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Children in the Juvenile Court System Need Warmth and Support

August 21, 2019 - 3 minute read

Woman embracing child

I have been representing children, parents and adults who are facing criminal or child protection matters for over thirty years. I have observed many children who feel discarded by their family, community and teachers. The pain on a child’s face when their mom does not even show up to court to get them and they are remanded to custody, or the fear in other children when they are ordered back to toxic foster care, families, and/or schools is haunting and avoidable.

The overlap between schools and children landing in court is apparent on a daily basis. There is a great need for educators to understand the interplay between the Juvenile Justice System and the Schools. We see the same children, but we are often seeing them when the schools have given up or do not know what to do. Parents and teachers may feel at wits’ end with a troublesome child and retreat from being a resource to the child. That is when teachers and education professionals can play a pivotal role in guiding such kids in a better direction. Here are some thoughts:

  • The court system is seldom the answer! If there is a problem in the school, look to the family, friends, counselor or other staff to address the issues. The kids who have pulled out of troubled childhoods often cite a teacher who cared and helped them adjust their futures;
  • Please be aware of family dynamics. For some children, there is no person in their lives who is aware of or interested in their needs… kids in court are looking to the parents for support and they are not always getting it. Teachers can step in and help;
  • Provide Restorative Justice Models within your schools; teach kids better decision-making approaches and understandable consequences of bad decisions.
  • Keep up to date on what works best with our children. Common sense solutions are often outdated. We have learned a lot about issues that affect people, particularly children, in recent years.

Here are some things to consider:

BRAIN DEVELOPMENT: Children’s brains are not fully formed. The underdeveloped aspects include judgment and control, leading to impulsive behavior. There is a great deal of useful information about how to address the consequences of brain underdevelopment when dealing with troubled children. Educators should be conversant with this information. (The U.S. Supreme Court has a number of excellent decisions addressing brain development. Please see Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) and J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011)).

TRAUMA: The impact of trauma can be devastating, particularly in children. Teachers should understand the signs and/or symptoms of it in order to appropriately respond to children suffering from it, and protect them from it continuing. Many excellent studies about trauma are available that will assist teachers and education professionals in providing a more effective educational experience to trauma victims (For a list of articles about trauma, The Trauma Center at JRI (Justice Resource Institute), has an extensive list of publications. Also, see Ms. L. v. U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, 310 F.Supp. 3d 1133, 1147(S.D. Cal. 2018) for a legal discussion of the impact of trauma);

FAMILY: The majority of the kids I represent want to be with their family even if their family is dysfunctional. Developing strong positive connections with families, particularly with troubled children, can allow teachers to assist in providing better life and educational outcomes for children.

ENJOY WHAT YOU DO: One of the key things I hear from people is that they want to work with people who enjoy what they do. Kids have good instincts about who really cares. They quickly sense when someone is being genuine and attentive to their needs. What they do not need is more lecturing or punitive restrictions–they need caring and compassion.

From my professional perspective it boils down to a very basic denominator if an educator does not want to interact thoughtfully with students at-risk and their families, you want to reconsider your commitment and career choices.

Lisa McNaughton is the head of the Juvenile Division of the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office. She has been a Public Defender for over thirty years, much of that time in the Juvenile Division. She has served on numerous committees and workgroups regarding issues facing children and families in the court system.

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