacher caught it, he hit her in the arm. And bit her, kicked an assistant in the face, and called them both "f--- a----."
Two more felonies.
Five months later, Ruben allegedly tried to kick an officer and, according to police reports, said "Give me that gun." Then he "attempted to remove this officer's weapon from the holster," a report says.
This time the officer slapped handcuffs on Ruben and took him to an assessment center, where his mother later picked him up.
Ruben is a classic case of a child with mental problems who ends up facing criminal charges at a young age. He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that is rare in someone so young.
Records say that Ruben's "bizarre behavior" dates to when he was 2 or 3 and that he has a history of playing with fire, threatening suicide, hallucinating, throwing tantrums and acting aggressively.
But the system does not automatically refer children such as Ruben to mental health treatment. A judge can order a mental health evaluation, but in Ruben's first two cases, he did not go before a judge, his mother said. He was sent instead to a pretrial diversion program.
He eventually did get placed in Carlton Manor, a residential mental health program for children, but only after he had faced five felony charges, all at age 7; and after lobbying by his mother, who wrote e-mails to Gov. Jeb Bush.
Many of the especially young children who rack up several charges have a mental illness or have received a label in their schools such as "emotionally handicapped."
"When you have a kid that young, they have emotional issues," said Niermann, the former Pinellas-Pasco juvenile justice manager who now supervises probation and community services in the same district. "It may not be a true mental health diagnosis, but they do have emotional issues, or they wouldn't have the kind of problems they're having."
Tightening of laws reaches a younger-than-intended audience
In recent decades, the Florida Legislature has toughened its juvenile justice laws. It has pumped up Florida's boot camps and vowed that kids would be punished, not coddled, by a newly formed Department of Juvenile Justice. Other states toughened their laws too.
This overall crackdown -- largely aimed at teens -- also has had an impact on younger children.
Ashley Burch found that out when she was 8. She was drawing in her third grade class at St. Petersburg's Bear Creek Elementary School last year when a teacher's aide told her it was time to put the crayons away. Ashley, whose mother says she suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, didn't want to stop. She threw her crayons toward the aide, then punched her in the chest.
Ashley was accused of felony battery and eventually went through a diversion program. Although a normal battery would be a misdemeanor, the Legislature decided in 1986 that students who commit this same crime against a school employee should be guilty of a felony. School employees can include teachers, aides, bus drivers and others.
The law may make sense when you imagine a 150-pound high school student slugging his spindly math instructor.
But the same law applied to Ruben Toledo, when he was 7 years old and 65 pounds.
And to a 6-year-old boy arrested at Sutherland Elementary School in Palm Harbor in May 1999. He slapped a teacher in the face, knocking off her glasses, and kicked two teachers in the shins. An officer tried to read the boy his rights, but stopped because "I don't feel that he fully understood them." The 6-year-old was arrested and taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center.
Even detention workers sometimes find it surprising that kids in the 8-to-9 range are being held for battery on teachers.
"My question is, what can he do to a teacher?" guard Timothy Higgins said to a reporter during a recent tour of the Pinellas center.
Also in recent years, schools across the country have become understandably vigilant about watching for weapons and threats, with recent horrific school shootings fresh in mind.
That might have affected an 8-year-old boy at Mildred Helms Elementary School in Clearwater who walked up to his teacher's desk one day last year. He told her he had something for show and tell -- a "butterfly knife," the kind with blades that fold out from both ends.
The days have long since passed when school officials would treat this as a simple lapse of judgment. The 8-year-old was referred to the state attorney's office for prosecution on a charge of possession of a weapon on school grounds, a felony.
Not every change in the juvenile justice system has been designed to punish young criminals more. Over the past decade, the state has set up 17 Juvenile Assessment Centers, or JACs, designed to meet children's needs better.
At these centers, officials can check arrest and school records, and they have time to ask the youths about substance abuse and mental health issues. It's a first step toward getting at the root causes of kids' troubles, an approach hailed by child advocates.
The irony is that when kids are transported to a JAC, they usually come in handcuffs. In Pinellas, that's the center's policy for all delinquent kids -- even if they're 6 or 7. An 8-year-old Pinellas Park boy last month was restrained in a "hobble," a device that encircled his ankles and connected them to a pair of handcuffs behind his back.
Tom Camp, director of the Pinellas JAC, said handcuffing is for kids' safety. No one wants a child escaping and running across busy 49th Street.
The same philosophy applies in schools, when disruptive children need to be removed from class, said David W. Friedberg, director of security services for Hillsborough County schools. He said handcuffing children "is not being done in a punitive sense."
Asked if it would be possible to set a policy of not handcuffing especially young children, Friedberg did not think so.
"To make a general statement "there is not an 8-year old or a 10-year-old that I can ever imagine to physically restrain,' then I would say to folks, you haven't been around a whole lot of 8- to 10-year-olds lately. It's rare and it should be rare, but yes there are occasions. And it is . . . done as a last resort."
Fifteen states have taken a different approach entirely, by adopting laws that prevent children under a certain age from being formally charged and prosecuted in juvenile court. In North Carolina, no one under 6 can be charged; in 11 states, the minimum age for prosecution is 10.
