Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, yesterday urged a group of Juvenile Court judges from across the country to "leave no child behind" in their daily struggles to deal with a growing parade of abused, neglected and violent youngsters.
"It's the hardest job among the hardest jobs we have," Ms. Edelman told members of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, whose annual conference opened in Baltimore yesterday. "Your courts are the repository of what is going on in the larger society."
A child is abused or neglected every 26 seconds in the United States, arrested for a crime of violence every five minutes, killed by gunfire every two hours, she said. Fifty-thousand have been killed by guns since 1979.
"We are becoming two nations -- one of First World privilege, and the other of Third World deprivation," she said.
With a burgeoning load of children in trouble, Baltimore was a perfect laboratory for the judges' meeting. Drug abuse by parents is behind many of those cases, making it harder for a judge or Juvenile Court master to hope to keep the family together, said Judge David B. Mitchell, administrative judge of Baltimore's Juvenile Court and host judge of the conference.
"Judges who serve in these courts believe they have an obligation to go beyond the limitations of their courtrooms," Judge Mitchell said. "We take it as a given to move into the realm of advocacy."
And in Baltimore, juvenile advocates have been fighting for years for a juvenile justice center that would provide more spacious, inviting quarters than those in Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, where young people and their families crowd benches in a dank hallway and waiting room.
Several children appeared on a panel at the request of Children of Separation and Divorce Inc., a Columbiacounseling center, to talk about how judges could help children whose parents have split up.
"He scares me more than anything else I can think of," said a 15-year-old boy who described seeing his father put his fist through a wall over child-support payments. "It's to the point where I don't stand up for myself in front of him."
Judges also listened to colleagues describe computer systems that made it easier to track children through the system and strategies for making hearings longer so that better decisions are made.
The conference will continue today with sessions on juvenile offenders and their victims and on repressed memories of child abuse.