Focus on the Infant while Understanding Teenage Parents

If you’ve worked with, defended, advocated for or made decisions about at-risk youth, you’ve surely run into the difficult problem of teenagers becoming parents themselves.

As a juvenile judge in Florida, I remember becoming frustrated at the apparent immature, selfish, unrealistic and irresponsible behavior displayed by these young moms and dads in dealing with life’s most important task: raising a child.

But, you know what? I often forgot about the baby. In my haste to modify probation and curfew to allow, in fact encourage, these young parents to accept an equal responsibility for their infant or toddler, I often ruled without considering the newborn’s needs. We all need to be educated about teen parents, never-married parents (without a relationship) and the significance of infant attachment as it relates to the regulation of emotions, behaviors and attention spans.

Two plenary sessions at the recent annual conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in Chicago this June provided a lot of helpful information to anyone who deals with teen or never-married parents. Plenty of research on attachment confirms that the 0-3 baby and toddler need stability; routine; a home with the same sounds, smells and touches; one or two primary caregivers to bond to, trust and connect with, and peace.

So, as juvenile judge, what was I thinking of when I encouraged a teenage mom, 16, and dad, 17, to “split the baby” between them. Mom would get four nights a week; three. Since Mom went to school and Dad worked full time, and they couldn’t agree, they both found their own day care provider. One night a week during the time they had custody of the baby, each of them attended night school, so grandparents on each side picked up the baby. They attended two different churches on Saturday and Sunday, with different child-care centers. I counted at least ten caregivers in about five different places each week! Not good for the baby’s continued brain development and ability to grow emotionally.  Yet it was something I thought would encourage parental responsibility. Often these cases don’t get to family court, so a juvenile judge may be making rulings that affect a child’s mental and emotional development.  We need more training, I believe.

We also need to be a little more understanding of the way the teen parents react to their newborn.

According to Mindy F. Mitnick, Ed.M., M.A., a licensed psychologist from Minneapolis, and presenter at the conference, in many ways these teenagers are behaving just like adult “never- married parents” who struggle to share parenting with people they barely know except for that one-night stand, the tryst in the back seat, or the encounter after too much to drink. Speaking at the 49th Annual Conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in Chicago, Dr. Mitnick outlined the foundations for a healthy co-parenting relationship. I learned why emotionally immature teenagers have such difficulties as young parents, and why equally shared parenting for teenagers who live apart may be harmful to their child.

“Relationship 101,” Dr. Mitnick said, “begins with trust, mutual support, healthy partners, and a balance of power. People who’ve been married, have an established relationship, and then get divorced, can work hard to build back the relationship they had in the beginning.” Never-married people lack this foundation and have little or no experience to build upon.

Now, then, apply this to teenagers-- teenagers with raging hormones, developing brains, poor impulse control and often little or no parental role models—and it’s easy to see the depth of the problem. Then, to complicate matters, consider the infant or toddler’s needs in connection with the developing brain and attachment needs. Maybe grandparent takeovers aren’t such a bad idea?

According to Dr. Mitnick, unmarried fathers were less likely to be involved in decision-making, they reported interference from the mother and were distrustful.  Unmarried mothers tended to use negative gate-keeping practices, limited the fathers’ access, especially overnights, disputed parenting time sharing and prevented fathers from decision-making roles. Add to these factors the inability to pay child support, and grandparent concerns or takeovers, and teenage co-parenting becomes an impossible dream.

Finally, it’s a sign of progress to get teen parents to agree, especially if the child’s attachment’s needs are met. All those who work with juveniles would benefit from the types of inquiry Dr. Mitnick made. She left the audience with helpful questions along “the spectrum” of relationships between unmarried parents that might be a guide for counselors, mentors or decision makers:

  • Was the birth “planned” by one or both parties?
  • Did both parents attend prenatal appointments and birthing classes?
  • Was the father present at the birth? If not, why not?
  • Was the father allowed to parent the infant?
  • Do either have prior parenting experience?
  • Do either have appropriate extended family support?
  • Are there other children who relate to this child?
  • Where do the parents fall on the spectrum of conflict: origin, intensity, duration?

