Mississippi Joins 38 Other States, Raises Juvenile Age to Eighteen

The Mississippi state sealAn amended law that took effect July 1 made Mississippi the latest state to rethink how youth under the age of 18 are handled in criminal court. The new measure prevents most 17-year-old misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenders from being tried as adults. Certain felonies including rape, murder and armed robbery may still warrant charges in the adult court system.

Two other states, Connecticut and Illinois, passed similar reforms earlier this year bringing the national total to 39 states that view juveniles as any individual below the age of 18, according to a report issued last week by the Campaign for Youth Justice.

“This is a good news report.” Liz Ryan, director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, — a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit focused on the issue — told USA Today. “This really shows that there is a turning tide in the way states are treating kids in the juvenile justice system.”

Some juvenile advocates consider the amendment a positive change in the treatment of youthful offenders, but Mississippi law enforcement and juvenile officials worry it could adversely impact an already over-burdened Youth Court system.

“It’s going to create a tremendous pressure on our juvenile justice system with no increase in resource,” Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso told the (Biloxi-Gulfport) Sun Herald. “So, it’s creating pressure on a system that’s already pressed.”

Legislators in Mississippi amended the law following state budget cuts that reduced bed space and maximum detention times, among other things, in juvenile facilities. But officials failed to allocate additional funds to the Youth Court system to deal with added expenses and growing number of offenders.

It costs states more to incarcerate offenders in juvenile than adult facilities due to health, counseling and other obligations, but juvenile inmates tend to have a lower recidivism rate than their counterparts in the adult system, according to the same Campaign for Youth Justice report.

Nationally, the United States has witnessed a five-year trend of states rethinking how juveniles are handled in the criminal justice system in large part due to research in adolescent brain development.

Crimes committed by minors aren’t always done with malice because they can’t fully distinguish right from wrong, Gina Vincent, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told JJIE at a brain development conference in early May.

Only 11 states, including Georgia, still try offenders younger than 18 in adult courts for nonviolent offenses. Roughly 250,000 offenders under the age of 18 are prosecuted in adult courts annually, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice report.

California’s ‘Second Chance’ Bill Offers Hope for LWOP Sentenced Youth

California's Senate Bill 9A new proposal in California may provide a second chance for the roughly 227 inmates serving the sentence of life without parole for crimes committed before their 18th birthday.

Under California’s Senate Bill 9, inmates sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for crimes committed as a juvenile have the option to submit a petition for consideration of a new sentence after serving 15 years. If approved by the review court an LWOP sentence could be reduced to a stint of 25 years to life, a prison term that comes with the possibility of parole.

“The neuroscience is clear – brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed,” state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), a child psychologist and author of the bill, said through his office. “SB 9 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors. SB 9 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it is an incredibly modest proposal that respects victims, international law, and the fact that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults.”

Patricia Soung, staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) agreed, saying, “this is a modest bill. It holds people accountable, but it also recognizes that at ages 15, 16, 17, that they have a capacity to change.”

California Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco)
Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), author of SB 9, is also a child psychologist.

A coalition of youth advocate organizations, including the NCYLNational and Human Rights Watch, have supported the bill along with a diverse following of child advocates, faith-based communities, mental health experts and others.

“At the most basic level the sentence of LWOP for those convicted under 18 years old… is clearly in violation of international law,” said Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate for Human Rights Watch and LWOP Coordinator. “I think we’re at a point in time where the community doesn’t think over-incarceration is the way to go.”

Outside the United States just seven people are known to be serving life without parole for crimes committed while they were still a juvenile, according to a Human Rights Watch report. By comparison the United States currently houses more than 2,300 such inmates with no chance of parole.

A group of criminal justice organizations in the state have raised opposition to the new measure. In a letter to lawmakers the California District Attorneys Association raised concerns about the specific sentence recall process:

“Under one scenario contemplated by the measure, a petitioner found by the court to have been under the age of 18 at the time of the offense that resulted in his or her LWOP sentence could qualify for a resentencing hearing solely on the basis that the petitioner has performed acts that tend to indicate rehabilitation, or the potential for rehabilitation, or has shown evidence of remorse. Creating the potential for an LWOP sentence to be reduced by setting such a low standard for eligibility is an affront to justice and disrespectful of the victims of these crimes.”

