Untangling the juvenile court system

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Allegheny County judges can hear as many as 300 juvenile cases in a year. With the high number of juveniles coming into the courtroom every year, many families are left wondering about the court system and how they should prepare their children.

“I like the parents to be involved from the beginning. Sometimes we recommend things like family therapy because it’s obvious there are issues in the home as well as issues in their child’s behavior,” said Judge Kimberly Clark. “Sometimes parents are reluctant. Part of what I need to see parents do is demonstrate they have insight in their kids and they have the ability to properly supervise their child.”

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JUDGE KEVIN COOPER, JUDGE DWAYNE WOODRUFF, JUDGE KIMBERLY CLARK, JUDGE OSCAR PETITE



The Juvenile Section of the Family Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County is responsible for adjudicating cases involving delinquent children. These matters involve children who are alleged to have committed crimes.

Referrals to the Juvenile Court may come from police departments, magistrates, schools, parents, other courts, agencies and private citizens, but the most common source of referral is the police.

If a child is arrested, the police will make the decision to release them into their parent’s custody or transport them to the Shuman Detention Center. Children are usually sent there if the police cannot locate the child’s parents, if parents are unwilling to accept custody of the child, if the child has been charged with a serious offense, or if the child’s previous record warrants detention.

Prior to the court hearing parents receive a petition with the specific charges filed against their child and information about how to secure the services of the public defender’s office if they cannot afford a private attorney.

“Our kids mess up and we try to do what we can to assist them,” said Judge Dwayne Woodruff. “I see it every day. The biggest problem the kids have, they have nobody in their corner. The majority of the kids, they come in the courtroom and they come alone.”

During the first phase of the hearing, all testimony and evidence is presented regarding the charges against the child. If any or all of the charges are substantiated, the second phase determines what action the court will take.

Adjudications can range from community service and fine to placement in a residential facility or after school program.

“There should be an acknowledgement that there’s a problem and then come in with some kind of game plan or solution that will allow the court to work with you,” said Magistrate Judge Oscar Petite. “I try to resolve most of these issues here. Sometimes these young people just need to see someone in a position of authority who cares about them. We give out community service a lot.”

Separate from Family Court is the Magisterial District Court, which is a community-based judicial system comprised of 48 districts handling more than 200,000 case filings a year. This court handles all summary criminal cases, civil matters and criminal matters. Falling into this court jurisdiction for juveniles are mostly cases regarding truancy.

“All magisterial district judges hear between 5,000 and 7,000 cases a year,” said Magistrate Judge Kevin Cooper. “The major adjudication that we can give to juveniles is to fine them up to $300 and if they do not comply with that order then we can certify them to juvenile court.”

Like the other judges, Cooper takes the child’s background into account before making a ruling on a case.

“I think it’s important they be involved in some kind of religious activity. Many kids have no moral fiber and the character is skewed. If they don’t have some foundation, the chances of any program working are not good,” said Cooper. “They must have some sense of responsibility; the parents must show the kids some sense of responsibility. Children that have better academic proficiency are less apt to be in trouble. Kids that have higher attendance in school, tend to be better behaved.”

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