Juvenile Court is not simply “younger” criminal court. More and more of what was once thought of as “children’s behavior” has become criminalized in recent decades. More and more children have been tried as adults at younger and younger ages. Punishments in many cases have become increasingly harsh.
On the other hand, Juvenile Court is still ultimately about “rehabilitation,” or about giving children and their families the services, help, lessons, etc. that will make children become successful adults. The Juvenile Court process, whenever possible, is very much an effort to keep kids from becoming involved in adult criminal court.
Defending kids, then, calls for a much different approach than defending adults.
In making decisions in a case, a juvenile court judge wants a great deal of background about the child and the child’s family in order to determine what issues in the child’s life need to be addressed. In most jurisdictions, the Juvenile Probation Department is charged with gathering this information and presenting it to the Court with their recommendations of appropriate programs and services.
To be the best advocates for a child, we need to know everything about the child and family too, in order to help shape the Court’s approach to helping the child in a way that creates the greatest developmental benefits with the least amount of “legal” consequence.
Nothing in Juvenile Court is off-limits: parents might be asked about marital history, their own mental and physical health, any abuse or addiction, and certainly about their parenting style. The Court wants to know if the kids before it use alcohol or drugs, are sexually active, if they have been abused or traumatized in any way, how they are doing in school and at home, etc.
It is for this reason that we employ a holistic advocacy team to work on every juvenile case. By helping clients and their families address the root causes of their involvement in Juvenile Court, we can better direct the legal outcome of the case. While the Court might be limited to County-contracted programs and services, we are not. Through investigation and reaching out to “victims” in a case, we can sometimes come up with solutions that remove a dispute from the court system entirely.
With this approach, together – lawyers, social workers, clients and their families – we have the unique opportunity to protect and defend a child and at the same time truly help them.
Next: The Integrity Approach In Juvenile Defense