Youth At Risk

What is a “Youth at Risk” and what can you, as a parent, do?

Many children and youth are at risk of needlessly being pushed into the juvenile justice system because their needs are not being met in some form or another. Even the most nurturing and attentive parents are mystified when their children begin to misbehave in significant ways or suddenly become disruptive or unhappy. The reasons children and youth act out can be difficult to discern and sometimes even harder to treat. But without guidance and help, these kids can quickly become mired in problems at school, the criminal justice system, or with Child Protective Services. Through years of working with children and young adults in the criminal justice system Michele has learned to identify the sources of problem behaviors and fit children with the right evaluators and programs to help them successfully integrate into society.

As an attorney, Michele helps identify problems at times when children are having trouble in school or become the subjects of CPS or criminal investigations. Her approach is not strictly one of an attorney evaluating the legal ramifications of a particular case. Michele engages with individuals and their families with the objective of solving the core problems that lead to legal dilemmas.

The majority of juveniles who commit crimes will only commit one or two offenses. For many juveniles just being involved with the system is a strong deterrent to criminal behavior. However, a smaller segment of the juvenile population becomes chronically involved in criminal offenses. The reasons for this can be extensive and stem from mental health problems, addiction, peer isolation, or undiagnosed learning disabilities. Youth with risk factors do not guarantee criminal behavior, but do increase the likelihood of such behavior. Young offenders who exhibit multiple risk factors are the most likely to become chronically involved in the juvenile justice system. Early intervention that alleviates problems and provides resources to youth who are struggling can have enormous long-term impacts on the likelihood of committing crimes and overall success.

Consequences of Police Involvement

Gone are the days when police officers served as friendly advisers who might step in and counsel young people on behavior. In most cases today, police officers must write a report no matter how insignificant the conduct. These reports become a permanent record of your child’s involvement with police. Most young people do not understand their rights and often parents think it is in a child’s best interest to cooperate with police. You and your child should never speak with the police until you have consulted with an attorney. The consequences of making statements to the police can be extremely detrimental and have life-altering results. An attorney can help you determine if, and when, it is appropriate to cooperate with a police investigation and help protect your child.

Schools and Zero Tolerance Policies

In recent years most schools have adopted what is known as “zero tolerance” policies. This means schools take swift and harsh action against any instances of alleged bullying or violence. While the policies are aimed at protecting students and creating a safe learning environment they can often have unintended consequences when both sides of an incident are not well identified. Zero tolerance policies also have the consequence of keeping children out of school which isolates them and can aggravate problems, particularly for children who are struggling academically or socially. Zero tolerance initially was meant to consistently enforce suspension and expulsion policies in response to weapons, drugs and violent acts. Over time, however, zero tolerance has become a wide-spread policy that mandates pre-determined typically harsh consequences or punishments for a wide degree of rule violations, often without regard for the reasons behind the student’s behavior.

School disciplinary proceedings can be serious and require the assistance of an attorney. They can also lead to criminal investigations. You may not know if a legal investigation is happening. In many cases, schools investigate an incident; close their file and the student and family think the matter is complete. This is not necessarily the case. An incident that takes place on school property and is dealt with as a school disciplinary matter may still be investigated by law enforcement. An attorney can help you evaluate whether law enforcement is likely to be involved.

Victims of Bullying

It is not unusual for victims of bullying to have disciplinary problems at schools. If a young person is being bullied and not receiving support within the school setting they may often lash out and engage in disruptive or violent behavior. Understanding the motivation for this behavior is important to protect everyone involved. There can be very important legal ramifications for involvement in violence, particularly within a school setting. Violence in schools can be referred for criminal assault charges and can result in suspensions or even expulsion. Victims of bullying may engage in what appears to be assaultive behavior as a means of escaping their tormentors. The whole picture is not always evident to school administrators and children who are victims are often punished for defending themselves or lashing out when they have reached a point where they can no longer take the bullying. Children may also make threats of violence when targeted by others. Any threat of violence is taken very seriously in this era of school violence. These cases must be handled carefully and sensitively to ensure all parties are confident a threat was not sincere and to determine why a young person would make a violent threat.

