After a recent round table discussion about West Virginia Kids Health as it relates to the opioid epidemic, Harrison County prosecuting attorney Rachel Romano spoke with Kara Lofton about her work, the juvenile justice system and potential solutions for keeping West Virginia’s kids out of the court.
Romano: In the prosecuting attorney's office we focus primarily on criminal matters. And that can range from your juvenile crimes to civil abuse and neglect matters. And then the whole gamut of the criminal justice system from something like a simple trespassing up to first degree murders.
Lofton: How has the drug epidemic impacted the cases that you try?
Romano: I've been in this position for approximately 10 years. And it has significantly changed in that last decade. I would say that the overwhelming majority, probably upwards of 90 percent, of our criminal matters have some sort of underlying drug aspect with them.
Lofton: And you're seeing things kind of as they come to a head and they hit the criminal justice system. Do you have any sense about what could be done to prevent people from getting into the system in the first place?
Romano: I think in my personal experience and opinion, there needs to be there certainly needs to be reactionary measures. We certainly need to take care of it after things happen. But there [also] needs to be more preventative measures in place. That's not to say that there is not preventative measures in place but it appears to me, at least in my area, in the areas I'm familiar with, that the funding is going to helping people after matters have come to a head, after they have their drug addictions, after they have been in the criminal justice system. There needs to be a huge focus on preventing this next generation from ever even coming to see me, to being placed in front of me.
Lofton: What happens to somebody who enters the criminal justice system as a child or a teenager?
Romano: Oh it can vary from situation to situation. There's no doubt that there is certainly some sort of trauma to be in the criminal justice system -- even if it's as a juvenile. And when you're a juvenile we do put our kids gloves on if you will and we don't treat you the same as an adult. However, that can give you a very negative outlook towards the criminal justice system. It can cause you to be jaded. Sometimes it can be very helpful and very beneficial and we can get in there and intervene and save these children before they fall too far down the rabbit hole. But it's never the best experience and it's certainly not the experience you want for any child to have to be involved in the criminal justice system.
There's nothing sadder in what we do than if we are involved because a parent has placed the child within the criminal justice system. Meaning that we're there because the child's no longer safe --they’re either being abused or neglected. And a lot of our abuse and neglect cases do come from the neglect that stems from an addicted parent.
Lofton: Do you feel like you have good options as a prosecutor about where to place these children and treatment options for them or are you somewhat limited in what's available?
Romano: There's certainly a limited availability. I mean everybody, I'm sure, would say that we need more, we need more, we need more. Unfortunately, right now we have an unheard of number of kids in the foster care system in the state of West Virginia and there's not enough places -- whether it be foster parents, whether it be other relatives whether it be a home -- you know a youth home center. We don't have enough options for them. We’re actually running out of options.
Lofton: And when you run out of options what happens at that point?
Romano: I hope to not ever have to figure out that answer. I don't really know what the answer would be when we run out of options. There needs to be a community awareness as to what's going on and what is needed. We have to call upon one another to try to answer this epidemic and this problem and prevent it from occurring further.
Lofton: Do you feel like you're close to reaching that point or are we kind of reaching that tipping point of crisis or are we sort of pre-crisis?
Romano: I think we're at crisis. I wouldn't say it's pre-crisis anymore. I would say at least in my county and I can't speak for every county. I'm much more attuned to what's happening in Harrison County than I am the counties surrounding me or the ones that are even further away. But any time that you have to have multiple roundtable discussions and multiple community action awareness events because of something such as an underlying drug epidemic, you're pretty much in crisis mode.
Lofton: For you from your perspective as a prosecutor what are some of the solutions that you'd like to see happen to help these families?
Romano: I mean, certainly treatment is an option that has to be kept up with. We have to continue trying to treat these families. It's not just mom or dad or brother or sister that you're treating -- you're treating the entire family unit. I would also like to see more education at a younger level. We can't have kids growing up believing this is the norm. That sure, mom and dad have a drug problem, or brother has a drug problem or sister has a drug problem that can't be the norm. They still have to be told and taught that is not okay. And the sooner that you can teach this to children I mean even if that's a grade school age the better off they will be. Because up until they get into school that may be the norm that maybe they believe what life is supposed to be like and it's not.
Lofton: Is it enough to just say – ‘this is not the norm this is not normal.’ If I mean because children are so relational and they learn through experiences, if this is their experience, if this is how they're learning -- is it enough to say ‘this isn't normal,’ if it is normal to them?
Romano: Just saying it? No. I mean you have to show them normal. There needs to be more preventative measures, more after school programs, more emphasis put on YMCAs, more emphasis put on, you know, free sports programs, free youth centers. They have to see another version of normal -- what is actually supposed to be normal. Just telling them that it's not normal is not going to get through to them.
Lofton: How do we provide services to kids in rural counties?
Romano: I'd say there's the million dollar question. I'd say a lot of people would like to know that answer. I believe it starts with the school and I'm not trying to put a lot of pressure on teachers who are already completely overburdened with trying to deal with this. But we know that is one safe haven where these children go on a daily basis. If there could be more free, and I emphasize free, because people can't afford, you know, after school programs -- they need to be free after school programs that probably stay on the premises that lasted maybe 6 or 7 o'clock at night and then there needs to be bussing to get them home to where they're supposed to be. But it's going to fall, at least in my opinion, upon the schools. For right now.
Lofton: Where have you seen successes? Where has something then gone well?
Romano: I truly believe in our juvenile drug court if you can intervene and show the kids that there are rewards for doing things properly for changing their behavior while they're still young and they can modify it. I believe juvenile drug court has been a very promising thing and if we do juvenile drug court every Wednesday in Harrison County and we have graduates quite often.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.