A Children's Crusade

In May of last year, state legislators and bureaucrats traveled around Florida to tout a new "Tough Love" package for delinquents that Gov. Jeb Bush had signed. The carnival of suits and ties who stood smiling for photo ops included Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) secretary W.G. "Bill" Bankhead, whose office provided reporters with carefully graphed charts indicating how tough the state would become: Sixteen- and seventeen-year-old defendants would be treated as adults if they carried or discharged a firearm while committing a crime; a "four strikes" law would allow teenagers to be charged in adult court if they had three felonies on their records; stays in state detention centers would be longer; and juveniles who violated parole would be quickly apprehended. In commenting on the measure, Bankhead seemed to summarize the state's attitude toward juvenile delinquency when he said: "I want to give our best shot to turn kids around, but after four times enough is enough and we need to make room for some other youngsters."

The so-called "Love" portion of the package included ten million dollars for drug-abuse and health programs, which officials glossed over while emphasizing the need for punitive statutes. When asked to provide examples of why Florida needed harsher laws, the suits demurred; instead they echoed Bush's comment a few days earlier that he wanted "to send a clear, direct signal that we will not tolerate habitual violence."

One week and one day after Governor Bush signed the bill, 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill fatally shot teacher Barry Grunow on the last day of classes at Lake Worth Community Middle School. So much for sending a signal to kids.

Florida's get-tough strategy started with the Juvenile Justice Act in 1990. "We saw an increase, not just in Florida but around the country, of harsher laws for juveniles beginning in the early 1990s," says Michael Dale, a professor of law at Nova Southeastern University and a founder of the Youth Law Center. Because many of these children may have disciplinary or mental problems, not criminal minds, "it's using the court to solve family problems or other problems a kid may have," Dale charges. Moreover, a Florida Department of Corrections report released last month found that imprisonment makes youths more likely to break the law as adults -- thus raising serious questions about the Tough Love package and similar measures.

In Broward County the number of cases that end up in juvenile court increased by almost 20 percent from 6454 in 1994 to 7617 in 2000. Many of them, especially the ones involving the youngest defendants, drag on for months because, before proceedings can be held, defense lawyers often request competency hearings. The aim of these hearings is to determine whether young clients are able to understand court matters, can help plan their defense, or are able to follow a rehabilitation plan. The competency hearing often takes months to prepare; children must be evaluated by at least two mental health experts. Thus, needed help is often slow to arrive.

And the number of kids younger than age 12 who are brought to court has grown dramatically, says senior assistant public defender Valerie Small Williams, a supervisor in her office's juvenile division. "When I did juvenile in 1997 and 1998, it was rare if I saw a twelve-year-old. It was shocking to see a twelve-year-old. If I saw a ten-year-old, I'd freak out," Small Williams recalls. "Now the threshold is down to seven. What's next? Will we bring them in from preschool? Or will they crawl into the courtroom?"

"Jayjay" is a cute little boy.

His hair, the color of toffee, springs from his head in a puff of wild curls, a coif only a small child could pull off. His almond-shape eyes sparkle when he jokes with his older cousin and looks at Pokémon paraphernalia with his five-year-old brother while they await Jayjay's turn in Broward's juvenile court. His clothes are clean and neat, adequate for court, though the blue-and-red-striped Tommy Hilfiger shirt and denim knee-length pants indicate a ten-year-old kid trying to emulate a teenager. He may be just a few years from adolescence, but Jayjay's rosebud mouth and chubby cheeks make him appear more like an overgrown infant.

Jayjay, whose identity is being withheld at the request of his mother, was first arrested last summer at age nine on felony charges of constructing a destructive device. According to a Broward Sheriff's Office report, on July 2, 2000, Jayjay combined Sno Bol toilet cleaner and aluminum foil in a two-liter plastic bottle, then placed it in the playground of a Pompano Beach apartment building. Deputies were called to the scene by a man who had spotted the smoke-filled bottle. They in turn called the bomb squad. The witness, meanwhile, told the officers he had seen Jayjay with the concoction and had collected his children from the park, fearful for their safety.  

Deputies then made their way to the home of Jayjay's aunt, where the youngster was staying while his mom worked. Jayjay said older boys had given him the recipe for the device. He admitted that he had asked a friend get the toilet bowl cleaner after his aunt stopped his earlier efforts at bomb-making, then prepared the mixture himself. Police told the aunt they would keep in touch and refer the boy to Fire Starters, a program for youths with an unhealthy habit of burning things.

