By Ashley Luthern
On a drizzly August day, probation officers Ramon Cuevas and Brian Carnie are driving through the city’s North Side on their way to check on kids on probation.
They pull into the driveway of a three-story house with a spacious, but spartan front porch. Carnie grabs his paperwork, turns off the radio and heads to the front door.
He’s there to check on Ronnie, a 15-year-old who has been on probation for several months after a charge of disorderly conduct. [To protect the youth’s identity, The Vindicator is using a fictitious name at the request of the court.]
“What are you planning to do for school?” Carnie asks.
“I’d like to go online,” Ronnie said.
Ronnie will turn 16 this fall and would be entering seventh grade. Rather than being in a class with people so much younger, he would like to work on his own.
Carnie talks options, including a program that could get a computer to Ronnie’s house for him to take classes, and reminds Ronnie and his mom about setting up a payment plan for court fines and fees that are still due.
“I’ve been cutting grass and doing work for neighbors,” Ronnie said.
He’d like to get other work, but with only a bicycle and no high-school diploma, his options are limited.
As the home visit wraps up, Ronnie’s mom mentions a $200 water bill she received from her landlord. It was due a few days ago, but she says her landlord only just gave it to her and now she’s worried about paying the large sum and late fees.
Carnie promises to look into any programs that might be able to help, and says goodbye.
He climbs into the car and asks Cuevas, “Where to next?”
In Mahoning County last year, there were 329 open probation cases and 314 cases were closed, for a total of 643 probation cases.
That’s a decline from 2010, 2009 and 2008, when there were 1,143; 1,391 and 875 total cases respectively, and correlates with a countywide decline in juvenile intake numbers and cases referred to prosecution.
To be on probation, a youth must be a juvenile traffic offender, unruly or adjudicated delinquent, the juvenile equivalent of being found guilty of a criminal offense.
The length of a probation term varies.
“They could be on probation for six months or six years,” Carnie said.
The list of probation requirements is lengthy and if violated could lead to a bench warrant for a youth to be arrested.
A few of the main rules are: Don’t get arrested, meet a curfew, check in with the probation officer and don’t spend time with any youth or adults on probation or parole.
Many youths also attend specialized programs, such as drug treatment, as part of their probation.
But the role of probation officers has expanded from checking in with youths to helping them find resources and assisting other law enforcement agencies.
Chief Probation Officer Wes Skeels and probation officer Jerry Tuscano work closely with the Mahoning Valley Violent Crimes Task Force.
“If we have a kid on paper, we can search their house without a warrant,” Skeels said.
“On paper” means that a youth is on probation. Skeels said his department frequently works with the task force and Youngstown police by providing photo line-ups and executing searches that could turn up weapons or drugs related to other crimes.
This summer, The Vindicator rode along with Tuscano, Cuevas, probation officer Dawn DiBernardi and Youngstown detectives to search a youth’s home on the city’s South Side.
“When we get relevant information, we give it to YPD or vice versa. A few days ago, I was interviewing a kid in detention and he told me that he heard about the guy who had robbed the security guard and took his gun,” Tuscano said.
They had searched another youth’s residence the day before and came up empty-handed, but received new information that led to that day’s search.
Donning bulletproof vests and gloves, the probation officers went inside the home and found marijuana and drug paraphernalia in the area where they were told the teenager had been sleeping.
When the teen came back to the house about 20 minutes after officers arrived, he was cuffed and taken to the detention center on the allegation of a probation violation. That teen did not have the security guard’s gun, but by the next day, probation officers and Youngstown police had recovered it — using information gathered during the searches.
Police Chief Rod Foley said the cooperation between his department and the juvenile court, especially probation, has increased over the last year.
“We need to have a search warrant or voluntary consent” to go conduct a search, he said.
But by using juvenile probation, the department circumvents that and can ask juvenile probation to search a youth’s house looking for anything — evidence or contraband — that could also be tied to a crime involving youths or adults.
If the police receive information, they can act on it quickly instead of waiting for a warrant, the chief added.
“It keeps the kids and the parents on their toes,” Foley said. “I’m still amazed that we find these things in the kids’ houses.”
The two agencies also helped organize a recent “call-in” with the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence that offered teens a way out of gangs.
Despite the increased cooperation (Tuscano usually helps out with the task force three time a week), the majority of probation work remains home visits, attending hearings with youths and trying to connect youths and their families with services. The case load for each probation officer varies. It could be as high as 50 or as low as a dozen.
Skeels said every youth has a case plan.
“Our department is hectic day to day, but I want to hold people accountable and I want everything documented. We have to have a case plan for these kids. I push for home visits because the real stuff happens in the house,” Skeels said.
He said most of the youths on probation are following the rules.
“We have about 450 kids in the county on probation and of them, about 360 have a family structure and they follow the rules. For the others, we have to reinforce the rules,” he said.
Some of the youths on probation are in Children Services’ custody or residential treatment centers, such as the Northeast Ohio Regional Center for Adolescent Treatment (NORCAT) in Niles, which is run by Meridian Community Care.
In early June, Cuevas and Carnie drove out to NORCAT. One of Cuevas’ youth cases was receiving treatment at NORCAT, and Carnie was trying to get one of his own cases off the waiting list and into the facility.
Carnie said the youth was from Boardman and addicted to marijuana.
Carnie had placed the youth in detention, partly as a way for the teen to be drug-free, but was worried that he would be in detention longer than expected. (A slot opened up later in the summer and the Boardman teen received treatment.)
As probation officers, Carnie and Cuevas have to be prepared for any situation.
“Some kids have mental health problems; some need drug treatment; others only have to do community service or pay restitution. Every kid is different,” Carnie said.
Ashley Luthern is a reporter for The Vindicator and a 2012 John Jay College Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow.