North Carolina foster teen languishes in adult jail for school incident

Editor’s note, March 28 at 12:11pm: This story has been updated to reflect news developments. Selina Garcia was released Thursday.

Did a foster-care teen need to be arrested by school police this month for alleged battery on a school bus? And then jailed for three weeks with adults long after a judge ordered her released?

The questions swirling around Selina Garcia, 17, of Raleigh, N.C. are part of a broader national debate over treatment of foster kids and the role of school police. Garcia was confined to an adult jail until Thursday afternoon because no one from the Wake County, N.C., social services department went to get her. She was arrested on March 7 by a school resource officer after striking another student on a bus during an altercation. A judge freed her on March 10 pending a court appearance, but Garcia remained in jail until Thursday, when she pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and communicating threats and was placed in a new foster care setting.

Part of the problem is that Garcia is both an adult and a minor in North Carolina. Once they’re 16, youths in the state are put automatically into the adult legal system if charged with crimes, including misdemeanors. A 17-year-old, however, is still a minor under the state’s social services system. As a foster child, Garcia can only be released from jail and into the custody of the county, which is her legal guardian.

The twisted case exemplifies a systemic failure on the part of adults who are tasked with helping foster children — some of society’s most vulnerable kids — as well as an urgent need to review the role of school police in Wake County, according to Jennifer Story, an attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Advocates for Children’s Services.

“You cannot use jail as a boarding house for foster children,” said Story, who has been representing Garcia in efforts to obtain individual learning services for the teen from the Wake County School District.

Story also said that Garcia’s arrest by school police — a discretionary act on the part of an officer — illustrates the “unintended consequences” of funneling students into a legal system for incidents that might be better handled by school staff. Garcia was held with adults accused of a range of crimes, and the jail is an unsavory environment for a girl who has struggled since a small child with abuse, Story said.

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Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.