Desperate parents sometimes call the police on their own children — not because they want them to be arrested or go to jail, but because they don’t know what else to do. Unfortunately, what often happens is a downward spiral, in which young people dig a deeper and deeper hole for themselves, and parents find they have lost their child to the juvenile justice system.

A new report, “It Takes a Village — Diversion Resources for Police and Families,” sheds light on a largely hidden problem in the United States — low-level misbehaviors in young people like skipping school, running away, or violating curfew frequently lead to arrest and incarceration. The report, issued June 29 by the Vera Institute of Justice, shows that parents are often the unwitting participants in this system. “In many cases, families dealing with troubling behavior unwittingly send their children into the system by calling the police when they feel they have nowhere to turn for help,” the report noted.

There is little risk to public safety in these problems, yet the police get involved. The report focuses instead on solutions that allow families to access services and support — without ever calling the police.

Krista Larson, director of Vera’s Center on Youth Justice, writes in an introduction to the report that there “are safe and effective alternatives” to calling the police, which are moving the entire juvenile justice system toward prevention “as communities develop a shared vision of responding to youth in trouble through services and support instead of arrest and detention.”

Avoiding arrest

Young people who have an arrest record can also suffer negative legal consequences throughout their lives. Even if they’re not convicted, the arrest record can mean they can’t get a job, a driver’s license, access to college, and more. And the stigma associated with an arrest or negative police contact can create long-term psychic distress.

It’s important to note that youth of color are disproportionately affected. The rate of “ungovernability” cases, also known as being beyond the control of parents, is more than twice as high for black youth than white youth. The rate of runaway cases for black youth is more than three times that for white youth. The disparities are not a reflection of differences in behavior, but the ways that communities respond to the behavior depending on whether the adolescent is white or black.

Sometimes the police are called, but they can respond without arresting the youth. Here’s an example, from the report, of how well things can turn out when the police avoid arresting a young person: “The police were called after J.B., age 15, was involved in a minor scuffle at a park. Instead of immediately arresting J.B., who had been in trouble for fighting many times, the police called the local crisis response program, a resource for police and families to address emergent situations without arrest. A counselor came to the park to meet with J.B. and his grandmother, and the police and counselor determined that it was safe for them to leave the scene. Together, the family and counselor decided what J.B. most needed to keep him out of trouble. They created and monitored an action plan that encouraged J.B. to improve his grades, join his school’s ROTC program, start attending a weekly counseling group, and get involved in an extracurricular activity at school — working with student concessions at basketball games. Throughout his time with the program, J.B. not only stayed out of trouble, but also improved his academic and extracurricular connections to his school and established short- and long-term goals for his education and career.”

Normal adolescence

Disobeying adults is part of normal adolescent development. When you add the normal impulse control problems and peer pressure of adolescence, not to mention family conflict or childhood trauma, there may be symptoms that go beyond what parents can handle on their own. But detention — short-term custody during juvenile court processing — and being placed in a locked juvenile facility are destructive to the adolescent’s mental and physical health and to the family stability, and do nothing to help family problems or other issues that contribute to the behavior.

“We know that the point of contact between young people and officers is always the most volatile point, where things usually break down — and it usually ends with a loss of respect on both sides,” one Oregon police officer said.

Often, parents call the police in the context of fighting within the home — between youth and adults, or between siblings — frequently resulting in “adolescent domestic battery” charges. Police are required to respond. Then they are hesitant about leaving a youth in a crisis situation. And with no other options, they may arrest and book the youth. Sometimes they take the time to locate an appropriate guardian or school official. But these situations take police away from where they need to be — safeguarding public safety — and cause trauma for the child and family.

Community resources

The solution is to have community resources, according to the report. With greater sophistication about adolescent development, communities — including the police — are making changes in how they respond to youth “acting out.” The human costs of arresting and incarcerating young people are being recognized.

Here’s an example from the report: “In Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, a mother met with the assistant principal at her son’s high school, looking for help. He was using substances frequently, leaving home almost every night, and not attending school. The mother was highly concerned for her son’s safety, and visited the school to discuss whether it was possible to have her son picked up by law enforcement and committed to a psychiatric hospital — the only way she could think of to get help. Instead, the principal suggested to the mother that she meet with staff from the local assessment and resource center. The family came in and, with a therapist’s assessment, discovered that the young man was willing to accept help. The staff found an inpatient facility within an hour of the family’s residence and helped the family form a plan without law enforcement involvement or the need for involuntary commitment.”

The bottom line: “If a family does call the police, they should be able to view police contact as an opportunity — as one way to proactively respond to challenging adolescent behavior and family disputes.” Currently, in many jurisdictions, that is not what’s happening, because the resources aren’t there.

For the full report, go to http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/it-takes-a-village-report.pdf.