Ten other organizations, including the Crime Victims Action Alliance and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, have opposed the bill along with “one private individual” according to Assembly Bill Analysis records.

Under the current law judges and prosecutors have the discretion to pursue LWOP cases against juveniles, but a number of such instances have called their judgment into question. Some experts also point out that the harshness of sentences can simply come down to local jurisdiction.

“In California, the decision to impose an LWOP sentence on a youth is significantly influenced by which county they reside in,” said Selena Teji, Communications Specialist with the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “A youth is more likely to receive harsher punishment if they live in Kern County, than if they had committed that same crime in San Francisco County. It’s a system of justice by geography.”

Other supporters of the legislation also say the measure could correct racial disparities that have become apparent in the last few decades.

“We’re talking about children, especially children of color, who are sentenced to die in prison,” Sumayyah Waheed, director of the Books Not Bars program at the Ella Baker Center in Oakland. “It’s bad policy, immoral, and it’s way past time for California to allow youth one tiny step toward redemption.  California can and must do better by its children.”

"When I Die, They'll Take Me Home" | A report by Human Rights Watch
"When I Die, They'll Take Me Home"

California’s law permitting a life without parole sentence for juveniles was enacted in 1990. Since that time African Americans in the state have received the LWOP sentence at a rate of 18 times that of whites, earning the state the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in LWOP sentencing.

According to the Human Rights Watch report “When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home” life without parole isn’t reserved for those youth that committed the most heinous crimes. Forty-five percent of juveniles sentenced to LWOP in California were sentenced for involvement in a murder they didn’t actually commit. Many were convicted of murder charges for aiding and abetting a murder or getting involved in another felony crime, such as a robbery, when a murder took place. Nationally, roughly 59 percent of juveniles sentenced to LWOP had no prior offenses.

California’s SB 9 was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee with a 5-2 vote in early July. Next the bill will continue to the Assembly Appropriation Committee before being put to a vote on the floor of the Assembly. The bill cleared the Senate in June with a 21-16 vote.

“We’re pretty optimistic,” said Calvin. “The bill could still fail, but we’re hopeful.”

In 2009 a similar bill failed to clear the Assembly by two votes. SB 9 likely won’t come to a vote until late August or early September, following the Assembly’s summer recess.



Supporting Opposing
___ ___
Human Rights Watch, Children’s Rights Division (Sponsor)
Advancement Project
Alliance for a Better District 6
American Civil Liberties Union
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
American Probation and Parole Association
American Psychiatric Association
Bar Association of San Francisco
Books Not Bars (An Ella Baker Center for Human Rights Campaign)
Buddhist Peace Fellowship
California Attorneys for Criminal Justice
California Catholic Conference, Inc.
California Church Impact
California Coalition for Women Prisoners
California Committees United Institute
California Mental Health Directors Association
California National Organization for Women
California Psychiatric Association
California Public Defenders Association
California-Nevada Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
Californians United for a Responsible Budget
Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
Center for Global Law & Justice at University of San Francisco
School of Law
Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School
Child Welfare League of America
Children’s Advocacy Institute
Children’s Defense Fund
Disability Rights California
Disability Rights Legal Center
District Attorney, City and County of San Francisco
Equal Justice Initiative
Everychild Foundation
Feminist Majority & National Center for Women and Policing
Friends Committee on Legislation of California
Healing Justice Coalition
Human Rights Advocates
International Community Corrections Association
John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes
Just Detention International
Justice Now
Justice Policy Institute
Juvenile Law Center
Law Offices of the Los Angeles County Alternate Public Defender
Legal Services for Children
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Life Support Alliance
Los Angeles County Democratic Party
Lutheran Office of Public Policy – California
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.
National African American Drug Policy Coalition, Inc.
National Alliance on Mental Illness California
National Center for Lesbian Rights
National Center for Youth Law
Office of Restorative Justice of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles
Pacific Juvenile Defender Center
Post-Conviction Law Justice Project at University of Southern
California Gould School of Law
Prison Fellowship
Prison Law Office
Progressive Christians Uniting
Public Counsel Law Center
Sacramento Lorenzo Patiflo League of United Latin American
Citizens Council
Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange
Southern Poverty Law Center
St. Mark Presbyterian Church, Peace and Justice Commission
The Sentencing Project
United Church of Christ
W. Haywood Burns Institute
Youth Justice Coalition
Youth Law Center
1,879 private individuals
California Association of Highway Patrolmen
California District Attorneys Association
California Narcotic Officers’ Association
California Police Chiefs Association
California State Sheriffs Association
Crime Victims Action Alliance
Crime Victims United of California
Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office
Los Angeles Police Protective League
Peace Officers Research Association of California
Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office
One private individual

Source: SB 9 Bill Analysis by the Assembly Committee on Public Safety. July 5, 2011.