Nothing good comes from a father’s absence, Dr. Mitnick concluded. Communication, mutual respect, flexibility and shared child raising values are the keys to building trust, she said.

So, if you find yourselves involved with teenage parents, the utmost patience, time and energy is going to be required to help them build a relationship built on trust, especially if they haven’t experienced trust in many of their childhood relationships. And don’t forget the baby. The children deserve nothing less.

Los Angeles Moves Haltingly Toward Ending Truancy Fines

This story was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity


A student from San Pedro High School in the Los Angeles area is detained for truancy in 2010 by Los Angeles city officers. Brad Graverson/Torrance Daily Breeze

Juvenile judge tries to alter failed policy with "rationality."

LOS ANGELES — Fifteen-year-old Juan Carlos Amezcua was just five minutes late for school, and already at the corner by Theodore Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles when a police cruiser’s siren went off last Nov. 16.

The consequences of what happened next — handcuffing, allegations of rough treatment and a $250 daytime curfew ticket — are still resonating here. In January, Amezcua and his cousin, who was also stopped by police en route to school, saw their tickets dismissed in juvenile court. Still upset at their encounter with police, though, the pair and their parents filed a complaint on Feb. 3 with the school district and police concerning officers’ behavior.

Meanwhile, the presiding judge of Los Angeles’ juvenile court and Los Angeles city leaders are also moving to curtail law-enforcement involvement in policing student attendance.

The dispute is indicative of a broader, complex and, at times, racially charged debate over how best to deal with tardy or truant students in jurisdictions across the country. Since the 1990s, cities large and small have adopted daytime curfews with monetary fines to force kids to get to school. Now the City of Angels is at ground zero as the impact of such ordinances in reconsidered.

Next Monday, the Los Angeles City Council’s Public Safety Committee starts a review of proposed amendments to that city’s nine-year-old daytime curfew law. Among the proposals: setting limits on enforcement by police, who routinely search youths and sometimes handcuff them. The proposed amendments would also effectively end $250 fines in favor of negotiated agreements that tardy students submit to counseling.

Troubling history

Aggressive enforcement of the daytime curfew that began here in 1995 has more recently strained students’ relations with police, and ignited protests. Early-morning police “sweeps” that netted kids as they approached schools, especially, inspired a movement among students, parents and civil-liberties groups to protest students being handcuffed — and fingerprinted, in some cases — and then forced to miss more school to go to juvenile court to deal with tickets.

Students at schools with some of the highest dropout rates have reported staying home if they were running late — rather than risk meeting up with police and getting tickets that can rise to $400 once court fees are tacked on.

Being stopped by a police officer “leaves a deep mark and a certain perspective about the culture we live in. It is being treated as a potential offender,” said Zoe Rawson, a lawyer who represents ticketed students in Los Angeles who, data show, have been mostly Latino and black and from low-income areas. “For someone who is disengaged from school, it pushes them away even more.”

That message seemed to be getting through when, last April, and then in October, the chiefs of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District’s police issued respective guidelines that officers consider “the spirit” of curfew laws and avoid targeting students who were clearly on their way to school.

Sgt. Ken Kimbrough, spokesman for the Los Angeles School Police, said the intent of the sweeps was not to issue fines, but to help kids — some embroiled in dangerous activity — stay in school and direct them to appropriate counseling and family services. “Could there have been some overzealous officers out there? Sure,” he said. “But that’s why the chief put out new guidelines.”

But what youngsters like Juan Carlos Amezcua experienced in November gave rise to questions about whether the new guidelines were working.

Los Angeles Police Department officers detain students accused of truancy during a 2010 sweep in the San Pedro area. Brad Graverson/Torrance Daily Breeze

Amezcua and his cousin, also 15, were emerging from a market near their school in Los Angeles’ tough Boyle Heights neighborhood when officers stopped the teens, handcuffed and searched them. When Amezcua said the two were going to school and added, “You can’t do this,” an officer used profanity and told him to “shut … up or else I’ll slap you in the face,” according to the complaint filed Feb. 3.

