Maryville case puts Missouri juvenile justice system under the microscope

12/08/2013 12:23 AM

12/08/2013 12:23 AM

Amid the uproar over the dropping of felony charges in a Maryville, Mo., sexual assault case involving then-14-year-old Daisy Coleman, a similar incident that night — against an even younger girl — has gone largely unremarked.

In that case, the teen who admitted having nonconsensual sex with Coleman’s 13-year-old friend from Albany, Mo., one January night last year was taken into the state juvenile justice system, which cloaks its wards in anonymity.

Now, nearly two years later, the Albany victim’s mother has learned that her daughter’s assailant, then 15, returned home for treatment after spending two weeks in the custody of Missouri’s Division of Youth Services.

The mother, who became aware of the details of the youth’s disposition after filing a written request with the DYS last month, said she was frustrated by the news.

“I was shocked, angry, frustrated,” she told The Star. “… My daughter’s going to be living with this for the rest of her life, and I think he got off very easy for what he did.”

DYS statistics indicate that the 15-year-old’s time in custody is among the shortest in its rehabilitation spectrum. Still, it represents the only legal consequence for the events that occurred early the morning of Jan. 8, 2012. While two older youths were charged as adults, the Nodaway County prosecutor declared the evidence was insufficient to proceed in their cases.

Since then, Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has stepped in as special prosecutor to review the legal disposition in the two older youths’ cases, an action following The Kansas City Star’s examination of the case that invoked outrage across the nation.

Despite the mother’s frustration, however, lawyers and juvenile justice experts point out that the disposition of the 15-year-old’s case, even given the nature of the crime, was not necessarily out of the ordinary. Because of the age of the offender, The Star is not naming him. The Star also is not publishing the names of the victim or her mother because it was a sexual crime.

The Missouri juvenile justice system differs greatly from its adult counterpart, said former Jackson County juvenile prosecutor Jill Katz. Unlike the adult system, the juvenile justice system operates largely in secret to protect the identities of youthful offenders. Even the terminology is dissimilar. Juvenile defendants are not “found guilty,” as they are in the adult system. The allegations are “sustained” or found to be “true.”

But perhaps the biggest difference is the overarching goal. While the adult system is based largely on punishing convicted offenders, the juvenile system is dedicated almost entirely to treating and rehabilitating them.

“It’s an intentional and purposeful plan to keep kids out of detention,” Katz said. “The concept is to keep kids in the community because it’s better for rehabilitation and treatment. The goal is to keep the kid at home if at all possible.”

Still, Melissa Sickmund, who serves as director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, said she understands the mother’s pain.

“Her daughter, presumably, experienced a trauma, and that trauma could be lifelong,” Sickmund said. “That’s her sentence, and that’s what’s on her mom’s mind. And he spends a week and then a few months (under the supervision of DYS)? That feels like an imbalance.”

The 15-year-old’s charge stemmed from a 2012 Maryville house party in which two teenage girls alleged they were sexually assaulted.

In the early morning hours, the two girls sneaked out of the Coleman house and were driven to the home of Matthew Barnett, then a 17-year-old Maryville High School senior and grandson of a former state representative. The girls alleged that they were assaulted in separate basement bedrooms.

Nodaway County sheriff’s records show that later that day the 15-year-old boy admitted having sex with the younger girl despite her repeated refusals. He also said he was aware that she had been drinking beforehand. He admitted to undressing her and asking her to put a condom on him. When she refused, he said, he put the condom on himself and had sex with her.

Barnett was arrested on charges of sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child for allegedly leaving Coleman incapacitated and barefoot in her yard in 30-degree temperatures. Documents showed he admitted to having sex with Coleman and to being aware that she had been drinking beforehand, but he insisted the sex was consensual.

Jordan Zech, an all-state linebacker on the Maryville High School football team, was charged with sexual exploitation of a minor, which involved using a friend’s cellphone to film a portion of the encounter between Coleman and Barnett.