California Teens Convicted of Rape go Home on Probation

handcuff stock photoThree teens convicted of raping a 13-year-old classmate were sentenced to probation by California juvenile officials after serving 120 days behind bars. The charges, forcible rape in concert and lewd acts with a child under 14 – both felony accounts – carried a maximum punishment of nine years in juvenile detention, The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif. reported.

Some members of the community said probation was too lenient of a punishment for something as serious as rape, but youth law experts contended the juvenile justice system was designed to give offenders the opportunity to reform.

Juveniles convicted of rape in California do not have to register as sex offenders, said The Press-Enterprise.

Part Five: The Big Trouble With Oxy

Just joining us? This is part five of a five part series. Start from the beginning.

Scott Merritt, a certified addictions counselor and licensed therapist in metro Atlanta, estimates that about 40 percent of kids in Cobb County high schools use illegal drugs, including alcohol.

Though federal officials say the rates nationwide are lower, Merritt isn’t pulling that 40 percent out of thin air.

“It’s from talking to teachers, administrators, kids and parents,” Merritt said. “Whatever the drug of choice is in a particular school, that drug is extremely easy to get.”

And in many schools today, that drug is OxyContin.

OxyContin is the brand name of a time-release formula of oxycodone. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration found that retail sales of oxycodone increased six-fold between 1997 and 2005. In schools in suburban Atlanta, an OxyContin pill sells for about $20 per 40-mg tablet.

“It’s expensive, so you’d think it’d be harder to get,” Merritt said. “But it’s not. Whether kids are getting them from their parents’ medicine cabinet, or getting them off the Internet, they are getting them. And they are selling them and using them.”

And an OxyContin addiction is a very hard one to kick, Merritt said.

“It’s one of the hardest, because for one thing, a lot of people taking OxyContin were already addicted to something else,” he said. “And they might have no desire to get off of it. As therapists, we have to work through that resistance.”

Lynn Abney, a licensed professional counselor who works with Cobb County’s juvenile drug court program, said in suburban neighborhoods, prescription drugs don’t carry the same stigma as illicit drugs, such as heroine or methamphetamines.

“That is not necessarily a good thing,” she said. “Often, people start taking them – kids or adults – legitimately. They are prescribed them for a real injury. But then they start overusing them and developing a tolerance, so they have to take more to get that same relief. It’s prevalent in the high schools, and it’s not that rare in middle schools. And kids are mixing them with anxiety medicines or alcohol and it gets very dangerous.”

Abney’s experience tells her that people abusing prescription medicines almost always are abusing another drug as well.

“Most people who take these drugs do cross-use,” she said. “And they have no idea the potential effect of mixing these drugs.”

Part Five: A Day In Drug Court

Just joining us? This is part five of a five part series. Start from the beginning.

Cobb County, Ga’s., Juvenile Court Judge Juanita Stedman’s office overflows every Wednesday at 4 p.m. For an hour, with therapists and probation officers filling every chair and – with several sitting on the floor – Stedman and her juvenile drug court team do a rundown of every kid currently in the program.

One by one, Stedman calls out the name of each of 30 or so kids. The assigned probation officer and counselor chime in, giving her an update on how the week had gone for the juvenile.

For these kids, failing a drug test, disregarding a curfew or skipping out on house arrest, most likely means the judge isn’t going to let them go home. More often than not, someone shows up on Wednesday night with one or both of their parents, and ends up being taken to the county Youth Detention Center here in suburban Atlanta.

For the most-addicted kids, or the ones with the most rebellious attitudes, a stint in YDC is fairly common. But it doesn’t take long for kids to realize that Stedman, who can be as compassionate and loving a woman as there is, isn’t one to be tested.

“Todd, why do you think I’m so upset with you?” Stedman asked one of the teenagers in a previous class.

“Because I smoked?”

“You smoked pot three days after I released you. Did you not think I looked serious?”

“Yes ma’am, you did.”

And she was. Todd went back to jail that day.

