A Children's Crusade

South Florida prosecutors are going after kids younger than 12 years old in record numbers

When asked if she thinks it is right that prosecutors and the courts are engaging in social-service work -- disciplining kids for misbehavior or deciding upon therapy -- Schneider's Cuban accent becomes more pronounced. "I'm so tired of hearing, when we get the 17-year-old who goes out and commits a violent crime, people saying, "Why didn't you do something when you saw this child exhibiting violent behavior?' That's what we're trying to do. We don't want to wait until something worse happens," Schneider says. "We're trying to deal with the issues now."

Court orders require parents of children in troubled homes simply to follow through with treatment, Schneider argues. However, the justice system could, she says, better serve extremely young juvenile defendants. For example, programs should be longer than the present term of 90 days, which sometimes isn't enough to help children with severe problems. "Do I have to prove [a child] commits the crime before he gets services? The short answer is yes," Schneider says but quickly adds: "Everyone wants to make us look like the big bad wolf, but you want to know something? We're just trying to make sure services are provided... and ensure children complete them."

Dale, the juvenile-law professor, responds with exasperation: "It shouldn't have to be like that, to have to prosecute before giving children services!" Most juvenile-justice funds are allotted to programs for 8 percent of delinquents, who DJJ officials say are the most likely to reoffend. Instead, Dale says, more should be spent on the very young and others most likely to be rehabilitated. "The truth is, there's very little front-end service out there," he claims, "and it's a disproportionate allocation [of funds] between services and punishment."

Despite a hot temper that landed him in juvenile court, 12-year-old Corrie Williams shows his mother, Jacqueline, his sweeter side
Joshua Prezant
Despite a hot temper that landed him in juvenile court, 12-year-old Corrie Williams shows his mother, Jacqueline, his sweeter side

"Pooh Bear" has been a bad boy again. After a heated argument with a group of boys on a recent weekday evening, he has been forced to sit on the doorstep of his grandmother's apartment.

Most of the other young people who live in Fort Lauderdale's Mount Olive apartments off Sistrunk Boulevard are talking and playing in the complex's parking lot. It's a nostalgic scene of neighborhood life: a two-year-old talks boldly to unfamiliar grownups, boys run home after a ball game across the street, a few teenage girls take turns caring for a neighbor's infant son. The sky is gray after a long afternoon rain, and the air is cool and comfortable -- an unexpected treat during the stifling South Florida summer.

The storm may have passed overhead, but another may be brewing within Pooh Bear, the tiny seven-year-old whose nickname is so ubiquitous that a group of neighborhood youths, don't recognize his real name: Travis Gore. "He's crazy," an adolescent boy jokes as he fondles a playground ball. "If I throw this at him, he'll come after me."

Regarding the little boy, one of Pooh Bear's brothers adds: "He's just got an attitude."

Clad in a long-sleeve shirt as gray as the sky and dark blue knee-length pants, Pooh Bear -- smaller than most kids his age -- sits with his shoulders hunched, the whites of his wide, lushly lashed eyes slightly red. He's either very angry or about to cry; it's hard to tell which. Sand covers his elbows, knees, and the bare ankles that peek above loosely laced Nikes. He stares at nothing, paying no attention to the perfectly clipped lawn separating the two freshly painted, long, narrow buildings that make up the complex. Pooh Bear struggles to keep his face emotionless and doesn't answer when a visitor asks how he's doing. He doesn't even acknowledge the question. He looks and acts like any sullen little boy caught making too much mischief.

But Pooh Bear is no ordinary kid. Until this month he faced charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon for the February 9 stabbing of his eight-year-old cousin. According to Fort Lauderdale police, one of Pooh Bear's brothers was baby-sitting the two boys that Friday afternoon. The duo had apparently been quarreling for about two weeks, and the argument exploded when both wanted a bag of potato chips. The eight-year-old won but only for a moment. Pooh Bear became so angry, police allege, that he hit his cousin with a mop, then grabbed a steak knife from the kitchen. Armed with the dangerous utensil as the baby sitter tried to intervene, Pooh Bear jabbed his cousin in the neck, police say. All three boys then ran across the manicured lawn to their grandmother's place.

Responding officers found the knife and pools of blood in the first apartment, which the baby sitter had tried to clean up. A distinct bloody trail led to the second apartment, where police found the victim lying just inside the doorway. A neighbor woman was holding a white, blood-soaked towel against the wounded boy's neck.

Pooh Bear's mother, Sherry Gore, arrived from her job as a hotel maid to find police at her place. She went with her son to the police station. After questioning, authorities released the boy to his mother's custody. On April 26 Pooh Bear appeared in juvenile court for his arraignment on a felony charge of aggravated battery. Schneider told the judge that she had filed the charge so Pooh Bear could obtain counseling and the state could monitor his progress. The boy's defense lawyer, Valerie Small Williams, responded that Pooh Bear was too immature either to stand trial or to agree to a treatment program.

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