One of officers took Amezcua’s baseball cap off and once he was in the car threw it in his face, the complaint alleges. And instead of driving directly into the closest school lot, the complaint says, the officers circled the campus and sped up at each turn, causing the handcuffed students, who were not wearing seatbelts, to slide against the car doors and for one of them to strike his head against the car window.

The students were taken into Roosevelt High School and remained in handcuffs while officers wrote them tickets for being truant at 8 a.m., Amezcua said. By the time they were released, he said, only 10 minutes were left of his second period class.

“They were laughing because I told them I was going to get a lawyer,” Amezcua told the Center for Public Integrity.

Kimbrough said he couldn’t discuss the complaint because it is confidential and under investigation. Police procedure, for the safety of officers, he said, is to handcuff suspected truants if they are transported in a police vehicle. Keeping them cuffed after they are taken into a school is also “pretty common practice” while officers are still investigating circumstances, he said.

A judicial order

Crusaders for curfew reform thought they had reason to celebrate in January, when Los Angeles County Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash issued a sweeping directive for court officers to stop imposing monetary truancy fines on any student ticketed in Los Angeles County Nash’s court is one of the biggest juvenile courts in the United States.

Nash’s directive also means that students with previous unpaid fines can perform community service instead.

“I’m not interested in collecting money,” Nash told the Center for Public Integrity. Fines, he said, have proved “onerous. At the end of the day, it’s not an effective system.”

Instead, Nash’s guidelines call for dismissing tickets for students who were clearly headed to school, albeit late, and giving minors who were truly truant a series of opportunities to prove they are attending school, or submitting to counseling or other services. If they don’t follow up, they will be assigned community service and could have driver’s licenses revoked or not granted, which is currently the juvenile court’s ultimate penalty if fines are not paid.

“Hopefully,” Nash said, “we’ve just added a little bit of rationality to the system.”

Until Nash’s order, it was up to a court officer, or “referee,” to decide whether to impose fines, “probation” or community service in lieu of a fine.

Many students’ tickets automatically accumulated into hundreds, even thousands of dollars in fines, Nash said, because the youths never showed up at court. He said many ticketed students were afraid to tell parents, who are required to accompany their children to court and have to take time off work.

Nash said that students who did pay fines last year, however, contributed a large share — he doesn’t know the exact amount — of nearly $7 million in penalties collected by the court’s traffic section, which handles curfew violations.

A ‘blunt tool’

The broad reassessment of policies has continued here. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles County School Attendance Task Force — which Nash chairs — released a report criticizing daytime curfew citations as a “blunt tool” that can lead to “unnecessary criminalization” of students. “Involving youth in the criminal justice system has the detrimental and unintended consequences of reducing their chances of graduating high school,” the report says.

The report cited 2006 research by a criminologist who analyzed national data and found that a first-time arrest or court appearance increases students’odds of dropping out by at least a factor of three. The negative impact was most pronounced among youths who were not previously in trouble.

The task force included representatives of the Los Angeles city and school police, school districts and civil liberties and community groups.

When Los Angeles adopted the daytime curfew, it was embraced as a tool to fight juvenile crime — police still say it still serves that purpose — and as a way to ultimately boost graduation rates. Keeping students engaged in school continues to be a problem, though. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s high school graduation rate is considered one of the worst in California, with the district’s own calculation at 56 percent and the state’s at 64 percent.

If the proposed amendments to Los Angeles’ ordinance go through, they would not only end the $250 fines, they would allow students to avoid having to make an appearance in Nash’s court if they agree to counseling prior to the court date. The city has developed a dozen facilities called WorkSource Youth Centers to help provide services as part of this alternative plan, supporters say. A Federal Workforce Investment grant of at least $10 million, awarded last September, will help pay for more staff to specifically address truancy.