Barnett and Zech were handled in the adult justice system. However, the felony charges were dropped two months later, a decision that later sparked controversy.

On March 5, 2012, a juvenile court found that the charges against the 15-year-old boy — acts that, if committed by an adult, would have constituted the Class C felony of sexual assault — were true and supported by the evidence, and he was turned over to the Division of Youth Services for an indeterminate term.

While it’s unclear where he was held over the next several days, the youth was placed at the Langsford House Facility in Lee’s Summit on March 11-18, 2012, according to a letter to the victim’s mother from Scott A. Odum, DYS assistant deputy director. The mother recently shared that letter with The Star.

After that, he was “treated while residing at his home,” the letter said.

The youth was completely discharged from DYS care on Oct. 1, 2012 — a little less than seven months after his initial hearing.

Missouri’s juvenile justice system determines treatment for offenders on a child-by-child basis. Though critical elements of the 15-year-old’s case are sealed and unknown — for instance, whether he had prior offenses or whether DYS officials considered him a risk for further offenses — statistics suggest that his term was relatively short.

According to DYS statistics, 11 percent of youths who have committed Class C and D felonies have an average length of stay of 0-3 months in custody, 33 percent stay 3-6 months, while 47 percent stay 6-12 months. Eight percent stay between 12 and 18 months, while 1 percent stay beyond 18 months.

The “Missouri Model,” as the state’s juvenile justice system often is called, is nationally recognized for its progressive approach, as well as its success. The state is quick to note its low recidivism rates.

Even if a child who committed a sex crime is returned home, said Kansas City criminal defense attorney John Picerno, the supervision still can be intense.

“It’s not a free pass,” said Picerno, who represented a juvenile in a sex crimes case last year. “They’re meeting with social workers, they’re meeting with sex counselors, they have a curfew and their grades are monitored. It’s not free willy-nilly.”

Yet to victims and their families looking for the justice system to help provide closure, there can be a disconnect between what they expect to see happen and what actually occurs.

While the mother of the Albany 13-year-old said she understands the state’s approach for juveniles, she also said the gravity of the crime in her daughter’s case warranted greater response from the juvenile system.

“I agree with treatment,” she said. “I agree with treating a juvenile — I believe he needed it. I don’t believe in locking him away and throwing away the key, but I feel like (there should be) some kind of supervision until he’s 18, at least, and a little bit stronger punishment. Just something to reflect the seriousness of the crime.”

Picerno said he understands if parents or victims are upset when they don’t see a juvenile offender led away in chains to a prison cell.

“You can feel for where they’re coming from,” he said. “But the other person is also a child.”

One way to avoid that kind of frustration is to ensure that the offender’s well-being is being balanced with that of the victim, said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.

“From the parents’ point of view, you want to ensure that the girl can go to school, that she can go to parties, that she can get through it,” Schwartz said. “Part of the question is, how is the system looking out for her as it looks out for him? You don’t want a boy returning to a school and boasting. You don’t want other people to get the impression that this kind of behavior is right.”

He added: “I understand it from a victim’s point of view and society point of view. You’re trying to hold him accountable and teach him a lesson, but not make things worse in the long run.”

Sickmund said better communication with the victim’s family might have helped alleviate some of the surprise.

“What could have been done differently so that that fact wasn’t a shock to that mother? So that she would understand the rationale of what they were planning to do to that child and maybe helped to feel a little more comfortable about it?” she said.

“What could have been done to make that imbalance feel like less for that mother and her daughter?”

For the victim’s mother, there are good days and bad days, she said, but her daughter is “a survivor.”

The mother, who has worked in corrections and said she understands the benefit of treatment and therapy, wonders whether two weeks in custody and six and a half months of home treatment was a significant enough deterrent to committing a similar crime in the future.

“That’s one of my biggest concerns,” she said. “Not punishing him, but just making sure that that’s not going to happen again. And I’m not sure that that amount of treatment — or whatever he had — is sufficient.”

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