Not everyone succeeds in drug court. And almost all of them will relapse at some point along their path to recovery.

Lynn Abney, a licensed professional counselor and part of the drug court team, said watching kids relapse is one of the hardest parts of the job for her and her teammates.

“I’d say more times than not, we expect relapse,” Abney said. “It’s an unfortunate part of the illness. But I’m a firm believer that even with a slip up, the kid is further along than he or she was at the last slip up. A lot of times, it’s two steps up and one step back. If someone is truly an addict, you at least hope that the time between relapses gets wider and wider. Sometimes it’s about managing relapses.”

Abney, and a handful of other counselors working the Cobb County juvenile drug court, make in-home family counseling visits with the kids – maybe weekly at first, then less often. But it’s a way for this to be more than just a justice or law enforcement program.

“To me, the No. 1 reason it is as effective as it is, is the accountability of the legal system and the clinical treatment of therapy,” she said. “It’s like treating someone with a major depressive episode – medicine is OK and therapy is OK. But medicine and therapy is the best, together. Our program is more successful than just incarcerating or just doing therapy.”

Not everyone who goes through the drug court will succeed. The grip of drugs and alcohol can sometimes prove to be too much.

“It’s tough,” Abney said. “Sometimes what you can do is not going to be enough. I think sometimes, we try too long with some families. We’ve seen tragedies where someone did not have long-term success. Still though, we believe that something that was done or said was helpful. It might not have saved them or prevented relapse, but we were planting a seed. If it didn’t help that kid, maybe it helped his brother, or his friend. Those are things we have to hang on to when we see things go bad.”

Continue reading: The Big Trouble with Oxys

Part Four: Redemption and Temptation

Just joining us? This is part four of a five part series. Start from the beginning.

Kyle Boyer

Kyle is now only a little more than four and a half months clean.

His last relapse came during the Thanksgiving break of 2010.

John, his father, had just had shoulder surgery. He’d been diligent in having his prescribed Vicodin on his person at all times, just to help ease the temptation.

Kyle once stumbled across it when his dad left them on the counter.

“I just grabbed the bottle and tossed it at him, like, ‘Really?’”

The second time he wasn’t thinking as clearly.

“I went into his briefcase to get an adapter and they were there,” Kyle said. “It surprised me and I just poured some in my hand and took them without even thinking about it. I immediately told my parents and I felt so rotten with shame and guilt.”

Kyle knows that he is a different young man now that he has a relationship with Jesus. But Jesus never promised Kyle he wouldn’t be tempted.

“Some days are easier than others,” he said. “A friend in recovery compared what we are training for to a pro fighter. The boxer trains for a specific day to fight. We train for sobriety and to stay clean and we don’t know when we’ll step into the ring and have to fight the temptation. When I start thinking about drugs, I try to stay occupied. When I’m bored, it’s the worst.”

On March 4, Kyle received his 90-day chip at Celebrate Recovery, a Christian-based 12-step program that meets at Vineyard Church in Kennesaw on Friday night.

Each week, a group ranging from 30 to 60 addicts, gather for dinner, a lesson, some praise music, then small group discussions. The leader is Mark Collini, Chris’s dad.

Being at Vineyard Church every time the doors open is one of the ways Kyle keeps from being bored. He’s there on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. He does youth group and drama as well as the recovery class there.

The other thing keeping Kyle’s hands from being idle is his art. Since he was first on house arrest, Kyle has been using spray paint to craft dozens of pieces of art on poster board, masonite, glass and hardwood. He’s participated in several local art shows and has sold several pieces though his website, kyleboyerart.com.

One of those paintings hangs in Stedman’s office.

“He gives us part of the proceeds for our non-profit Reconnecting Families program,” she said. “We obviously didn’t ask for that, but it’s a nice thing for him to do.”

The rest of the money is for a mission trip he plans to take after graduating this spring.


Like thousands of other recovering addicts, every morning, Kyle has to make a decision not to use drugs.

“It can be frustrating at school, because in many ways, it’s Temptation Island for me,” he said. “There are so many people that are stoned every morning. That used to be me.”

And at night, his rest is often robbed by dreams of relapsing.

“I’ve been having a lot of ‘using’ dreams lately,” Kyle said. “It puts me on edge. The worry comes and goes, but there’s a part of me that is always afraid I’ll relapse. I know the guilt and the shame I’ll have, and the hurt that I’ll cause others.

