Summary For Op Ed News
Professor Paula Kaldis of the Massachusetts School of Law suggests that juveniles facing court ordered punishment should instead be required to help older people in nursing homes.Juvenile Law and Community ServiceBy Paula Kaldis
This year’s Law Day theme was Liberty under Law: Empowering Youth, Assuring Democracy. This theme resonated with me for an obvious reason…I teach juvenile law, and would like to put forth an idea that goes to the heart of youth empowerment. This idea can be implemented by juvenile court judges throughout the country, will not cost anything to taxpayers or the court system, and will not take up any more precious time from an already overloaded court system. Most important, putting this idea into action will not only benefit youth, but also another group of Americans who are often neglected, those among us who live in nursing homes.Here’s my suggestion. When a juvenile court judge ponders sentencing options for a child charged with delinquency, many times he will rule that the child should perform community service, or write a letter to the person who has been injured. These are conventionally suitable judgments. My recommendation is for the judge to order that the child, instead, report to a local nursing home for a specified length of time. And instead of ruling that the child do particular jobs such as serving lunches or cleaning, the child will spend time with some of the residents, particularly those who have no visitors or very few. Adult volunteers or administrators of these nursing homes would oversee these sessions, which would include activities such as reading to the resident, playing cards, watching television, or taking a walk. The child will be expected to write an essay on the residents he has visited and what was learned from this experience. The resident not only benefits by having some one to talk with, but also has an opportunity to teach this young person something about life. The child, by offering something of himself to an older stranger who is nearing the end of life, may learn some valuable lessons about his own life. This disposition is not suitable for every child. First-time offenders who made a simple but foolish mistake would be ideal for this program. Participants would be carefully selected and monitored by the juvenile court, which certainly has always had the discretion to decide matters in the best interest of children. And, of course, those who run nursing homes and are interested in participating in this initiative would provide supervision for the visits.
This idea would also serve the purpose and the philosophy of the juvenile court, which is to rehabilitate children rather than punish, and to protect and to teach, as a parent would. This is the parens patriae doctrine. The state as “parent” has the duty to look out for the welfare of children, whether they are children who are abused or neglected by their parents or children who commit acts that are a violation of a law or a violation of school or home rules. All judges would have to do, when faced with a troubled child who may benefit from giving his time to an older person, is to rule that the child do so as a condition of probation or as part of the disposition of the case. Many judges today, for example, will order a child to write an essay to their victim in an assault and battery case. The idea I’m suggesting is not a radical new concept and is very easy to implement.
The benefit to an elderly lonely person in a nursing home is immeasurable. That person, even if visited by friends or family, may feel needed in the sense that he or she may be helping a child who may otherwise be on the streets or worse.
As for the child, there are obvious benefits, such as raising self-esteem, teaching responsibility, and providing an opportunity to shape his future.
Finally, this form of community service can reinforce the centuries-old model of fostering respect for the old as teachers of the young.Paula Kaldis is a professor of law at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. She teaches juvenile law, family law and juvenile law clinics, and is the director of the school’s research and writing program. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.