If you are lucky, you come across someone in your career who provides an "unforgettable interruption" — someone who teaches you, someone who guides you, someone who inspires you. In my career, and in the careers of so many others across the country, that person has been former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
On June 20, 2016, we launched an endowment at Georgetown University honoring Janet Reno. This initiative will allow us to celebrate Janet’s career as a lifelong child advocate and a major force for positive change within the Justice Department through activities like a women’s leadership award and policy forums bearing her name.
It is easy to see why she inspires so many people. From her legal education at Harvard University — where she was one of 16 female students in a class of more than 500 — to her role as the first woman state attorney for Miami (Dade County) and then the nation’s first female attorney general, Janet has always been a trailblazer.
Her career has been particularly influential for women lawyers, ranging from my own daughter, a successful attorney in Miami who views her as a role model, to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who has said that Janet Reno’s “calm and steady leadership of the Department of Justice helped to shape the public’s perception of women’s role in government and public service.”
So it is only fitting that Georgetown’s tribute to her supports the child-, youth- and family-serving field in a truly profound manner, targeting four significant areas of activity.
First, to honor Janet Reno’s commitment to juvenile justice reform and prevention, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR) will hold a series of forums bearing her name to foster dialogue, collaboration and action. Using the expertise and strong partnerships CJJR has in the field, these forums will convene leading experts, policymakers, researchers, practitioners and advocates to discuss promising practices, new research and policy reform proposals in the realms of juvenile justice, child welfare, and child and youth development. The first of these forums will take place in conjunction with the McCourt School of Public Policy's Leadership, Evidence, Analysis, Debate (LEAD) Conference in April 2017.
Second, the Janet Reno Endowment will support the creation of a Women’s Leadership Award. This award will honor exceptional women leaders who champion the causes to which Janet Reno dedicated her career. It will be given to a nominee who has demonstrated a commitment and ability to effect change in her community or organization to benefit youth, particularly those at risk of entering the juvenile justice, status offense or child welfare systems. Awardees will participate in and be honored at a Janet Reno Forum.
Third, to honor Janet Reno’s commitment to juvenile justice reform and prevention, CJJR will coordinate and manage a leadership fund in her name that supports communities seeking to reform the way they serve at risk children and youth. This fund will finance training and technical assistance for counties and states seeking to reduce negative outcomes for abused, neglected and/or delinquent children and youth.
One key initiative the fund will support is CJJR's Crossover Youth Practice Model, which promotes research-based decision-making as a foundation upon which agency staff and partners can better serve youth involved in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. The fund will help jurisdictions implement the proven model and create significant and meaningful practice and policy change on behalf of at-risk youth and families.
In addition, the leadership fund will provide scholarships for exceptional leaders with financial need to attend CJJR’s well-established certificate programs. These periods of study use a multisystem approach to focus on policies, programs and practices that improve outcomes for young people at risk of entering the juvenile justice system.
Fourth, to celebrate Janet Reno’s commitment to supporting and cultivating future public servants and leaders, the endowment will sponsor one or more Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy students annually to serve as research assistants at CJJR. The endowment will fund students interested in pursuing internships or research assistant positions at CJJR and help them deepen their knowledge on the policy and practice reform process, as well as offer them meaningful work experiences on important issues relating to children and youth systems reform. Each Janet Reno Future Policy Leader will gain significant knowledge about juvenile justice reform as well as a multisystem perspective, working on a range of CJJR and endowment projects.
These four activities, designed to be sustained over time by the endowment fund, will serve as a wonderful legacy of all that Janet Reno has done to support the child-, youth- and family-serving fields.
This endowment has also given me, personally, an opportunity to hear from individuals around the country about what Janet means to them.
Many common words and themes came up over and over:
Integrity: As an attorney, Janet valued nothing more than the rule of law and the integrity of the offices she held. At both the state attorney’s office and the Department of Justice, Janet made clear that she expected her colleagues to do the right thing, to respect the power of the office and to exercise their authority with great care. In each of these things she led by example, providing a flawless model of ethics and credibility, serving as a “moral compass” and showing courage in the face of difficult decisions. This led to a Justice Department that was transparent and accountable to the press and the public in unprecedented ways. It also led to her involvement with, and support of, the Innocence Project after leaving office.
Advocacy: In each of her positions, Janet maintained her focus on the issues that were nearest to her heart — working on behalf of children, youth and families. In Florida this meant leading the redrafting of that state’s juvenile code, fighting for prevention and community-based services for families and ensuring that the courts provided continuity for children and families who had to experience the legal system. At the Department of Justice, it meant funding thousands of efforts to prevent and better address child abuse and delinquency.
During my time as administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, I personally experienced her commitment to these issues, as she supported investments in these areas within the Clinton administration and in her testimony before Congress. Up until her time, no other attorney general had fought for delinquency prevention efforts, demanding that they grow so that we could serve young people at the first sign of trouble, rather than allowing their needs to go unaddressed and ultimately leading them into the adult criminal justice system.
Kindness: Janet not only has an extraordinary intellect, but a huge heart. She cares deeply about the people in her life and community, and those who know her well understand that she is equal parts social worker and lawyer. Even while leading hundreds of attorneys, she took the time to acknowledge the things happening in our lives outside the four corners of the workplace. A “favorite aunt” to dozens of children, she connected with kids on a personal level.
All these traits and more come together to form what so many describe as a truly remarkable person, who has contributed so much to so many.
For those who worked with her in the state attorney’s office or the Department of Justice, and for many more people, Janet is a model of intelligence, integrity, perseverance and dedication to a cause — as well as a motivational influence in their lives. She broke glass ceilings for women and ensured that our justice system focused its resources on our most vulnerable children, youth and families. I feel privileged to know her, to have worked with her for over 20 years and to now lead an effort that will honor her and her work and support the field she has served throughout her career.
Shay Bilchik is research professor and center director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy. This article has been adapted from his Aug. 19 column in the Huffington Post.