“But I also know I’m not alone in this battle. I’m not the same person I once was. I wouldn’t have the power and strength to do this alone. And I don’t have to do it alone.”

Bill Sanders has written and reported stories out of metro-Atlanta for 15 years.
Multimedia credits: Clay Duda

Part Three: A Friend and Reason for Hope

Just joining us? This is part three of a five part series. Start from the beginning.

Kyle Boyer

Kyle Boyer, 15-year-old prescription drug addict, duped his parents once again, faking a stomach ache to stay home from school. But instead of staying in bed, he went out to do what had become his norm – breaking into houses and stealing whatever the medicine cabinets within had to offer. Only this time he didn’t get away with it. This time the cops caught up with him.

Kyle pleaded guilty to three counts of attempted breaking and entering. He was placed on 24-month probation and three months of house arrest.

The house arrest was only a little better than Youth Detention Center. The loneliness was almost overpowering at times, Kyle said. Whenever he’d try to get sober, detox was awful.

“Physically, at their worst, the withdrawals hurt every bone in my body,” he said. “Every muscle was cramping and it was like the absolute worst flu possible, times two.”

High was no way to live, Kyle knew. Neither was detoxing though.

For Kyle, getting high was the default mode. It seemed like the norm. In his world, it was so less weird than what was about to happen.

This kid who sat next to him in class thought Kyle should come to church with him.

Kyle had a brief recollection of going to a small, country, Baptist church as a child. And he hated it. He believed there was some supreme creator, but he was against the idea of organized religion. And even though this kid was nicer to him than any sober kid had ever been, the thought of going to church with him — that was just weird.

After his arrest on the attempted breaking and entering charges, Kyle cut ties with his friends who used drugs. No one else really wanted to hang out with him, so the loner was at his loneliest.

“It had been hard enough for me to make friends with the friends I had,” Kyle said. “Now, I was having to isolate myself even further.”

So this Chris Collini kid started to seem not so bad.

On the surface, there was no reason this nice church kid and Kyle, a troubled addict, would hit it off.

“I knew he wasn’t at a place where he needed to be,” Chris said. “I’d heard all of the rumors of him being in trouble with the law. But I’d been raised around drugs. Both of my parents are recovering alcoholics and they run a recovery center in town, so I knew all about people dealing with drug addictions. It made me want to reach out to Kyle even more.”

Kyle didn’t make it easy.

“He’d have to hear me talk about drugs everyday, but he was always nice to me. He kept inviting me to church and I kept not wanting to go,” Kyle said. “We hung out a few times at his house, but I was not going to go to church with him.”

Eventually, Chris’ persistence won out.

“It was June 2010 when I finally went.” Kyle said. “I thought it was the weirdest thing in the world, going to youth group on a Wednesday night. Everyone there was so loving and accepting. Everyone was talking to me. It was an acceptance I’ve never felt outside of grandma’s hugs and kisses. And I liked it. I didn’t have to do anything but be who I am and they accepted me, even though they didn’t even know my name.”

So he went back the next week. And the next.

He heard about a weeklong summer camp the youth group was having. He wasn’t sure he was really ready for that level of Christianity, but with house arrest and the now-intensely attuned parents, Kyle wanted a week out of the house – even if it was with a church group.

“The first night, I was sitting there listening to the youth band’s lead singer play acoustic guitar and sing. It felt so peaceful and nice. The next thing I know, I was lying on my bed at 2 a.m., thinking that this is the most fun I’d had in a long time. I couldn’t wait for the rest of the week.

“I felt like something big was going to happen. That Monday night, I went to bed happy for once, with all these people accepting me and making plans to hang out with me after camp, not because they want something from me, but just because they wanted to be around me. I’d never had that from peers before.”

The next day, the group played games at Swift-Cantrell Park in Kennesaw, Georgia with kids from a day care center. Then that night, the group got together for a time of worship.

“That night was insane,” he said. “I decided to tell where I was in life with struggles with addiction. It was tough for me to do it. Everyone asked if they could pray for me. It was kind of weird, but the presence of God showed up and it was powerful.

I felt this joy and peace flow in my heart, and I felt 100 pounds lighter, like I wasn’t carrying this weigh on my back.

“Here they were, these 20 dudes praying for this one guy, and most of them were crying. I thought it was weird, but I knew it was right.”