The amendments would also establish a “rebuttable presumption” that students are traveling to school if they are within a three-block radius during the first 60 minutes of school. Officers would be barred from enforcing the curfew at entrances to school or nearby, and would have to show that they talked to minors and write down on tickets reasons officers were convinced a youth was truly truant.

“They would have to use some discretion instead of just saying, ‘You know what, kid? Tough cookies,’ ” said Tony Cardenas, the councilman who introduced the proposals. Bernard Parks, a council member who was chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, also backs the proposed changes.

“Truancy rates are directly correlated to low graduation rates,” Cardenas added. “But kids should be dealing with a counselor trained to talk to a young mind.”

Cardenas will separately pursue a requirement for city police to publish statistics on ethnicity and other information about the students those officers cite.

Easy target?

In 2010, the pro bono law firm Public Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union and a local group, the Labor Community Strategy Center, disclosed city and school police data showing that 88 percent of more than 47,000 daytime curfew tickets issued in Los Angeles between 2004 and 2009 went to Latino or black students. Together, these students are 77 percent of the student population.

The center created maps showing that ticketing was concentrated around lower-income Latino and black neighborhood schools. The data also indicated that not one of the more than 13,000 students ticketed during those years by the Los Angeles School Police was identified as white, although whites are 13 percent of that district’s population.

Students who arrive late but in cars with parents driving have escaped ticketing because they are with their parents and not in violation of the daytime curfew.

Maceo Bradley was 15 when he arrived late to Locke High School in December 2010 on foot. He was delayed, he said, because he got caught up looking for some school fundraising material he felt pressured to hand in that day. He reported to the office when he arrived more than half an hour late, and when an attendant told him to go on to class an officer ordered him to stop and wrote him a ticket.

“I had never had an interaction with police, at least not negative, until then,” said Bradley, who is black. He missed much of two days of school to go to court once, and then again 60 days later. His mother also had to miss work both days. He later stayed home one day, he said, when he feared he would be late again.

Gabriel Saldana, Bradley’s schoolmate, said he arrived an hour late one day, also in December 2010, because the first bus he catches was late and he missed a connecting bus. As he walked up to school, an officer told him to stop and wrote him a ticket. “He asked me for my thumbprint,” Saldana said. “I was shocked. But what am I going to do? Say no and end up in handcuffs?’

Manuel Criollo, an organizer with the Labor Community Strategy Center, praised Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck and Los Angeles School Police Chief Steven Zipperman for their willingness to listen to complaints and issue new guidelines.

But in light of the way Amezcua and his cousin were allegedly treated — after Zipperman’s directive — Criollo co-signed the complaint this month against officers. The complaint accuses the officers of violating the chief’s new policy as well as alleged “unreasonable and excessive” search, seizure and physical restraint.

On Jan. 13, when Amezcua and his cousin appeared in court, as required, their tickets were dismissed because the court officer found that they were headed to school. The boys were obviously pleased. But they did have to miss school to go to court.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit group focused on investigative journalism

Judge Who Beat Daughter Says He Did Nothing Wrong

A Texas judge who was caught on video beating his daughter says he was simply disciplining his then 17-year-old.

"In my mind, I haven't done anything wrong other than discipline my child after she was caught stealing," Judge William Adams told a Corpus Christi television station. "And I did lose my temper, but I've since apologized."

The video of Adams, 51, appeared on the Internet after the daughter, Hillary Adams, uploaded it.

Hillary Adams, now 23, told the Associated Press that she has since had mixed feelings about making the video public.

"I'm experiencing some regret,” she told the AP, “because I just pulled the covers off my own father's misbehavior after so many people thought he was such a good person … But so many people are also telling me I did the right thing."

Adams added, however, that she has received an outpouring of support since uploading the video.

The video shows William Adams lashing his daughter 17 times with a belt while scolding her and at one point threatening to beat her into submission.

The younger Adams told NBC’s Today Show that the lashing was not unusual, but “happened regularly for a period of time.”

As a result of the video, the police in Aransas County, Texas, have started an investigation to determine if Judge Adams was guilty of any wrongdoing.