Drug and Alcohol Dependence

Youth who are drug and alcohol dependent are much more likely to find themselves in the criminal system. The connection between alcohol, drugs and crime is clear. Substantial evidence supports the relationship between substance abuse and criminal behaviors in youth. Young people who consistently abuse substances often experience an array of problems, including academic difficulties, health problems, mental health problems, poor peer relationships, and poor familial relationships. Using drugs or alcohol lowers a person’s inhibitions, making it easier to engage in criminal activity. Drug dependence can also lead to a variety of offenses to pay for or obtain drugs.

Most schools have a zero tolerance policy with regard to drugs and alcohol. Any student found in possession of drugs or alcohol on a school campus or selling drugs or alcohol will face serious school disciplinary consequences and potentially referral for criminal prosecution.

Drug and alcohol abuse may also be a sign of underlying mental health issues because individuals often use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. It is not uncommon for these youth to struggle with a co-occurring psychiatric disorder.

Sexual Behavior Problems

Children and youth act out sexually for a variety of reasons. The onset of sexual offending behavior in children and youth can be linked to a number of factors reflected in their experiences, exposure and/or developmental deficits. Juveniles who act out sexually are distinct from adults who act out sexually; most will not continue to offend sexually, particularly if given appropriate guidance and treatment early on. Identifying and finding the right treatment for young people who are exhibiting sexual behavior problems is one of the most difficult areas to access help. There are many excellent sexual behavior therapists in the Seattle area. However, most do not advertise or have websites. If you are concerned about your child’s behavior Michele can help educate you and access help before your child’s behavior escalates and becomes criminal. In some cases, your child may already have engaged in criminal behavior about which you are not aware. Your child may have been disciplined at school for inappropriate touching or comments, you may have found your child surfing pornography on the internet both of which may lead to criminal referrals.

Mental Health Issues

Mental health issues in children and adolescents are prevalent; potentially as many as 1 in 5 children have a mental health disorder that can affect the child’s functioning. Anxiety is one of the most prevalent disorders in children and adolescents and can impact the child’s day to day functioning. Mental health disorders may be caused by environment, biology, or a mix of both. Biological factors include genetics, chemical imbalances in the body, and damage to the central nervous system, as with a head injury. Children can experience a wide-range of mental health issues from mild anxiety to severe depression, bipolar disorder and conduct disorders. It may not always be obvious that a child is struggling with a mental health disorder and can benefit from treatment. Certain mental health professionals specialize in conducting comprehensive evaluations aimed at understanding the cognitive functions of a child’s brain and accurately diagnosing any deficits. These evaluations can then be used to understand why a child may be functioning differently than others and determine what interventions will be most helpful.

Family History/Adopted Children

Unfortunately, a high proportion of adopted children experience some level of mental distress or criminal behavior during their youth. Adopted children may be at greater risk for developing mental health problems though it not specifically known why. Studies have found that adopted children are more likely to develop social, intellectual, or emotional problems. Exposure to substances in the womb including drugs and alcohol, subsequent abuse or neglect, lack of structure in the family environment, poor nutrition, and reduced stimulation, along with placement at a later age, can all place a child at risk for developing these problems. Adolescents adopted as infants are more likely to be diagnosed with externalizing disorders such as ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder. Addressing these issues as an adoptive parent, especially when they begin to interfere with a child’s school performance, social life, or criminal involvement can be very challenging. Often, adopted children have unknown family history which can make it difficult to determine a diagnosis and treatment plan. Michele has extensive experience working with families with adoptive children and finding ways to identify core problems and assist families with finding effective treatment providers.

S.A.Y. (Sexually Aggressive Youth)

Washington designates young people who have been accused of a sexually act against another but who are too young to be charged with a crime as Sexually Aggressive Youth. The S.A.Y. program is geared at treatment and educating young children on sexually appropriate behavior. Michele has worked with many young people and their families who have been referred to the S.A.Y. program, that is part of CPS.


Children who skip school or who are chronically late for school can face legal consequences in the state of Washington. Children between the ages of 8 and 18 must attend school full time. Children may face discipline within the school for unexcused absences. Schools can also file a truancy petition against parents if they believe the parents have not taken reasonable steps to ensure their child attends school.

Computer Addiction

Computer addiction can result in very problematic behaviors. If your child is struggling with computer addiction early intervention and oversight is extremely important. Computer addiction and pornography addictions often intersect.