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Children: Delinquent, Unruly, Neglected

Man standing at the side of the bus

People across the state of Tennessee often find themselves struggling to provide the care that their children need. When parents are unable to provide that level of care for their children, for whatever reason, the state may step in. When this happens, the state classifies them as falling into three primary categories: delinquent, unruly or neglected children.


This applies to kids who have “committed a delinquent act and [are] in need of treatment or rehabilitation.” A “delinquent act” in this context is a “status offense,” meaning that the act is against the law because the person committing the act is a child – such as “truancy, being disobedient of the reasonable and lawful commands of a parent or guardian, committing an offense applicable only to a child, and being a runaway.” A child is also “delinquent” if they commit an adult crime. This can include things like vandalism, theft, and assault. This is the classification your child could get if they are arrested.


This applies to children who are in need of treatment or rehabilitation and have one of four problems “habitually, and without justification”:
a. Truancy from school;
b. Disobedience to the degree that his or her health and safety is endangered;
c. Running away from home;
d. Committing status offenses.


There are several reasons a child might be deemed “dependent and neglected.” In a general sense, it’s a child who has not broken rules or committed crimes but has for some reason – such as through a parent’s abuse, neglect, poverty, or death – been left without an appropriate guardian or caretaker.

While these children have wildly varying needs and concerns, depending on their status, an important consideration is that the Department of Children’s Services can take physical custody of a child if they fall into any of these three categories. After that, these children will enter the juvenile justice system.

A delinquent child might come in following their arrest for a crime, while an unruly child might do so through a truancy program, and a dependent and neglected child might do so following removal from an abusive home by the Department of Children’s Services. A juvenile court judge will then assign the child to the appropriate category.


The overriding objective of state authorities and the Department of Children’s Services is to return children to their parent's custody. This might be accomplished by assigning a social worker to the case. Efforts may be made to rehabilitate the child. Or, parents may prove their fitness independent of any other process.

The Department works to make sure every child that comes through the juvenile justice system gets the help that they need. That’s true whether they are delinquent, unruly, or neglected children. But unfortunately, this system is not a perfect one. Despite the best intentions of the Department, they work with limited resources. This means they can only do so much to help the children under their care. Children have occasionally had to sleep in Department offices due to lack of appropriate placement. In 2018, a staggering 1,100 children were found to be in state custody for unruly or delinquent offenses.

In the face of these numbers, it’s important to remember that that help is out there. When dealing with these difficult circumstances, you – and your child – deserve to have someone by your side to navigate the often-confusing juvenile justice system. If you are concerned about your child’s behavior or safety, Held Law Firm attorneys are glad to help. Call (865) 685-4780 today to schedule a case assessment.

The information in this blog is accurate as of the time of publication, but laws often change. That’s why it’s important to hire an attorney who keeps up with these changes. Contact us today.