It's been a year since Jayjay's arrest, and he has not completed Fire Starters. (Neither his mother nor his lawyers would comment on the reason.) On the morning of his hearing, the courtroom appears much like all the others in the Broward County Courthouse's north wing, a brightly lit space with honey-hued wooden paneling and benches. At the beginning of the morning calendar call, not enough seating room is available; juveniles and their parents are forced to stand around the gallery's perimeter. Jayjay, his mom, and his brother are lucky enough to find bench space.

When Jayjay's name is called, the trio stands before Circuit Judge Howard Zeidwig as assistant public defender Melinda Blostein coos over Jayjay. Blostein isn't alone: DJJ workers, other attorneys, and even the judge cannot help admiring the day's youngest defendant. "That's one good-looking kid," Zeidwig says with a smile. Then he grants the defense's request to assign psychologists to evaluate the little boy; after the reports are finished, the judge will set a date for a competency hearing.

Jayjay's mother, "Rena," is a pleasant-voiced, petite woman from whom the boy appears to have inherited his jovial eyes and tender lips. After the hearing she refutes some of the facts in the police report, including the allegation the witness's kids were endangered. "It was an empty field," she claims. "And there were other boys, but no one got in trouble except him." A group of young men taught her son how to make fireworks for the Fourth of July, she adds, but they aren't being prosecuted because none of them has admitted involvement.

"I asked [Jayjay] why he did something like that. He said it looked fun," Rena says. "I told him it was dangerous. He knows what he did was wrong." Asked what he thinks about his crime, the boy looks downward with a sheepish grin and says nothing.

Rena says she is a single parent who is raising her children with the help of relatives. She worries about her two sons but does not appear to have lost control over them. In the courthouse corridor, Jayjay acts like a child who has endured several hours of enforced quiet; he runs and laughs out loud. His mother scolds him in her soft but stern voice, and Jayjay obeys.

"Sure, he can act up," she says as she maneuvers her boys into the elevator. "But it's not anything I can't handle."

To understand how Florida started hauling kids into court for such minor infractions as Jayjay's, one must consider the history of juvenile-justice laws.

In 1991 Florida's First District Court of Appeal ruled that children could be placed on probation for an indefinite period as part of a rehabilitative program. In 1993 the same court ruled delinquents could be kept in detention while awaiting sentencing.

Then came the murder of British tourist Gary Colley at a rest stop near Tallahassee in September 1993. Four teenagers were charged in the shooting, which received substantial international attention because of its random brutality and the ages, ranging from 13 to 17 years, of the killers. When the 1994 state legislature convened, it approved a plan to form the new Department of Juvenile Justice to focus on kids who had been charged with crimes and directed the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to work on noncriminal matters such as foster care.

The legislature also changed the laws to make it easier for judges to jail children for contempt of court, lowered the age that a child could be transferred to adult court from 16 to 14, made it easier for judges to sentence youths as adults, created boot camps and other commitment programs, and required a five-day detention period and 100 hours of community service for each juvenile who commits a crime while possessing or using a firearm.

In 1997 state lawmakers created more ways to incarcerate children. One change increased the amount of time a child could be held in detention prior to a hearing under certain circumstances. Another new measure allowed authorities to detain a child if he or she was alleged to have violated probation or broken rules of a state-sponsored after-school program.  

That year legislators also stepped into a bureaucratic battle between the DCF and the DJJ over which group should provide treatment. The DCF would take charge of counseling if a child's home life was in disarray. Lawmakers determined that only kids charged with felonies could receive court-ordered counseling and other types of therapy. As a result the law forces authorities either to charge children with serious crimes or to leave many of the young defendants in the cold. In most cases only kids found competent to stand trial get help; younger kids or those charged with misdemeanors are often excluded.

These days juveniles who end up in court charged with felonies have three options. They can:

plead guilty and enter rehabilitation;

choose not to fight the charges and agree to complete programs, then if they fulfill prosecutor's requirements, charges are dropped but if not, they return to court; or

plead not guilty or request a finding of incompetence.