Continue reading: The Joy and Struggles that Come with Staying Sober.
Multimedia credits: Clay Duda

Part Two: The Sympathetic Judge

Just joining us? This is part two of a five part series. Start from the beginning.

Juvenile Court Judge Juanita Stedman, who presides over Cobb County, Georgia’s Juvenile Drug Court has gotten to know Kyle quite well the past three years.

Yes, he was one of the most dangerously addicted kids she’s seen. And she’d seen plenty of heartbreaking cases that ended in tragedy.

Kyle Boyer

In the more affluent suburban high schools in Cobb County, north of Atlanta, Stedman said drugs, particularly prescription painkillers, stimulants and benzodiazepines (or benzos) are easy to obtain. And sometimes, these drugs aren’t dealt with seriously inside kids’ homes.

“There’s a sense that, ‘it’s only alcohol’, or ‘at least it’s only marijuana’, or ‘it’s just a pain pill,’” Stedman said.  “To some permissive, or head-in-the-sand parents, as long as they don’t hear words like crack, heroine or meth, then it can’t be all that bad.”

That passive logic has landed hundreds of addicted kids in her court.

Hindsight being what it is, the Boyers now can see a few warning signs they shrugged off initially. The most glaring one was when Kyle was in eighth grade and was caught selling some pain pills he’d gotten from his parents’ medicine cabinet.

“We wrote it off,” John Boyer said. “I talked to him, and I believed him when he said he did a stupid thing and wasn’t going to do it again.”

Police thought it was far more serious. Kyle was arrested, charged with distribution of a controlled substance and put on 12 months probation.

By then, Kyle had the beginnings of addiction.

Twice in seventh grade, he’d been prescribed pain pills – once for appendicitis and once when he broke his knee. Kyle discovered he felt better on the pills than he did when he wasn’t taking them. So at the age of 12, he began to lie when asked how his knee or appendix was feeling.

Long after the injuries had healed, he’d tell his parents they still hurt. In truth, Kyle was hurting – it just wasn’t his knee or appendix.

He and his family had moved from Austell to Acworth, Ga., in Cobb County, when Kyle was in fourth grade. A bit large and sluggish for his age, classmates picked on him over the years. He was put in some special education classes, widening the target.

“I didn’t feel like I fit in, and the drugs were my escape,” Kyle said. “When I was high, I didn’t care what people thought of me. Pretty soon, any chance I had to get high I would, even if I had to steal it from someone’s house. At first, that just meant when I was at a friend’s house, I’d snoop and look in medicine cabinets.

“Eventually, by the time I was a freshman at Harrison High School, I started not caring about anything. I didn’t care about friends, family, anything. All I cared about was getting high. If you weren’t getting high, I didn’t want anything to do with you.”

Kyle said it is ridiculously easy to buy pills at any of the high schools he’s attended. Harrison was more affluent than either Allatoona or Kennesaw Mountain, also in the North Atlanta suburbs. That meant it was the easiest of the three, and finding a dealer never was much work.

“It was easy to get, and I started the day by taking 8 to 12 Vicodins or maybe four OxyContins and go from there,” he said. “I’d do anything I could to get my hands on something that was making me feel so much better about myself. Oxy and morphine tablets were my drugs of choice.”

Many of the pills were cheap. OxyContin was not. Kyle said he could buy Vicodins for a few dollars each but that each 40 mg tablet of OxyContin would cost him about $20.

Most of the time, Kyle would get high in school, or at home after school, in his room, in front of the TV. He wouldn’t go out, break curfew, and come home stumbling. He’d just chill. And that made it all the harder for his parents to detect.

“I preferred to get high alone,” he said. “I didn’t put two and two together. I knew I was sad a lot, but I think I was denying the fact that I was clinically depressed. I had low self-esteem and was almost never happy.”

But he wasn’t opposed to getting high at school either. Kyle was kicked out of Allatoona High School for having alcohol he had bought on school grounds.

“I poured a tad bit of coffee into a travel mug, then the rest was vodka,” Kyle said. “The two are not a great combination, but it smelled like coffee.”

For the next couple of years, this was Kyle’s pattern. Aside from his stays in the youth detention center, and getting tested for drugs monthly, he spent 30 days at Ridgeview, an Atlanta youth rehabilitation center. Usually, he’d stay clean for a few weeks or so before jumping back, head first, into his addiction.

