A Children's Crusade

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

During the next three months, Pooh Bear met with two psychologists, Dr. John Spencer and Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter. Both concluded the boy was too immature to understand court proceedings. Spencer says the boy believed a story that there was an alligator living under a sofa. Bourg Carter recalls that Pooh Bear didn't understand the role of court officers: "When I asked, "What do you think the judge should do?' [Pooh Bear] said he thought it would be better if he just got a whuppin' from the judge."

On August 3, when the doctors disclosed their findings to Judge Zeidwig, he found Pooh Bear incompetent to stand trial. "I remember when the child first came before me," Zeidwig commented, "and the mother walked up, holding his hand, and I asked, "Where's the defendant?' It would never have occurred to me it was this small child. My initial thought was, What is this child doing here?"

At the end of the hearing, Gore held her hands to her mouth in relief, but the victory was bittersweet. She acknowledges the boy, who is in summer school and did not attend court, needs help. Because of the ruling that he is incompetent, she likely won't receive state aid to get it. And she likely can't afford private counseling. "[The authorities] say they want to help kids," Gore says, "but why do they have to be charged with crimes so they can help them?"

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

Circuit Judge Robert Collins, chief of the juvenile court division in Broward County, seems like a perpetually happy guy. The laugh lines etched on his face likely began to form during his days as a standup comedian, then grew when he practiced entertainment law. His chambers are decorated not only with the requisite diplomas and certificates of a jurist but also with faded photographs of him with Dustin Hoffman, Ted Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, and numerous other celebrities.

The only time Collins's smile fades is when he addresses the frequency of serious offenders passing through juvenile court, over which he's presided for 11 years. "There's isn't more crime, but people refuse to believe it," Collins exclaims. "Kids do things that all kids have done for hundreds of years. The public tries to blame juveniles for crimes, but a lot of these situations are family problems or parents who don't know what their kids are doing or don't know how to control their children."

More juveniles should be sent to rehabilitation programs to keep them out of court, the judge laments. These days, he adds, kids come to court on "some of these charges that are ridiculous." He elaborates by recalling older times: "Say a kid took somebody else's bike or took something from the store. Mom or Dad would take their child to give back the bike or [merchandise] from the store, make him apologize, embarrass him for what he did." Now, Collins says, kids are charged as criminals. He blames legislators who react to public hysteria after violence like the 1993 tourist shootings.

Collins prepares to leave his chambers and preside over his courtroom, which looks almost identical to other rooms in the same wing, where adult cases like DUI-manslaughter and civil lawsuits are pending. The distinguishing characteristic in Collins's courtroom: a teddy bear decorated with a red heart that sits on the computer in front of the clerk. Finishing his thoughts on juvenile laws before he begins to enforce them, he says: "It's not the children who are the problem. It's the adults."

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