Painful Decisions in Juvenile Court

I've been a judge for 15 years in Miami Dade's Juvenile Court. This is the most painful job I've ever had. I still lose sleep worrying I may have made the wrong decision. God, please give me the wisdom not to cause these children further harm.

I am a dependency judge in one of the most impoverished and beautiful cities in America. I'm a frontline observer of human misery. I take children away from parents who have hurt them. My job is to look a 7-year-old in the eye and explain why she can't go home as her tears cascade down her already mature face. She asks "Why? My mom is a good mom." The familiarity of home sometimes seems better than the unknown, especially for those children who think violence and neglect at home is normal.

I want to tell you about a recent day in court. In the morning, I presided over a trial. A 14-year-old girl was removed from her home after being sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend. She testified that the touching began when she was 8, almost immediately after he moved in with them. Mom did not believe her daughter. She and her boyfriend said the child was a liar. I had no trouble finding the opposite to be true.

The child had to testify in the courtroom in the presence of her mother and the man accused of sexually abusing her. She could only manage a few words at a time between her tears. Her mother and her mother's boyfriend sat side by side shaking their heads in pretend disbelief. Abused children so often believe the abuse was their own fault.

Onto the next case that afternoon...

Jose was 8 years old. He had cerebral palsy. His mother is a chronic drug addict — her parental rights were been terminated years ago because she neglected him. Jose was given to his maternal grandmother, and the case was closed.

Years later, Jose's grandmother developed pancreatic cancer. She returned to her home country for affordable medical treatment. She had no one to leave Jose with, except his biological mother. After just a few days, his mother abandoned him in a parking lot.

Jose was brought to court by his caseworker. In the chaotic courtroom, he spotted his grandmother. They came toward each other and we witnessed a long embrace. It was a rare show of caring and bonding in dependency court. He repeated to her, "I love you, I love you."

That day, I didn't think I could return custody of Jose to his beloved grandmother who I thought could soon die leaving him alone again. So I decided to put him back in foster care.

Jacques came in later that afternoon. He's a 7-year-old Haitian boy who lived alone with his father. Jacques' mother lived in Haiti. Jacques' father died in his bed in their home, and for four consecutive days Jacques got up, dressed himself, went to school and came home. On the fifth morning, when he went to school, no one was there. It was a Saturday. He walked home and went next door and told the neighbor: "My daddy smells." Jacques went to a foster home while we searched for a relative to care for him.

I called the next case.

Cindy Lederman is a judge in Miami-Dade County's juvenile court.

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