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The Court System

Children and teens with mental health or behavioral disorders are much more likely to become involved with the legal system. Even children without mental health issues may get in trouble with the law. Peer pressure, the need to become independent and poor judgment can put a young person at risk for getting in trouble. Legal problems are stressful, both for you and your child.

If your child has mental health or behavioral issues and finds himself in trouble, he is not alone. The National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice (2006) estimates that 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from mental health disorders with 27% of youth experiencing symptoms so severe that their ability to function is significantly impaired. Many young people in the juvenile justice system also have co-occurring substance abuse disorders.

Breaking the law can be a consequence of a behavioral disorder such as ADHD, oppositional defiant disorders or conduct disorders because the child has no impulse control, or does not associate consequences with his actions. Children who are depressed, have bi-polar disorder, anxiety or psychotic disorders, may get involved in drugs, alcohol, gang or cult life styles as a way to help them cope with the symptoms of their disorders. Any of these activities may result in legal consequences.

If you are the parent of a child involved in the juvenile justice system, you will have to be his strongest advocate. As your child’s advocate, you want to make sure your child learns from the consequences of his actions, and at the same time, not have his or her future ruined.


If you’ve learned that your child is in the custody of the police, you need to start advocating for him immediately. Begin by asking the processing officer at the police station to explain the arrest and booking process. Then ask the following questions:

  • Why was my child arrested?
  • Will my child have to stay in custody (juvenile facility, etc.) or can he be released in my custody?
  • Will we need to post bond?
  • What happens next?
  • Where can I get help if my child is referred to juvenile court?

You will need to find an attorney if your child is referred to the court system. If your family does not have the money, ask about the public defender program. The Public Defender’s Office provides legal counsel for people on limited incomes. You will have to fill out paperwork that explains your family’s income. They decide who can receive public defender’s services based on family income.

Even if your child has an attorney, it is important for you to attend all legal proceedings with your child. This includes court appearances, meetings with probation officers and juvenile court staff and evaluations by treatment program staff. Most juvenile courts want to divert young people away from the legal system and into treatment; however it is still important for you to be there every step of the way. In fact, under Colorado law, you may be held in contempt if you fail to appear in court with your child. Talk to your attorney about this. Also, the courts view a parent’s involvement positively when they make sentencing and other decisions about your child.

After being taken into custody, your child may qualify to be released into your custody. Prior to being released, he may be evaluated by a pre-adjudication service program. This evaluation will make recommendations to the court. This evaluation is designed to help the court make a better decision about your child’s detention placement or bond. They will propose a plan to the court. This plan will include conditions you or your child must abide by.


Unless the charges are dismissed immediately, your child will have a court appearance. There are a number of outcomes to court cases. These outcomes are called Dispositions. Possible dispositions include:

  • Dismissal – the case is dismissed because there is not enough evidence to prove that your child committed the offense, or for other reasons.
  • Placement - a child may be removed from home and placed elsewhere for a specified length of time. Possible placements include juvenile detention facilities, residential treatment centers, foster homes or other facilities.
  • Probation – places a youth under the supervision of the court. During probation, the young person must maintain good behavior, not commit another offense and meet any other conditions that have been set by the court. Treatment can be a condition of probation.
  • Deferred Prosecution, Deferred Sentence – a person is placed on probation before he or she goes before a judge, or before a sentence is imposed. In the case of deferred prosecution, if child meets the conditions set by the court, the charges may be dismissed.
  • Transfer to adult criminal court – this typically happens only with severe violations of the law, such as murder, rape, robbery, burglary or distribution of illegal drugs. In this case, the youth’s case will be transferred to adult court and the penalties that apply to adults will apply to your child.
  • Other – there are a number of other court dispositions. They may include participation in a drug treatment program, payment of fines or restitution, doing community service work, and electronic monitoring.


There may come a time when your child’s offense was so severe, or her problems with the law have been so chronic that she is taken out of the home. If a court action finds your child guilty of the crime he or she was charged with, she may be placed in the custody of the Department of Human Services by the court as a result of a hearing on charges that your child committed. This is called a Commitment. A Commitment is different that a Detention. Detention is when a child is held at a facility to await a court appearance. A commitment is a court action that legally gives the Department of Human services custody of your child for a specified length of time. While your child is in the custody of DHS, your parental rights, such as giving permission for medical care are still intact, but DHS will decide about his placement.

When your child is first committed, make sure that she receives a thorough assessment. This assessment should take into account factors such as the nature of the crime, past criminal history, and your child’s social, family, medical and mental health history. You should be included in the assessment process. It is critical that an appropriate assessment is done, because this is the information that will be used to make the decision about her placements. If a proper assessment is not done, your child may not receive appropriate services.

Your child should have a caseworker assigned to her case. Work to form a good relationship with the caseworker, because the caseworker may also be able to advocate on behalf of your child. This caseworker will be child child’s primary resource person at the Division of Youth Corrections (DYC). This is the first person you should contact about any issues or questions. The caseworker is responsible for preparing an accurate case history and treatment plan. The caseworker may also schedule home visits, staffings (staff meetings to discuss your child’s progress), or other appointments, conduct periodic case conferences and make appropriate referrals to residential and non-residential programs. The caseworker is expected to have periodic contact with you and the child. It is important to show that you are cooperative and are trying to be a positive influence on your child. If you need help, ask for it. Expect to be included in decisions. Make complaints as they are warranted.

Most programs operate on a behavior/reward point level system. Good behavior is rewarded in more privileges; poor behavior will result in decreased privileges. The level that your child has achieved in a particular program does not carry over from one placement to the next. If he is moved, the process starts all over again.

At some facilities, you may have to sign permission for your child to receive services such as taking medications or having a haircut. For security reasons and space limitations, your child may only be allowed to keep a few changes of clothing. In some cases, your child may be required to wear a uniform. You might be able to bring food that is checked by staff first, depending on the facility. You may be allowed to bring your child books or cards. Be sure to mark everything with his name.

Having a child in the custody of DYC can be a stressful experience for the entire family. Try to find support for yourself. When you go to visit your child (and you should visit him regularly), you may meet other parents who are going through the same thing. You may be able to find a parent support group. Support groups can be helpful, especially in this instance, because so many people are going to pass judgment on you. It will be helpful to be able to talk to other parents who are going through a similar experience. Visiting days can also be stressful. You may want to share rides with other parents. This can give you someone to talk to, particularly if you have to travel long distances.