A Day In the Life: Changing Lives in Youth Court

When the County Court was created in 2023, it was a sign of the community’s growth—and an answer to challenges presented by it. So far, the County Court’s first judge and her team have taken that charge and made it a reality.

Under Mississippi law, counties are eligible for a County Court if their population exceeds 50,000. These courts take part of the load off of Circuit and Chancery courts (handling civil cases with up to $200,000 at stake and criminal felony cases other than capital murder), as well as handle juvenile proceedings and matters of eminent domain.  

Judge Tiffany Kilpatrick is the first elected County Court judge in Lafayette County, overseeing a variety of cases including felonies, civil matters, and youth court. 

Youth court deals with delinquency cases in which children commit acts that would be crimes if committed by adults, as well as abuse and neglect cases. “They’re almost two different courts within a court,” Kilpatrick said.

Delinquency Cases

Youth Court Director Kim Vaughn
Youth Court Director Kim Vaughn is committed to helping kids improve as they grow.

In delinquency cases, efforts are made to address the underlying issues causing the behavior, such as mental health concerns, with the goal of preventing further involvement in the justice system. Kim Vaughn, the youth court director, works closely with delinquent youth to provide support and guidance. 

“You have a youth court prosecutor and a public defender who is appointed to the child,” Kilpatrick explained. “My role is to make sure that those kids get in shape before they grow up, so they don’t wind up on the Circuit Court docket as a felon.”

Kilpatrick relies on county resources and her staff to help assess the situation. The court immediately will make an appointment for the juvenile with Communicare for a mental evaluation. 

Abuse and Neglect Cases

On the abuse and neglect side, the focus is on ensuring the safety and well-being of the child, often involving Child Protective Services and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). The ultimate goal is to reunify families when possible. Success stories include parents overcoming challenges such as substance abuse and mental illness to provide a stable and nurturing environment for their children.

“Once I take them into foster care, if I decide to take custody of the children, the goal is to get the child back to the parents, unless there’s a really significant reason not to,” Judge Kilpatrick said. “The greatest, quickest turnarounds happen in youth court, because for the most part, people really love their children. So, we have willing participants 90% of the time who really want things to be better.”

Every Youth is Different

A typical day for the Youth Court staff may run from 8 a.m. until around 5 p.m.—with a 30-minute lunch break—and involve handling emergency situations. Situations that involve the immediate well-being of a child can arise at any time, requiring the court to take swift action, such as taking custody of a baby whose mother is deemed unfit.

Youth Court staff discusses youth
Youth Court serves as a critical intervention point for youth, aiming to address the root cause of behavior.

In these kinds of emergency situations, the court may initiate a shelter hearing to determine if the child is in substantial danger. Preparation for these hearings requires coordinating various stakeholders, including lawyers, CPS, and law enforcement. Kilpatrick emphasizes the importance of maintaining impartiality by only hearing essential information until the formal presentation of evidence.

The judge and her team deal with various challenges, such as locating other at-risk children, organizing hearings, and ensuring all necessary parties are present. On abuse and neglect days, the docket is full, often requiring extended hours to manage all cases. 

Kilpatrick emphasizes the collaborative nature within the youth court, where individualized plans are developed for each case, addressing specific needs and circumstances. This approach ensures that every child receives tailored support and interventions.

Judge Kilpatrick
Led by Judge Kilpatrick, Youth Court’s ultimate goal is family reunification whenever possible.

“Kim and I will touch base in the morning about reports and make sure that everybody will be here at 1 p.m., when I’ll hear all the facts.”

Each youth is different and requires a different approach to get them back on a positive track, said Kilpatrick.

“There is a unique fit for every situation,” she said. “I recently had someone in court who wasn’t doing what he was supposed to, so I was having him report. He wants a job, but he needs a GED to go to a vocational school. The GED course involves classes five days a week. And I know he can do it, so I put him and Kim together to create a plan.”

This personalized approach, focused on rehabilitation and support, is what makes Youth Court such a vital resource for our youth in need.

“Every case is so different, and everybody works and talks at the bench trying to figure out what we can do for one particular kid,” said Kilpatrick. “You’re using a different tool on each kid.”