First, a disclaimer: The best parents can suffer the worst setbacks when raising their children. And the most delinquent, inattentive parents can get lucky and produce well-adjusted children.
However, we imagine if cash-strapped child-welfare agencies in Oregon could be granted one wish, it would be that parents would talk to their kids and show an interest in their daily lives.
"The big thing that I see with kids that are in trouble is I don't think parents spend enough quality time with their children," said Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer.
Young people often act without thinking. That's always been the case. Today, however, the stakes appear to be higher than ever. Teen suicide continues to stalk Grant County and neighboring counties. Youth alcohol and drug abuse cripple children's ability to cope with their lives.
However, parents often compound the problem of youth delinquency by reacting to each infraction without thinking of the root causes of the behavior. Also, parents often wear blinders and defend their children vociferously even when it's obvious that the child is misbehaving.
There's no simple solution to any of these problems, but parents need to be aware that the social safety net in Oregon cannot save their children. At the very best, the system can give the parents time to work out a plan. But the fact remains - the state can't replace parents at the helm of their children's lives.
This wakeup call comes at a time when the Oregon Youth Authority is reeling from budget cuts. Senator Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, tried valiantly to prevent the closure of Oregon Youth Authority correctional facilities in Burns, Prineville, Albany and Warrenton. He could not save them.
For parents, that means the 17-county eastern region of Oregon will lose 24 beds for youth offenders. An estimated 62 beds will dwindle to 38. By mid-March, all four correctional facilities in Burns, Prineville, Albany and Warrenton will have been shuttered.
"It's solving the issue of budget deficit for the state. There is an impact on local communities with youth returning," said Brad Mulvihill, area OYA coordinator for Central and Eastern Oregon. "The impact has to do with services that won't be available. These youth were sent to the close-custody facilities for a reason by the circuit courts of the county. Some of these youth, 250 statewide, are being placed back in the communities."
Can communities in the region - Baker, Crook, Deschutes, Grant, Gilliam, Harney, Hood River, Jefferson, Klamath, Lake, Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Wasco, Wheeler, Umatilla, Union and Wallowa counties - cope with the return of these youth? They'd better get ready to do so. OYA facilities in Eastern Oregon, including the Eastern Oregon Youth Correctional Facility in Burns, were in full swing when the agency emptied these facilities and transported the young offenders to other sites in Oregon in the wake of voters' denial of the temporary tax increase on Jan. 28.
With or without new taxes, with plunging revenues, a vicious domino effect is expected.
"We only have a set population of access. We only have so many beds, and we can only hold so many youth," Mulvihill said.
The OYA-managed population of close-custody offenders is about 1,100 - those are kids in correctional facilities. There are an additional 3,000 youth in the OYA system.
"You can't look at these cuts individually because they're all interconnected," Mulvihill said.
"There are not enough foster care and group care homes" to absorb early releases, he pointed out.
The Oregon Department of Human Resources is absorbing cuts in mental health and drug and alcohol programs. That's bad news for troubled youth caught up in substance abuse.
"Now they're being sent back to those same communities with less resource at that local level than they had before," Mulvihill said.
Sheriff Palmer's department will be involved in helping to transport youth offenders to distant correctional facilities. But his department, and others like it, may notice an uptick in youth crimes as well, Mulvihill feared.
"There's the potential of more crime. We have made an honest effort and informed effort to try and mitigate the public safety issues by screening all of the youths that we have and selecting the ones that we think are most ready to return. However, they are not completing the program and being sent back out to the community not as well prepared. The smaller communities are probably going to have an even tougher time because they don't have the infrastructure," he said.
The most serious offenders will stay put in correctional facilities. Juveniles courts deal with a variety of offenses, including robbery, rape, sodomy, burglaries, arsons, weapons offenses and vehicular theft. Highest priority for incarceration will remain Measure 11 youth who were sentenced as adults for the most severe crimes. Also, OYA will maintain a "public safety reserve" for sex offenders and others not under jurisdiction of adult court. Other beds are reserved for direct commitments from the juvenile courts, also known as daily bed allocation. About 615 beds will be divided up by a formula agreed upon by juvenile departments. The state's 250-bed reduction took this allocation down to 365 beds.
A consortium of juvenile department leaders will work with OYA to determine which low-risk youth should be granted release.
"We tried to pick the youth that were furthest along in their treatment or the least public safety risk," Mulvihill said.
That's small consolation for communities trying to cope with the return of troubled children squeezed out of incarceration by budget cuts. For parents, there's no better time to take responsibility for their children.