Judge Stedman could have kicked Kyle out of her court and let the state deal with him, particularly after three relapses. The drug court, which comes with family counseling, periodic drug testing and mandatory attendance in a weekly court session, is not set up for kids to get chance after chance. It’s a privilege — a chance to stay out of the state system and take advantage of counseling and therapy.

The Boyers know that Kyle had to try Judge Stedman’s patience.

“I think she saw something in Kyle,” John Boyer said. “He never lied to her. When he used, he’d tell her, ‘There’s no need to test me, judge. I’ve used.’”

Steadman did give Kyle more rope than others. What is usually a six-to-nine-month program became a two-year program for Kyle.

“Kyle was one of the most addicted kids I’ve seen.” Stedman said. “We were really worried about him. But his mom and dad came every week, sat on the front row, and were so supportive of him and what we were doing, that we knew he had a chance. That kind of support system is very important.”

How significant was the grace and love and discipline offered by the drug court folks?

“There’s no doubt in my mind that without drug court, we’d have buried our son by now,” said Suzanne Boyle, Kyle’s mom.

John nodded in agreement.

So did Kyle.

Continue reading: Kyle finds hope in a classmate who offers friendship and a way out.
Multimedia credits: Clay Duda

Part One: Darkness Visible

Just joining us? This is part one of a five part series. See the whole series.

Kyle Boyer

When Suzanne and John Boyer left their upper-middle class home for work on the morning of May 20, 2008, their 15-year-old son, Kyle, had a stomachache and was still in bed.

It wasn’t too bad, he told them. “Go on to work, I’ll sleep some more and feel better soon.”

A couple of hours later, Suzanne got a phone call that changed the trajectory of the Boyers’ lives forever.

“Ma’am I’m with the Cobb County police department. Is this Suzanne Boyer?”


“Do you have a son named Kyle Boyer?”


“Do you know where he is?”

“Yes, he’s home in bed sick.”

“No ma’am. He’s in the back of my patrol car. We’ve been looking for him for a long time.”


Kyle, who turns 18 in May, swears there are hundreds of kids just like him in Cobb County schools, thousands like him in Georgia, tens of thousands in America — kids who have their well-meaning-but-clueless parents convinced that their babies are saying no to drugs.

“We believed what he told us,” said Suzanne. “We were stupid enough to believe him.”

Experts in juvenile drug and alcohol abuse agree the problem is indeed epidemic and catastrophic. And the Boyers’ belief in their kids’ innocence is the norm, particularly in the two-parent suburban households.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, one in 10 high school seniors have taken Vicodin without a prescription. Earlier this year, Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, “just about the only mortality statistic that is getting worse, is death from prescription opioid abuse.” Frieden was referring to a comprehensive report on the nation’s health released in February http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus.htm that showed declining mortality rates in every category except prescription drug use.

Kyle’s journey was from isolation, bullies and OxyContin to purpose, hope and sobriety. It has been a long journey and one that is still very fluid. It threatened to ruin his parents’ marriage by creating a hostile home where everyone was taking sides. And it almost landed him in a jail cell that was much harsher than the Youth Detention Center he’d been in four times.

Kyle wasn’t just abusing prescription medication, such as Vicodin, Xanax and OxyContin; he was selling it to his friends. Worse yet, when he found himself out of pills, he’d fake a stomachache or a migraine. Then, when his parents would go to work, he’d get dressed, walk to a different part of his neighborhood, and start knocking on doors. If someone answered, he’d simply ask if they had seen his missing dog.

If no one answered, he’d break in.

“I wasn’t wanting to steal their stuff, or their money, and never did,” Kyle said. “I’d go straight to their medicine cabinet and take whatever they had that I could use.”

This was the Kyle Boyer police had been looking for, the one his friends kind of knew about, but the one who his parents had no idea existed.

“I was trying to break into a house and all the sudden, there were cops everywhere with their guns pulled,” Kyle said. “I ran for a split second, and saw more police on the other side of the house and I stopped.”

Kyle had broken into, or tried to break into about 10 houses in the two weeks leading up to his arrest.

