`Those Who Deserve Love The Least Need It The Most.’ Children in Miami-Dade’s juvenile legal system created telling, heart-rending art as part of the commemoration of the centennial of America’s juvenile courts.

The Miami Herald

November 28, 1999

By Cindy Lederman

Circuit Judge Cindy S. Lederman is presiding judge of the Miami-Dade juvenile court. This is the first of several opinion pieces on Florida’s juvenile justice system to be published during December.

The juvenile court in America is a noble, under-funded, unappreciated institution charged with the most important duty imaginable: protecting and reforming our children when everyone else has failed.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of America’s juvenile courts, and this commemoration provides an opportunity to examine the court’s record in attempting to achieve its impossible charge. It provides a forum to talk about what needs to be done to design a juvenile court for the future, at a time when society is scared of its own children.

The first juvenile court was created a century ago in Chicago in recognition that children are developmentally different than adults. There was a belief that young offenders could be rehabilitated and that kids being subjected to abuse and neglect needed to be protected. Although the juvenile court is a very different institution today, we still are struggling with the same challenges.

How do we teach a young mother who never has been loved or nurtured how to love and nurture her own child? How do we give a child raised in deprivation and emotional impoverishment the ability to hope and dream?

How do we teach children the difference between right and wrong and the necessity of having empathy for others?

How do we punish a child so that he learns that criminal behavior is intolerable?

Juvenile court is a laboratory where hundreds of dedicated people work together every day, driven by a passion for children, trying to find the answers to these questions. We need the community to understand the work that we do, the needs of the children and, then, to join us.

That is the primary reason my colleagues, led by Associate Administrative Judge Lester Langer, Judge Scott Bernstein, chair of the 100th anniversary celebration committee, and I decided to create a celebration of our work and our children, in this the 78th year of the Juvenile Court in Miami-Dade County.

Our theme is “Building a world safe for the dreams of children.” Our celebration begins the week of Dec. 6. The court will be open to the public. Five hundred of our kids have contributed drawings and poems that artist Xavier Cortada has interpreted in a striking mural to be unveiled Dec. 10 and hung at the entrance of the Juvenile Justice Center, 3300 NW 27th Ave., Miami.

The art was created from the dreams of children through the talent of Cortada. We hope you will come share their dreams. We live in a world full of rhetoric about the value of children — “our most precious resource” — but those words are so often empty. The reality is, the needs of children are not a priority in our society. One in five U.S. children lives in poverty, more than 11 million (one in seven) have no health insurance and among industrialized countries, the United States ranks 18th in infant mortality.

Florida’s record on children is particularly appalling. Florida ranks 44th in child well-being in the United States. Florida does not provide guardians ad litem for most of the abused and neglected kids in our courts, so we seldom hear the child’s voice, and we never have enough resources to provide adequate services for kids. We should all be ashamed. But we continue to allow it to happen, and we are paying the price.

Most people see the juvenile court as an institution designed to deal primarily with young offenders who commit crimes. This may be the most public court function representing the largest part of the court’s caseload, but the juvenile court is much more. The disposition of child abuse and neglect and termination of parental rights cases is increasingly important.

In the last decade the juvenile court has become a more-punitive, rights-based, less-therapeutic place. There have been significant laws enacted based not on research, but in response to a moral panic operated by the public’s misperception of a violent juvenile crime epidemic.

There is no such epidemic. Yet every state has significantly promoted the “adultification” of juvenile justice.

But consider the facts.

The juvenile-crime rate, while cyclical, is declining.

Juveniles are not responsible for most violent crimes. Seven out of eight violent crimes are committed by adults.

Juvenile violence is declining, but is still at much higher levels than a decade ago.

Today’s juveniles do not commit more acts of violence with greater regularity than previous generations, but more of the juvenile population is being arrested for violent acts. The “super predator” epidemic does not exist.

Children are much more likely to become victims of violence than perpetrators of it. Data show that 75 percent of violent juvenile offenders suffered serious abuse by a family member, 80 percent witnessed physical violence, 50 percent came from homes with one-parent families and more than 25 percent abused drugs or alcohol.

There are over 3 million reports of child abuse and neglect each year, almost half of which are substantiated. These children — who have been beaten, abused, raped, starved, burned, maimed, neglected and abandoned by the people who are supposed to love them the most — are at increased risk to become delinquents. Many kids arrested are already familiar with juvenile court because they are dependent children, too.

The social reformers who operated the juvenile court 100 years ago were convinced that children had limited culpability for their actions. The “crime” was most likely related to poor parenting, neglect, poverty and lack of moral values. They believed that under the benevolent juvenile court, where the state adopted the responsibility of the parent, rehabilitation could occur.

Since that time the juvenile court has gone from a social-welfare institution acting in the child’s best interest to a criminal court that exalts due-process rights for kids. Neither, alone, is enough. Somehow, we are supposed to afford children due process, deliver swift and appropriate punishment and at the same time rehabilitate and attempt to meet needs of offenders and their families. The goals of criminal control and social welfare should be equal, neither less important than the other.

The adultification of juvenile justice continues at a rampant pace. Researchers led by expert Connie Bishop compared 3,000 Florida youth transferred to the adult court system with 3,000 nontransferred kids and found that the transfers are more likely to be jailed and for longer periods of time.

Transferred youth are more likely to commit new crimes and commit them faster.

There is no question that the public needs to be protected from serious, chronic, violent juvenile offenders whose lack of remorse and inability to exhibit empathy show that rehabilitation has failed for them. But the wholesale transfer of children based on categories, and not individual characteristics without judicial intervention, is not wise. Judges must be able to make careful, individual determinations of kids truly in need of transfer.

The children who commit serious crimes over and over again are a very small minority of the juvenile population. We mustn’t redesign our juvenile-justice system to reflect the behavior of a minority. Most juveniles stop committing crimes as they become more mature, are employed and get involved in relationships.

We must not create a one-dimensional system with rules, laws, practices and goals designed to adjudicate Billy the Kid when most of the juveniles in the system more closely resemble Dennis the Menace.

One could argue that the juvenile-justice and child-welfare system has been one huge experiment. For decades researchers have been studying the causes of delinquent behavior. We still don’t know the answers, but we have been able to identify risk factors that could help us stop or prevent delinquency sooner.

The No. 1 risk factor is family dysfunction. Others include the influence of other kids, parents’ neglect, low academic achievement, early onset of anti-social behavior, substance abuse and exposure to violence.

Intervention means asking about the child’s family, school performance and social activities. The problems, temptations and other factors that cause a child to commit a crime do not disappear when he returns home. Rehabilitation will fail if he returns to the same unchanged world.

The society that initially helped cause the problem should be part of the solution. We must learn more about collective efforts and how neighborhoods can intervene to protect and control children. The heart of any institutional reform must be a community partnership for child protection and a realization that each of us has a responsibility that can’t be handed off to the courts or welfare system.

The 26,000 children under the jurisdiction of our juvenile court are not your children or my children, they are ours.

Prevention of another crime is too late. Over half of the children who enter the juvenile jurisdiction as a result of child abuse and neglect are age 6 and younger. We must learn about the developmental and mental health needs of our youngest children, because we have the greatest chance of helping them.

We need a rational, measured and scientific approach to the increasing problem of violent juvenile crime. The balance is punishment and rehabilitation, whatever it takes to stop a child from creating more human suffering by engaging in future criminal behavior.

A fully functioning and professional juvenile court can be the most effective prevention tool in our criminal justice system. It is the place to find and help troubled kids before they grow up to be criminals. The pledge that “our children come first” cannot ring hollow in, of all places, our halls of justice.