Authorities in the juvenile justice systems of Hancock County in West Virginia and Columbiana County in Ohio say that charging juveniles for heroin use or possession is somewhat rare.
However, authorities agree that heroin abuse is a major problem in both Ohio River counties and they do their best to divert juveniles from using all illegal drugs that could later foster more dangerous addictions, including heroin.
Columbiana County Juvenile Court Administrator Dane Walton said cases of heroin addiction are not exceedingly common in the county's juvenile courts.
"To be truthful we have not had any (juvenile cases) yet this year that were strictly heroin related," said Walton.
However, Walton said the court sees its share of juveniles addicted to other drugs, such as prescription medication. When the juvenile court encounters a child they suspect to be suffering from addiction, the first step is to send the individual to a local counseling center where they can be evaluated by professional substance abuse counselors to determine the extent of the addiction, according to Walton.
"The first thing we would do is give the juvenile an evaluation at a local counseling center to give us an idea of what level of addiction we're dealing with," said Walton.
The court then sends the juvenile to a treatment facility based on the recommendation of counselors.
For less severe cases, juveniles are typically sent to outpatient programs like those offered by the Family Recovery Center or the Columbiana County Counseling Center. For more serious cases, Walton said juveniles are sent to inpatient residential-style treatment facilities outside the county. There, juveniles must complete a 90-day program, which includes counseling as well as regular schooling.
Depending on what type drugs or drug paraphernalia a juvenile is charged with possessing, he or she could, at minimum, be facing a suspension of his or her driver's license and be required to complete drug counseling. Other consequences for juveniles caught possessing drugs can range from probation to time spent in a youth detention center.
When considering punishment for drug use or possession, the juvenile court takes into consideration the type of substance the juvenile is caught with and their criminal history, said Walton.
The most common instances of underaged persons addicted to heroin, according to Walton, occur in babies born to heroin-addicted parents. He said medical professionals are often tipped off by an infant who shows withdrawal symptoms shortly after birth. In his experience, Walton said that an infant born addicted to heroin is in "life-threatening" danger and could face physical and developmental disabilities later on in life.
"There's no telling what that (heroin) could do to a child's body and brain, developmentally," said Walton.
Walton said that although a drug-addicted mother cannot be charged criminally for giving birth to a drug-addicted child, Children's Services can intervene by placing the child in foster care. Heroin-addicted parents must work a case plan and prove to social workers they are clean of heroin and fit to be parents before they are eligible to have the child returned to their custody.
Hancock County juvenile and adult drug court Judge Martin J. Gaughan said his court does not deal with many juveniles who are completely addicted to heroin.
Gaughan attributes the lack of underage heroin addicts in juvenile court mostly to the effectiveness of early intervention programs offered through the courts.
"In the juvenile drug court, we don't see a lot of heroin addicts but that's only because we catch them so young," said Gaughan. "Very few of them are hardened addicts like I get in adult drug court."
Gaughan speculates that some of the young adult heroin addicts he sees in adult drug court started using or first experimented with the drug as a juvenile. He noted that he does deal with a high number of young adults in the age 18 to 20 range who are completely addicted to heroin.
"Heroin is overwhelmingly the drug of choice here in the Northern Panhandle," said Gaughan.
Still, he said encountering a juvenile who is completely addicted to heroin is rare. However, he sees juveniles who are abusing prescription drugs and other drugs that may lead to heroin use.
Gaughan said he believes another reason the court does not encounter many juvenile heroin addicts may be because parents must consent to have their child entered in to the drug court system. He explained that some juvenile heroin addicts may fall through the cracks because their home lives are bad and parental supervision is nonexistent.
Parents who agree to have their child entered into the juvenile court must attend at least six court hearings and are required to attend counseling, according to Gaughan. Some parents, especially those who are also addicted to drugs, are unwilling to give this level of commitment, said the judge.
"If a juvenile is a real bad heroin addict, there is chance that they have left their parents or their parents don't want to have anything to do with them," said Gaughan. "We're not seeing the worst of the kids in that court because of the necessity that the parents agree to attend."
Gaughan often sends juveniles to substance abuse counseling programs that are similar to those used in adult drug court, like those offered by Healthways in Weirton, W.Va. He said Hancock County's juvenile drug court has a "very good" rate of diverting juvenile drug offenders, and those who successfully pass through court and treatment programs do not often return to drug court as adults.
Gaughan said he is a "big believer" in drug therapy for drug addicts, specifically, the opioid and alcohol dependence management medication Vivitrol, referred to medically as Naltrexone.
Getting drug addicts, juvenile or adult, into treatment centers can be difficult due to the limited space and resources available at these facilities, according to Gaughan. He said that part of the reason treatment centers are overwhelmed is because they treat mental health patients, in addition to drug addicts.
Gaughan noted that often drug and mental health issues overlap, and he sees many people with both drug and mental health issues.