The most ticklish situation occurs when kids are found incompetent to stand trial. A judge can order these young defendants to undergo treatment in order to gain competency. If the process is unsuccessful and they are unable to comprehend the legal process after two years, the charges are dismissed. And the treatment stops as well.

Corrie Williams is only 12 years old, but he stands five feet, seven inches and weighs about 170 pounds. In addition to his temper, his large size contributes to the impression that he is dangerous. But a few minutes of conversation with him at his home clearly reveal that Corrie is still a child. He chews on his orange shirt, which matches the peeled mango he eats, as he delivers answers in short, often one-word, sentences. In the small apartment he shares with his mother, Jacqueline, in a poor section of Hallandale Beach, Corrie has his own room. A beach towel depicting 101 Dalmatians hangs on one wall; a pile of disorganized belongings topped with two little teddy bears, one brown and one cream, lies underneath. On Corrie's twin-size bed are the shell and inner wires of a PlayStation. "It needs a new part," Corrie says, "and we have to go to the store to get it." Then he tries to explain to a technologically challenged visitor what is wrong with the game, and the issue of electronics temporarily engages him to say more.

But soon Corrie is back to gazing at reruns of Moesha on the rabbit-eared television, which emits the only light in the heavily curtained apartment. The atmosphere is stifling as the window-unit air conditioner remains still.

Corrie was arrested this past April when he and a teacher got into an argument at McNicol Middle School in Hollywood. The teacher, Cisley Senghor, told officers responding to the scene that she had made Corrie pull up his trousers, which were hanging low to expose his underwear, according to a police report. When the boy hitched up his pants, a pager he had taken without permission from his mom dropped to the ground. The teacher picked it up and reminded Corrie that students were not allowed to carry beepers in school. Senghor said she'd hold the device until after class. Then, according to the police report, Corrie said "fuck you" to the teacher and grabbed her hand. When Senghor told him to let her go, he repeated the obscenity two more times, and the teacher "became in fear for her welfare," the report states. Officers arrived at the scene, as did Jacqueline Williams, Corrie's mother; Corrie was subsequently charged with battery on a school official, a felony. Like Jayjay, Corrie will likely spend months in court for a matter in which law enforcement would never have gotten involved years ago.

As Jacqueline Williams sits in the apartment's darkened living room wearing a black T-shirt and dark running shorts accentuated by a matching set of silver jewelry, she takes issue with the police report. She believes her son's claim that he didn't touch Senghor but simply grabbed the pager from the teacher's hand. Corrie knew his mother would have punished him if he had come home without it, Williams adds.

But Williams admits her son has worked with school counselors on curbing his anger. She gazes at nothing in particular as she shares her worries about Corrie. A single mother who has a teenage daughter back in her homeland of Trinidad, she says it's hard to raise the boy with no male role model for him to follow. "He does have a problem with his temper," Williams adds, her island accent resonating softly. "I try to tell him not to be so angry.... I think it's because he doesn't see his father."  

Though Williams tries to stop her son from bullying smaller children, it's older kids who really worry her. "He has some friends who get into trouble; I'm afraid he will, too," she says, adding that she hopes to move her son to a better part of town.

Williams wants help for her son but doesn't think that dragging Corrie into court to face criminal charges is the best way to get it. When the boy appeared before a judge for the first time last month, he wore a dress shirt and dark slacks; his mother wore a cream ensemble suitable for church. Their carefully groomed appearance was notable since many other families had shown up in ragged attire. But Williams says getting to court is a chore: "I have no car.... It is hard."

Maria Schneider, head of the state attorney's juvenile division, looks no-nonsense in a perfectly pressed blue silk blouse, black-rimmed spectacles, and a shiny bob of dark hair. But there are moments, several of them, when the expression on her face softens and she talks about trying to do right by her young defendants. She laughs at stories of teenage boys playing wannabe gangsters, hitting on grown women while waiting for their cases to come up in court. After all, she has children of her own, ranging from middle school to college age.

In her pleasantly cluttered office, tucked in an out-of-the-way wing of the Broward County Courthouse, Schneider says she doesn't prosecute most first-time offenders or those who commit minor crimes -- that would be silly. Though ethics prevent her from addressing specific cases, Schneider says most juveniles her office prosecutes have a history of problems. Some, she adds, have failed to complete programs meant to keep them out of court.

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."

"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.

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?"

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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