The most important matters that the Juvenile Court needs to deal with are the basics, Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw said at the Tuesday meeting of the Chattanooga Kiwanis Club. It is a decades old problem, he said, “to get kids off the streets and find out why they are there.”
He told the club members that the Juvenile Court’s function is to rehabilitate and to try and turn kids around. It is based on the premise that there is someone at home that cares, which is not always the case in Hamilton County.
The breakdown of the family unit is at the center of the problems with many single parent families and many children being raised by only a grandmother, he said. These kids do not always have support at home and so the court system attempts to provide help for raising children in a productive way. They try to exert influence on these minors by dealing with curfew and truancy. “Bad things happen when they should be at home or in school,” he said.
The speaker said, “Nothing good happens on Market Street at two a.m.” We need to get kids off the street when they don’t need to be there, and to find out why they are there to begin with." It may be that there are no parents at home, he continued. An example given was that talking to a child who missed first period in school every day revealed that the reason was because he had been bullied at the bus stop and he would not get on, choosing to walk instead which caused him to be tardy. When the cause was remedied so was the problem.
Judge Philyaw and the six other judges that work with him deal with serious problems every day. Three are assigned to a division that deals with child support and paternity. The other three handle issues of dependency and neglect, abusive situations and delinquency. Criminal matters are classified as “delinquency” if the offender is under the age of 18. All of the problems are dealt with at the Third Street courthouse. Some issues result in committal and some have other outcomes.
Currently there are 23 young boys and girls at the detention center on Third Street, and more are at longer-term youth development centers. The Third Street facility is for short term, temporary detention. Most are held there a couple of days to a couple of months. Of the 23 minors now being held, there are five concerning offenses with guns. Judge Philyaw added that six weeks earlier 10 juveniles out of 29 at the detention center were being held on crimes related to guns.
It has been recognized that older people who already have criminal records give 12-14 -year-old children guns to carry and they direct the actions of these minors in order to not be held responsible themselves. Several years ago Judge Philyaw said he represented a young man with whom he developed a relationship and asked him what he thought could be done to keep youth out of trouble. He was told that it had to be dealt with at a very early age. Gangs had gotten to him at age 12, he said, by first giving him tennis shoes, then a gold necklace and later providing money to do their business.
The Hamilton County Juvenile Court dealt with 2,600 delinquency issues last year and 5,800 separate petitions, some of which would be combined. There were also 7,000 petitions filed for child support. He said that it is not uncommon to see a 20-year-old father already $30,000 in arrears with child support which carries a 12 percent interest. It is almost impossible to get out from under that, he said.
The organization First Things First holds a “fathering class” headed by Todd Agne. Hamilton County Circuit Judge Jeff Hollingsworth volunteers with this group which takes those far behind in child support, some already jailed, and helps them attempt to catch up as well as helping with job training and getting them involved with their children. Other organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, the YCAP and volunteers help the effectiveness of the courts. And, the Juvenile Court is working with Rick Smith, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, to put things in place so the School Resource Officers will have the tools they will need to help. This is being done partially to protect the community, but especially to protect the kids, said Judge Philyaw.