Continue reading: Kyle meets a tough-love judge and Lock-up
Multimedia credits: Clay Duda

Allison Ashe, Renee Unterman: House Needs to Pass Runaway Bill Now

Allison Ashe, Executive Director of Covenant House Georgia, and state Sen. Renee Unterman tell us what’s wrong with the current law on runaways and why the House needs to pass an updated version, H.B. 185, the Runaway Youth Safety Act, now.Allison Ashe, Executive Director of Covenant House Georgia, and state Sen. Renee Unterman

Four months after her 15th birthday Natalie ran away from home, fleeing the sexual advances of her mother’s new boyfriend.  A few days later, local law enforcement picked her up and returned her to her mother. The Division of Family and Children’s Services came to investigate. Upon finding no actual physical abuse, the mother and daughter were left to sort out a very complicated situation alone. Natalie ran again, and this time, fearing another visit from the state, her mother did not call for help.

That was almost four years ago.

Since then, Natalie’s story has taken many dark turns. For the first several months she was able to find refuge with the parents of friends, but when her welcome ran out she found herself on the streets of Atlanta. She spent time hiding in parks, under bridges, in gym locker rooms after closing time, and anywhere she felt she would not be noticed.

Unable to find shelter or food, Natalie was thankful when a seemingly friendly young man approached her and offered her a place to stay. He was a good caretaker and boyfriend at first, but then he asked her to help pay her way by providing sexual favors to his friends, thus beginning the sexual exploitation and abuse that will likely haunt her for the rest of her life. Just a few days after her 18th birthday, Natalie found her way to Covenant House Georgia, where she was given shelter, food, counseling, protection and the hope that she could leave the darkness of her past behind.

Children like Natalie often see the worst side of our best efforts to help them. They grow up with parents unable or unwilling to meet their needs or quick to raise a hand in anger. They see a child protection system that failed to reach them in the moments when they needed it the most. And when they give up on waiting for those around them for help, they leave home in search of something better only to find that even those organizations that would like to protect them are unable to as a result of state law.

With nowhere to go but the streets and without food or shelter, these children become easy targets for sexual exploitation and recruitment into the commercial sex industry.

A report by the National Runaway Switchboard shows that approximately half of runaways in the United States leave home because of family abuse and conflict. Once on the streets, however, they often find little relief from abuse.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, within 48 hours of running away, youth are likely to be approached to participate in prostitution or another form of commercial exploitation. Nearly a third of children who flee home or are kicked out of their homes each year, eventually engage in sex in exchange for food, drugs or a place to stay, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Studies have conclusively linked running away to commercial sexual exploitation.

Georgia is certainly not immune to these problems.  Each year the state’s courts handle approximately 2,600 cases involving runaways. While the abuse that leads them to run away is similar to what runaways experience around the country, it is possible they are even more likely to encounter exploitation here in Georgia because state law is preventing shelters from serving them.

Under our current law, it is a misdemeanor to assist children who have run away because it may contribute to their continued status as a runaway and interfere with parental custody. While the law does not specifically mention shelters and was likely intended to serve as an instrument to protect children from predators, it is written so broadly that it can be used against the very organizations that seek to protect runaways. As a result, shelters face a tough choice: Risk criminal prosecution for protecting runaways or turn away children at their door knowing they often become victims on the street.

While these laws focus on runaway youth, the tragedy extends beyond those children who decide they must leave home. Children who are kicked out of their homes by their parents are turned away as well because shelters cannot reliably distinguish between a child who has run away and a child who has been thrown out. Regardless of the reasons that place a child on the street, they are just as likely to become the victims of sexual exploitation when shelters are prevented from opening their doors to them before their 18th birthday.

To help address this problem, state Rep. Tom Weldon has introduced legislation in the General Assembly that will help get runaways off the streets and into safe, temporary shelter.

The Runaway Youth Safety Act allows shelters to provide emergency services to runaway youth without fear of criminal liability. The Act provides a limited exemption from criminal liability for registered or licensed service providers that contact a child’s legal guardian within 72 hours of the child’s acceptance of services or make a child abuse report pursuant to the mandatory reporter statute.

If the child’s parent cannot be reached or if the child will not disclose his or her parent’s name, DFCS must be contacted within 72 hours. Since Georgia does not have a statewide reporting system for runaway and missing children, the Act also provides one of the only mechanisms for heartsick parents to locate their children.

The State Report Card on Child Homelessness tells us Georgia ranks 49th in the nation in child homelessness.

We can do better. Natalie needed better. The Georgia General Assembly needs to pass HB 185 and open the doors to shelters for the safety of our children.