But Florida has no minimum age. The case of two brothers, 5 and 6 years old, was referred to the state attorney for prosecution in February. The boys allegedly broke into a home in St. Petersburg, knocked a computer monitor off its stand, smashed a slew of Christmas ornaments and tossed a smoke detector in the toilet.
The strange case of the 3-year-old from South Florida is mentioned in a report issued last year by the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board. The tot, charged with arson, was enrolled in a pretrial diversion program mostly for first-time offenders and was "one of a number of young children served there," the report said. "Significant bending of the DJJ requirements under this program and its contract with the state were needed for these young children."
Often, the source of the problem is chaotic home
On a more basic level, people throughout the system say they often are fighting a depressing reality. Many youngsters who get arrested -- not all, but many -- come from chaotic homes with no true parenting figures to nurture them.
"Most of it is because you have parents who either don't take care of their children or can't," said Barbara Jacobs, longtime former chief of the juvenile division for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.
Gail Gardner, head of the department that evaluates juveniles charged in Pinellas County, said a sizable percentage of the under-12 children she sees have parents with some history of abusing or neglecting them. She couldn't list a percentage but said it's more common among the younger children.
And even in families without a history of actual abuse or neglect, it's very common to see "indications of at least mild dysfunction," such alcoholism, drug abuse, a long succession of father figures or a parent in prison, she said. Demetri Starks -- the 8-year-old boy who spent nine days in the detention center -- was a scrawny 18-month-old when he was brought to a foster home six years ago. His biological father eventually was sent to prison for child abuse and his mother was deported.
James and Minnie Starks, who are 79 and 61, were brand new foster parents back then. They had never seen anything like Demetri and his 3-year-old brother, who would lie listlessly on the floor and flinch when a grown up walked by -- as if expecting a beating. Demetri's fingers eagerly scooped any food Mrs. Starks spooned into his bowl, even chasing crumbs that spilled out.
But after a few months of baths, meals and love, the boys filled out and cleaned up. The Starkses were so touched they eventually adopted them.
They have never regretted it.
Not when Demetri began sneaking out of the house and slipping into other people's homes. Not when he swiped $20 out of the Sunday school teacher's purse. Not last February, when he was handcuffed and arrested for kicking desks and throwing books around his classroom at Pinellas Park Elementary School.
It's not elemetary school like you remember it anymore
Although it's hard to find data to prove it, many in the system say they strongly believe younger kids are committing worse crimes than in years past.
Bill Corbett is principal of the Richard L. Sanders school for severely emotionally disturbed children in Pinellas Park, where grade school-age kids sometimes are arrested. Corbett, 42, acknowledges that he can't remember anyone being arrested when he was in grade school, but he has a comeback to that thought: "I don't ever remember a kid striking a teacher."
Kids do sometimes strike teachers, and they do more. One 8-year-old brought a butcher knife to school in Tampa this year. Another 8-year-old was arrested after waving a knife around some kids and having "jabbed the knife blade at some of the children," according to a report.
Many parents are frustrated and overwhelmed by a child who seems out of control.
Sometimes, unable to find the right mental health treatment for a youngster who seems perpetually disruptive, parents actually wish for an arrest. Then, they hope, maybe a judge can order some help for the child.
"I see this every day," said Pinellas-Pasco Juvenile Court Judge Peter Ramsberger, referring to parents who hope the courts can shape up their children. But he says: "If the only way to get somebody some help is to charge them, then you've got to wonder, isn't there a better way?"
"Their lives are changed forever once they are into the system," said Gardner, of the Pinellas Court system's Behavioral Evaluation Program. "All the research says the more you put these boys with antisocial peers, the more (negative) things they learn."
Even though the state attorney may later decide not to file formal charges against a young child, the experience of an arrest can still be traumatic.
And, contrary to popular belief, juvenile records are not swept clean.
"All criminal charges are considered by the military, even the most minor," said Frank Shaffrey, deputy director of recruiting operations at the U.S. Army recruiting command headquarters in Fort Knox, Ky. People with minor criminal records could be allowed to enlist, after the Army reviews their cases. But no one with three separate felony convictions would be allowed to join the Army -- even if he or she had been arrested as an 8-year-old.
Dealing with the present, considering the future
Sometimes Mrs. Starks shakes her head over Demetri. She says Demetri goes to a mental health clinic for counseling. Asked what he has been diagnosed with, she says "EH" -- which is not a true diagnosis but a classification from the school system meaning emotionally handicapped. He is not on medication.
Asked about the future, she sighs. "I tell you the truth, I don't see a future."
The day he returned home this July -- the very same day -- she noticed her wallet was missing.
Then again, one night about a week after they had both come home, Mrs. Starks said she would like to go down to Save-a-Lot on 49th Street.
But she was home alone with Demetri, who couldn't be much help.
Only then he piped up: "Yes, Mama, I can, yes Mama, I can."
She wheeled out to her van and hoisted herself in. Demetri somehow lifted the wheelchair, unfolded, into the back of the van and closed the door.
At the store, he got the wheelchair out. "Wait, Mom, I'll push you," he said.
Afterward, he helped her get in the van again, and loaded up the groceries.
At moments like that, she thinks hard about the mystery inside Demetri.
"It's just amazing all the good things he can do and did do. And you just wonder: Where in the world is all this trouble coming from?"
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