“A STITCH IN TIME SAVES KIDS” by Judge Jim Gray 03/10/08
Sometimes the court system doesn’t do what the community expects, and even has a right to expect. For example, it would seem to be fundamental that the Juvenile Court would try to gather as much overall information as it could about the conditions of its juvenile subjects so that it could address their medical, psychological and behavioral problems before they resulted in serious threats to the child’s future. But this has not been the situation.
In my view, we should test for everything that might reasonably be a factor in non-performance the very first time a child enters the juvenile court system. That means we should research and test for things like dyslexia, vision and hearing problems, domestic violence, school truancy, physical handicaps, substance abuse, gang involvement, sexual abuse, prior disciplinary problems, and virtually anything else that might be adversely affecting the kids’ positive and beneficial development.
Why? Because the earlier we can diagnosis problems in children, the earlier we can address them and keep them from becoming permanent impediments to the children’s future. For example, most juvenile court officers agree that at least 15 percent of the children that enter the juvenile court system suffer from dyslexia. That means that the kids naturally start to think that they are mentally slow or worse.
So what happens then? The kids start sitting in the back of the school classroom, and not paying attention to their studies. Why does this occur? They develop the syndrome that “they can’t learn anyway, so why bother?” So soon they start getting into minor troubles at school and elsewhere, and eventually that broadens into more serious difficulties.
But once their dyslexia is diagnosed they learn that they really are not dumb or even slow after all. Instead they see that they have a medical condition that can be addressed and overcome without all that much difficulty. And then good things start to happen.
So the earlier we diagnose these various conditions, the fewer problems the children will have, and the safer all of the rest of us will be. In other words, under a program of early diagnosis and treatment, everyone wins. As such, the phrase “A stitch in time saves nine” is undeniably true with children.
Actually Orange County has recently become a pilot program for the State of California, with some money being earmarked to help our kids in matters of this kind. And I am happy to report that last week all of the judges of the Juvenile Court voted unanimously that if we can obtain these funds, they will be spent for the universal screening of kids the first time they come into the system. Then before a juvenile court judge issues a disposition order about how to handle juvenile offenders, that judge will have a laundry list of conditions that the subject has been screened for, and the results from that screening.
So then what do we do? Well, the court system can undertake some remedial action, including drug treatment, non-violent dispute resolution and individual and family counseling. But for almost all learning disabilities, school districts are required by law to spend the resources necessary to address the special needs of our children once they have been diagnosed.
So the courts can call these problems to the attention of the school districts and demand remedial action. Of course, the problem is that the schools typically do not want these diagnoses to take place, because then they will be legally responsible to do something to address them. But that should not stop this action from taking place.
Personally, I am sympathetic with the school districts. It has been really easy for Congress and the state legislature to pass “unfunded mandates” that require agencies like the school districts to do lots of good things, without at the same time providing them with the resources to carry out the required tasks. In my view, conceptually it is much more appropriate for the agencies that decide the work should be done actually to pay for it themselves. That way, if they spend their own money they tend to get more “bang for the buck.”
Unfortunately the way it is now, the schools are required to do so much with so little that they naturally tend to delay or even avoid the implementation of some of this remedial work, even if it is legally required. This has in turn resulted in numbers of parents engaging in expensive litigation that has eventually resulted in court ordered compliance. But one way or another we must understand that the opportunity to be pro-active in diagnosing and addressing the problems areas of our children at the earliest possible moment must not be missed.
A few years ago the Orange County Probation Department discovered that a full 50 percent of all of the juvenile crime in our county was being perpetrated by only 8 percent of the offenders. So it implemented a pro-active program that it called the 8 Percent Solution.
The probation department learned that if a child satisfied three of four criteria, that child was soon likely to be involved in some serious criminal activity. The four criteria were that the child had a disrupted family, had problems in school, had substance abuse problems, and was involved in pre-delinquent behavior, such as gang ties, running away from home or stealing.
But once the child was diagnosed as being an “8 percenter,” the probation department provided services not only for that child, but for the child’s entire family. The rationale was that we should not wait for the child’s siblings to become involved in anti-social behavior as well. Instead, we should provide counseling services, school tutoring, drug treatment and other services for the entire family and head off the anti-social behavior. And the probation department found that by taking this pro-active approach, the number of repeat arrests was reduced by more than half. I think everyone will agree that those were wonderful results.
I am convinced that the same results can be obtained if we become more pro-active with all of the children that come into the juvenile court system. And we can begin this program by diagnosing each kid for potential problem areas at the child’s first contact with the system, and then working together to address those conditions. Not only will this reduce the emotional misery of lost young lives, but it will also substantially reduce the amount of crime in our communities, and the financial cost of the criminal justice system itself.
So I think this is truly worth doing. What do you think?
James P. Gray is a Judge of the Superior Court in California, the author of Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It - A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs (Temple University Press, 2001) and Wearing The Robe - The Art And Responsibilities of Judging In Today's Courts, has a blog at http://judgejamesgray.blogspot.com/. http://www.judgejimgray.com, and can be contacted at www.judgejimgray.com.