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Justice for the Children : ABA study points out that youngsters often are denied even basis legal rights and services

August 08, 1993

On her two-day swing through Los Angeles last month, U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno reiterated her now-familiar call for the nation to shift its law enforcement focus toward "investment" in children and the prevention of crime. "America would rather build prisons than invest in a child, and we've got to change that," Reno said.

An American Bar Assn. report released last week, declaring that American children stand in jeopardy because their legal rights are frequently abused or ignored, should give Reno some solid suggestions on how to proceed.

The report concludes that "our society is failing to protect its children and fails them even more, once they are in crisis." The panel that wrote the report was created at the recommendation of an ABA task force examining racial and ethnic bias in the nation's justice system after the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Reno, then state attorney in Dade County, Fla., served on the task force and pushed the idea of focusing on children. Now, as the nation's attorney general, she has quickly embraced the recommendations in the new study, entitled "America's Children at Risk."

The dreary but familiar facts of life for America's children are these: One in five lives below government-acknowledged standards for bare subsistence, and 14% of preschool children lived in impoverished families in 1991. The child poverty rate tops that of the other major Western industrialized nations. Gunshot wounds are the leading cause of death for both African-American and white teen-age boys in the United States.

In response to the study, ABA President J. Michael McWilliams called upon lawyers "to give children the same level of zealous advocacy they now deliver to their adult and corporate clients." Specifically, the report urged the creation of unified family courts, combining judicial functions and social services, such as custody and delinquency, that are now handled separately even though they may involve members of the same family. These recommendations make great sense, and could help reduce the work of family court judges whose caseloads have soared beyond all reasonable hope for careful justice.

It also makes sense for lawyers to provide free legal services to children who are often not represented at all in court proceedings involving abuse, visitation or other important matters. Better still would be assistance to children before they end up in court, with lawyers helping to identify resources and resolve interagency disputes. "We do it for adult and corporate clients every day," said the report. "Individual children need the same sort of representation." The case has been clearly made.

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