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Editorial: New probation officer would help find missing children, get them essential help

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz sensibly wants to end the practice of treating runaway children as criminals. Instead of punitive measures that exist now, the focus would shift to solving the problems that led to running away.

That shift requires the County Legislature to approve the cost of a full-time probation officer to search for missing youths. The officer’s $58,594 a year pay would come from the Department of Social Services, reimbursed by the state and federal government.

In the past, parents who sought county help in finding a missing child were actually encouraged to appear before a judge and seek an arrest warrant for their child. Desperate parents would take that drastic step, but it sets severe consequences in motion, as in the case of Alyssa Lopez.

Alyssa was 12 when she ran away from home. She told how she was placed under arrest and handcuffed. A police officer called her a “runner” and she was held for hours in a Family Court holding pen with juvenile offenders. Instead of being treated like the troubled child she was, she was dealt with as a criminal.

Not all runaways are handcuffed. But the chances that they might find themselves elbow-to-elbow with actual criminals increase with each arrest warrant.

Erie County Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger said the arrest and detention of these youths is costly – $80,000 a year at the least expensive residential placement facility. He told The News’ Sandra Tan that arresting and detaining runaways – who have not broken the law – “isn’t just a bad idea, but a costly one.”

Beyond the cost, time spent in juvenile detention centers waiting for a residential placement significantly increases the likelihood of the youths landing in real trouble.

There are many reasons children run away from home. It is better for the sake of the entire family to deal with the core problems. This is where the Family Services Team plays its role. It encompasses members of Social Services, Mental Health, Probation and other law enforcement and school personnel.

As reported in The News, the team stopped referring parents of missing youth to Family Court for arrest warrants and instead asked youth probation officers to find missing children and refer them back to the team so the family could get services and assistance.

A dedicated juvenile probation officer will make the county better equipped to search for runaways and steer them to the help they need. It will be money well spent.

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