Pioneering Florida judge uses juvenile court to stop cycle of broken lives

Published on
July 14, 2015

There’s a well-known poem by the British poet Philip Larkin that starts out, “They [mess] you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.” In the final stanza, Larkin cheerily adds, “Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf.”

Larkin was no doubt talking about more garden-variety forms of family dysfunction than the abuse and neglect cases that come before Cindy Lederman, an influential juvenile court judge in Miami-Dade County who delivered the keynote address to the National Health Journalism Fellowship Sunday evening. But Lederman, like Larkin, is keenly attuned to the generational transmission of misery and has helped pioneer a new legal model that uses the latest science and evidence-based practices in an effort to halt cycles of abuse and bad parenting.

In her more than two decades on the bench, Lederman has daily served as both witness and judge to tragedies of unspeakable proportions: “The 8-month-old baby who harms herself by pulling her eyebrows out. A 2-year-old boy who will only speak in whispers to adults and will not make eye contact with his caregivers. Watching a video at trial of a 4-year-old telling a forensic interviewer where her father touched her, and explaining what he used the Vaseline for.”

The families that pass through Lederman’s courtroom suffer from what she calls “cumulative disadvantage.” The sorrow is rarely singular: “They know misery, and every kind of risk factor that exists, from poverty to poor education, mental health issues, drugs, alcohol, domestic violence. From generation to generation to generation, we see this abuse and neglect,” she said. As a result, the children in such families often have development and cognitive delays, struggle to form secure emotional attachments and stand every chance of replicating the dysfunction they were born into with their own children, often before they’ve escaped their teens.

Traditionally, dependency courts such as Lederman’s have focused on narrow legal issues such as whether or not a parent should be allowed to keep custody of an abused child. But that approach doesn’t take into account what is really required to give such children a better home life and more promising future, according to Lederman.

“There are so many questions I have in my work for which the law provides no answer,” Lederman said. “We were taught nothing about the fundamental needs of a child and how those needs can best me met.”

Beginning in the mid 1990s, Lederman began to embrace a far more expansive vision of juvenile court as an institution that leans on the most rigorous social science and evidence-based therapies to teach parents how to take better care of their children and thereby halt cycles of abuse and neglect. Her own shift in thinking came about when she was invited to serve on a National Research Council Committee in 1994 and was quickly introduced to the latest research on domestic violence, childhood development and evidence-based therapies – all new to her then. She began to question the value of the parenting programs her court was routing parents into at the time. “I learned most of the services we offer our families don’t help them,” she said.

So she got rid of her existing parenting programs, with their lack of testing and efficacy, and introduced a range of new programs, based on science and systematic evaluation, in their stead. These included interventions such as Child Parent Psychotherapy, which focuses on strengthening the bonds between child and parent and measures variables such as enthusiasm, depression, reciprocity and quality of play. Lederman found herself awed by some of the early results, including a precipitous drop in further abuse among those parents who completed the therapy program. “We learned from this research that we could make a difference, but not just with the law,” Lederman said. “We needed to bring in science and evidence-based practice.”

But it’s often not easy to get parents — many of whom aren’t aware of any problems in their parenting to begin with — to participate. “Another thing we learned is that it takes a lot to get these families into care,” Lederman said, adding that on average it takes about 10 hours of begging, pleading, rescheduling and so on to get parents started. Even then, the challenges are immense. As Lederman described it, “The question is, How do we teach a child mother to nurture her child when she’s never felt safe with her own mother? How do we foster a healthy attachment with a parent who has to be taught to smile at her baby, and to learn what it means to play with her baby?”

And such programs don’t always work. But Lederman has found her version of “therapeutic jurisprudence” to be vastly more effective and hopeful than the judicial model it replaced. “What we have done is changed the concept and the culture of the court system from really adversarial, where really only lawyers spoke, to something much more therapeutic,” she said.

And her approach has gotten some big boosts in the form of grants from the Florida legislature as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The latter gave Lederman’s group a grant to replicate the concept behind the “The Miami Child Well-Being Court” in Detroit, and she these days she travels the country sharing her vision. “We believe this model is what the future requires,” Lederman told fellows. “We’d much prefer to change their tragedy into an opportunity to heal, generation after generation.”

Ultimately, she argues, courts need to be smarter and more deeply invested in changing human behavior, and that requires judges who are willing to beyond the narrow application of the law into the often-foreign realms of evidenced-based interventions and the science that support them.

“There’s no more important work you can do in justice system as a jurist, because nowhere else do you have the opportunity to change the course of a human life,” Lederman said. “It’s too late, except with us.”

[Photo by Edward Allen Lim via Flickr.]