Sunday, July 16, 2000

Hill hopping

When is a child not a child?

        So is she a child or an adult?

        When Anna Destefano and Kelli Ridenour got into the Jeep Cherokee, the driver promised them an exciting ride. The car was already crammed with nine other passengers. Maybe the two girls should have known better. Most adults would see this was an accident waiting to happen.

        But these passengers were only 13 years old.

        After they got into the car, the driver told them to brace themselves, to put their hands on the Jeep's ceiling. Then she punched the gas pedal. Kids call it hill hopping. They pick out a stretch of hilly road and go as fast as they can, hoping to become airborne.

        The Jeep stayed in the air for 70 feet before it hit a utility pole and an embankment and rolled several times, strewing children along the roadside in Delhi Township. Some passengers suffered serious injuries — broken bones, concussions.

        One hopes the survivors will mend quickly in the way of children. Kelli died at the scene, and Anna died on the way to the hospital. Just kids. And the loss of a child is particularly tragic. So much they didn't get to experience. So much they didn't know.

        Wednesday, prosecutors told Juvenile Court Judge Sylvia Hendon that another child — the 16-year-old driver — should be tried as an adult. If that happens and she is convicted, the girl could be sent to prison for nearly 10 years. Otherwise, she could remain in custody until she is 21. The judge will decide July 25.

        When a child sticks his finger in a light socket and nearly turns himself into a charcoal briquette, we don't strap him into a strait jacket or put him in a padded cell. We punish him, but treat him like the child he is. We teach him not to do this again. Maybe we put the socket out of his reach.

        Of course, this girl is not a baby. And she hurt other people. Police say that on June 9, she drove at speeds approaching 60 mph. They say it was not the first time. In fact, it was not the first time that day.

        Arrogant. Stupid. Dangerous. Careless. Immature. Reckless. Juvenile. Nothing adult about it. So why thrust her into the adult legal system? Are we scared of her? Do we think juvenile court is too soft?

        I have been in Sylvia Hendon's courtroom, and I can tell you she is as tough as any judge in the system. Juvenile or adult. Anybody who thinks the kiddies are at tables with Play-Doh while the judge coos at them should think again.

        “The types of crimes we are seeing are more vicious and the age of the offender is younger,” she told The Enquirer last year in a story about a proposed overhaul of the juvenile justice system. Instead of locking up more young offenders in adult prisons, the plan is a laundry list of proposals giving juvenile courts greater sentencing and treatment options.

        It would not pretend that children become adults when their actions have horrific results. A friend of mine who deals professionally with troubled children says kids become dangerous when they are unable to learn from their previous experiences.

        So, maybe this person who has very few years of experiences to draw upon can be taught. Surely the things we want her to learn will not be found in an adult prison.

        Right now, she is 16, old enough to qualify for a driver's license. But not old enough to buy a beer. Or to vote. She's a child.

        And the loss of a child is particularly tragic.

        E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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