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Janet Reno's Formula for Crime Prevention: Look After the Youngsters : Lifestyle: Attorney general wants to reform the way America rears its children by strengthening families.

October 03, 1993|CONNIE CASS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Janet Reno wheeled her 79-year-old mother into the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum and together they gazed up at the dinosaur skeletons.

Jane Wood Reno--journalist, alligator wrestler and all-around Florida character--was losing a battle with lung cancer and her eyes were weak. But she could still see the big things--like the triceratops that dwarfed even her 6-foot-2-inch daughter.

"She loved the dinosaurs," Janet Reno said.

A year later, the elder Reno is gone. Janet Reno has moved out of her mother's home on the edge of the Everglades to become the first female attorney general of the United States.

Like her mother, Reno keeps her eyes on the big things.

As the nation's head crime fighter she confronts growing problems--drugs, gangs, violence. And her solution is BIG.

Reno wants to reform the way America rears its children. Troubled young people too often turn into criminals, she said. The first three years are crucial. So the best way to prevent crime, the attorney general believes, is to build strong families.

This childless 55-year-old prosecutor--a self-described "awkward old maid"--has become a crusader for America's children.

"We will never have enough dollars to save everybody if we wait until they are 16 or 17," she said.

Reno's save-the-family campaign is squeezed between a steady stream of crises and controversies at the Justice Department--the dismissal of former FBI Director William Sessions, terrorists in New York, the tragic cult standoff in Waco, Tex. Meanwhile, she lobbies Congress to spend money on more police and prisons.

These subjects she discusses in careful, measured words.

But ask her about America's children, and her eyes brighten behind thick glasses; her weathered hands punctuate a quick, bubbling stream of thoughts.

She touts her "national agenda for children" whenever she can, to whoever will listen, other Cabinet members included. Her wish list stretches from prenatal care to children's nutrition to job-training for teens, most of it outside the realm of the Justice Department.

"We all have a responsibility to look beyond our narrow boundaries as prosecutor or attorney general to see more complete pictures," Reno said.

Everyone must be enlisted to help.

She takes her spiel on the road to gang members in Los Angeles, prisoners in Pennsylvania, lawyers in New York, schoolchildren in Washington, D.C., churchgoers in Kansas.

"I realized when I took office that unless you start talking about change you never get it," Reno explained in a recent interview.

She draws audiences in with the now-familiar story of her mother: how Jane Reno almost single-handedly built the family home from cypress logs and bricks; how she taught her four children to love baseball and Beethoven; how she spared neither the rod nor her love.

The message: She wants every child to grow up the way she did.

Maybe without the peacocks in the front yard and the occasional alligator in the kitchen, but with the important things--love and guidance and education and a strong sense of right and wrong.

"It goes back to the childhood she talks about so much and her own strong parenting from her mother, Jane Reno," said friend Janet R. McAliley, head of the Dade County School Board. "I think it all came together for her, and she realized families were central to crime prevention."

Reno honed her social theories during 15 years as state attorney for Dade County, Fla., which includes Miami, a city vexed by drug smugglers, rioting and violent crime.

"She has seen the violence in the streets," said Robert H. Macy, chairman of the National District Attorneys Assn. "She knows our frustrations."

Reno first turned her attention to children in 1972 when, as an assistant state attorney, she redesigned the juvenile division.

Elected to five terms as state attorney, she opened Florida's first domestic violence unit. She started a center to help with child abuse cases. She brought teachers, police and health officials together to help families in one of the city's poorest public housing developments.

She helped create a Drug Court that emphasizes treatment instead of jail for young first offenders.

And she began programs that made it easier for mothers to collect overdue child-support payments from "deadbeat dads"--an effort that inspired a rap song named after her.

Reno fretted that lawyers in her office were not spending enough time with their families. So she gave them extra days off to volunteer at their children's schools.

She thinks two-career couples, with the help of their bosses, should find ways to spend more time at home--such as ending work days at 3 p.m.

"It may be better to have three strong children rather than two cars," she has suggested.

When Reno talks about rearing children, she sometimes tells about the 15-year-old twins she took in eight years ago after their mother, a friend of hers, died.

Caring for Dan and Daphne Webb, and nursing her own sick mother, "was as rewarding as anything I've ever done," Reno said.

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