Appearing in court is often an ordeal even for the hardiest of souls, regardless of the case's nature. When children are involved, the hearings became vastly more delicate and complex, especially for the little ones themselves.
The question of how much of a role children should play in their own court cases was the subject of a panel discussion – occasionally moving and disturbing – last week at Miami Law. The expert panelists were Judge Ellen Sue Venzer, who teaches a course at the law school on Children and the Law and is a former Dependency Court judge; Marissa Leichter, a guardian ad litem attorney in Miami for eight years; and Professor Bernard P. Perlmutter, Director of Miami Law's Children and Youth Law Clinic.
At the outset of the discussion, Professor Perlmutter explained that juvenile court judges in Florida preside over three kinds of cases – those involving children charged with delinquent acts; children who are victims of abuse, abandonment or neglect; and children who are ungovernable. "Delinquent children enjoy many of the same rights that criminal defendants do, such as the right to be represented by a lawyer and the right to participate in the case," he said.
But for years, he went on, children who were victims of abuse or neglect did not have those automatic constitutional rights. "While it was always encouraged, it was not required – but that is changing," Professor Perlmutter said, pointing to a Florida Supreme Court ruling on July 1 that "requires the child to be present at all juvenile hearings."
Judge Venzer said it was always "very helpful to actually have the child in front of me" when hearing cases that were to decide a child's fate. It was often the case, she said, that a child "really wanted to go home, wherever home was," but the parent might be a prostitute, or a drug addict, or living in a car, or all three at once. "Sometimes that just wasn't a realistic or positive placement."
And yet the children always seemed to appreciate a judge who took an "interest in hearing their opinion," Judge Venzer said. "It was hugely important for them and hugely important for me. There's no stakeholder more important than the child."
Having a voice in a courtroom, the judge said, "allows the child to feel that they have some control over their process, and the outcome."
Judge Venzer recalled holding hearings with small children sitting on her lap, and often handed out teddy bears, of which she kept a stash in her desk. There was a case in which, by dint of repeated court appearances, she became close to a pair of twin boys with a very troubled family life. When they were 16 years old, the boys' mother "grabbed two guns" and shot herself in the head, and Judge Venzer ended up consoling one of the bereft boys throughout the woman's funeral. "You're talking about little souls with parents who either want or don't want their children," the judge said.
Marissa Leichter, who has been a Senior Program Attorney in Miami-Dade County's Guardian ad Litem Program for eight years, said that, inevitably, some appearances by children in courtrooms are fraught with difficulties. She recalled a hearing in which a woman who was in custody faced her five-year-old daughter and infant son in court for the first time, and the girl was deeply upset at seeing her mother in handcuffs. "They were all in tears," Lichter said. "She didn't understand what the handcuffs were for or where her mother was going."
HOPE Fellows Meghan Paraschak and Erin Lewis put together the panel as part of the "paying it forward" component of their fellowships. Fellows are required to bring the experiences back to campus by engaging their peers in dialogue and by facilitating opportunities for them to get involved in issues that call for debate and solutions.
"Children subject to abuse and neglect hearings have already endured so much trauma," Paraschak said. "The last thing they need is to be re-victimized by a system that refuses to empower them. These children may be young, but their experiences should be validated and their desires zealously advocated for. The argument so often is that those desires are ill-advised or misguided, but that argument misses the point. The benefit of the representation is not to ensure the child is granted every outlandish request they make, but rather that they have their position heard by the judge in the same way the parents and the state do. This ensures, first, that the child invests in the judge's decision, as she feels her position was considered, and second, that the judge can make the most informed decision."
Professor Perlmutter said he and students in the clinic had submitted an amicus brief to the Florida Supreme Court in support of the ruling that was issued in July. "Florida is now a little bit ahead of the game," he said. "There is probably no more complicated issue – combined with emotional issues – that judges have to face."