Harboring a runaway not a crime; Loophole frustrates Juvenile Court judge.
COLUMN: DIANNE WILLIAMSON
Janine St. Denis of Holden is determined to find her runaway daughter. She predicted, somewhat wearily, that she may die trying.
The 35-year-old mother of three suffers from a brain aneurysm and divides her time between doctors' appointments and combing the city for her 16-year-old child, Katelynn, who bolted Dec. 19 from a locked juvenile facility in Hudson. Katelynn was placed there after she ran away over Thanksgiving and called her mother Dec. 16 from Great Brook Valley.
"She told me she was in trouble and that people were trying to hurt her," her mother recalled. "I went and got her and took her to Holden police."
From there Katelynn appeared in Worcester Juvenile Court, where she told Judge Carol Erskine that she had been staying with a 25-year-old man. After Judge Erskine sent her to the locked facility, Katelynn ran away again. Her mother believes she might be staying with the same man, but she's not sure.
Amazingly, it wouldn't matter anyway. In Massachusetts, there is no criminal penalty for an adult who harbors a runaway, a loophole that has long frustrated parents, police and judges alike.
"In my five years on the bench it's been a huge problem for me," said Judge Erskine. "I'm faced with runaway children every day and there's no action I can take against the people who harbor them."
That could soon change. When District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. took office last month, one of his first acts was to sit down with Judge Erskine and ask her to identify the pressing issues in her court. Her answer came easily. She told Mr. Early that there were 210 new runaway cases in 2006 in Worcester alone, and 150 more throughout Worcester County, which amounts to one each day. She told him that most runaways are girls, who often flee to be with older boys and men that their parents don't approve of. She said that a number of runaways turn up pregnant or test positive for drugs. Some are as young as 12 years old and have been physically or sexually abused, she said.
"I just can't believe people weren't listening to her before now," said Mr. Early. "Juvenile Court is the most important court we have for a lot of reasons. At that age, we can still have an effect on their lives. Lots of these guys who harbor runaways aren't looking to do anything good for them."
Mr. Early has teamed up with state Sen. Edward M. Augustus Jr. and other legislators to sponsor a much-needed bill that would give police the option of filing criminal charges against adults who harbor runaway children. More than 20 other states have a similar law, and it would call for a year in jail and a fine of up to $500.
Ironically, Massachusetts had an anti-harboring law 10 years ago but it was repealed to toughen the law by creating a new one, making it a crime to contribute to the delinquency of a minor. The problem came when the state tried to prosecute harborers under the new law and realized that no criminal penalties existed for runaways, so that the people who harbored them could not face criminal charges.
"Inadvertently, the law was worded in such a way that the state can't prosecute," Judge Erskine explained. "All it takes now is a simple amendment."
Police are able to pursue charges against harborers when evidence exists that a minor has been abused or when the minor admits to abuse, but many juveniles won't admit that they're having sex or performing illegal acts with the adults they're staying with. In those cases, police and the courts are helpless.
"To me, it's incomprehensible that someone could have a child in their home and not contact police, the parents or DSS," Judge Erskine said. "It's very frustrating. I've had parents in many cases beg me to protect their child from being with an adult, but there's not much we can do."
Ms. St. Denis is terrified that her daughter is being abused while on the run. She's searched for her in Great Brook Valley and Plumley Village, and put up posters at the Greendale Mall. She fears that her daughter has "fallen into a trap" and may be forced or coerced into sexual situations she's not ready for.
"I believe she's in a dangerous situation right now," said Ms. St. Denis, who said her daughter ran away because she bristled at her mother's rules. "I think she's with the same guy. What is this man thinking? What is he doing to my daughter? I want to find him, but what will happen to him? Nothing. We have a horrible system."
She praised Judge Erskine as a "godsend" who has tried to help her and her daughter. Other than the judge, though, Ms. St. Denis said, she has nowhere to turn and feels as though no one can help. She underwent surgery two years ago to reduce her brain aneurysm and was recently diagnosed with a second one.
"I have a serious illness - not that it matters to whoever has my daughter," Ms. St. Denis said. "But they should know that there are people out there who love the kids that they're hiding. They should be treated as kidnappers and held accountable. I know I'm going to find my daughter. But I'll probably die doing it."
Contact Dianne Williamson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.