OP-ED: Celebrating the ‘My Kid Test’ and Patience in Chicago

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New Timberlake colorWhen you bring a couple hundred good people together on a Friday in downtown Chicago, you can expect a party to break out. But if those people also happen to be juvenile justice policy wonks, the party becomes a symposium, and some work gets done.

I recently attended such a party… rather symposium. The occasion for the celebration was the retirement of the founding member of Northwestern University School of Law’s Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC), Bernardine Dohrn. A separate, but obviously related reason was to celebrate CFJC’s receipt of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Creative and Effective Institutions Award.” The best way to celebrate these momentous events for this fun-loving crowd: a symposium, of course!

“Pursuing Justice: A Constitutional and Human Rights Jurisprudence for the Child” was a lot like a party: recognizing Bernardine on her groundbreaking achievements over a lifetime of advocacy for children; congratulating Julie Biehl – the current director of the CFJC – and the many past and present members of CFCJ; seeing the many friends from around the country and the world who share past battles for – and future visions of – justice for children in conflict with the law.

The entire theme of the party was just right because it recognized good work and described the reasons for what still needs doing. Bart Lubow, Annie E. Casey Foundation’s well-known juvenile policy director, was one of many brilliant speakers and began the morning by recognizing Illinois’ wisdom in creating the first juvenile court in 1899. The enlightened approach spread throughout our country. As head of the Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), Bart has studied the history of juvenile courts and has worked with dozens of local jurisdictions around the nation.

He noted that the creation of the court in Chicago was a great achievement but lacked a sufficient articulation of the developmental differences that made it necessary. Furthermore, the original concept and its future developments did not provide clear direction for the role of the legal advocates.

While well intentioned, the juvenile justice system became a place where arrogant adults often made ill-informed decisions about children solely on the basis of their experience as parents. This lack of science – or evidence in too many cases – led to an unnecessary expansion of the role of courts – to include status offenders, schoolyard fighters, the unruly, the incorrigible and the obnoxious.

Bart advocated for his oft-stated “My Kid Test.” This simple standard should replace all the arguments as to how courts and their stakeholders should act. The logic of Bart’s test was quickly illustrated. Retired Illinois Circuit Court Judge John Payne is the statewide coordinator for Redeploy Illinois, and Jeff Bradley is a former prosecutor and currently the statewide coordinator for JDAI.

During the symposium, we met separately – away from the party –with advocates from two different jurisdictions in Illinois. Each was concerned about a local judge’s approach to sentencing. One described a rote-sentencing scheme: no plea agreements accepted, mandatory probation with a stayed 30-day detention term and a commitment to juvenile prison on the first probation violation. The second meeting began with a similar concern: the judge almost always orders probation repeatedly until offense number six and then commits the child to prison with the comment that “I gave you every chance.”

The judges expressed a belief in the value of boot camps and impact incarceration in prison. What’s missing here is a lack of understanding of adolescent development and the belief that compliance is the goal of juvenile court rather than behavioral change, which can be achieved through adequate assessment and good casework.

My conclusion is that Bart’s wisdom must be included in jurisprudence:  the “My Kid Test” should be on the books. If your kid says he will do something and doesn’t; if your kid fails to remember the time; if your kid is sometimes impulsive and makes mistakes, you don’t lock him in the basement or send her away from home. You look for a reason, and you search for answers and responses that will change behavior.

I have an addition to propose to Bart’s test, and that’s for judges to be reminded that it is important to exercise patience.

I am blessed by many nieces and nephews, but having no children of my own, I lack a lot of necessary experience. Sometimes I am impatient at expecting the mastery of a skill or the completion of a task. Our great nephew, Jaxon, has taught me a new phrase – he looks at me solemnly and says: “Sometimes you just have to wait for it, Uncle George.”

Words of wisdom – patience alone is sometimes all it takes.


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