Youths caught for low-level misdemeanors — such as ditching school, vandalism, fighting and possession of alcohol or marijuana — will find themselves at the informal Juvenile Court in Santa Monica.
They will also find themselves in front of Juvenile Court referee Pamela Davis.
Davis presides over what she describes as “a court of early intervention to help juveniles learn from a small mistake, to prevent more serious problems later.”
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Davis says. “Many kids want to test the waters and push the envelope. I use the broken window analogy — if you just leave a broken window in a building, it attracts more vandalism than if you fix the broken window in the beginning.”
For the past eight years, Davis has been helping youths and their parents at this West District Branch of Juvenile Court for Los Angeles County by talking with and sending the families to intervention and prevention programs.
Working with juveniles — youths under 18 years of age — Davis’s branch sees a combination of affluent and poor, single-parent and two-parent families who come from as far away as Agoura Hills as well as Beverly Hills, Marina del Rey, Westchester and other areas.
When youths come before Davis for minor infractions, the court conducts an arraignment and reads the charges, which the child accepts or denies.
Davis says about 90 percent of the kids admit they were wrong and take responsibility. For those who admit wrongdoing, the child and family are ordered to complete a parent-teen program that facilitates communication between parents and kids.
If a juvenile denies the charges, the case goes to trial. Davis says that sometimes a child is afraid to admit the truth to the parent and denies the charges, trying to be perfect in the parents’ eyes.
She adds that in most cases that go to trial, the family believes the child is innocent.
Davis usually meets with just the kid and parents in court and has a conversation with them, creating an intimate setting that she says is a learning experience for parents.
Although most parents cooperate, some play it down and ask Davis to just give a warning or let it go, but Davis believes parents have to be careful about what message they give a child when pursuing this track. She believes accountability is important and that the child needs to accept responsibility for making a mistake.
Through intervention she hopes to make enough of an impact so the kid’s behavior changes for the better.
The intervention programs the court sends the families to, such as Susie Spain’s “Angels at Risk,” help families connect, and they educate parents on how to be parents.
Davis says that sometimes wrongdoing is a cry for help.
“These kids just want to feel they matter,” she says.
She adds that many parents are totally tuned out of what’s really going on in their child’s life and these violations can alert families to the need of spending time together.
“Just the fact that the parent and kid have to travel together to the meeting, then talk on the way home, sets a plan in place so at least once a week they connect,” Davis says.
She adds that a loss of connection makes it easier for peer pressure to become more influential in a child’s life.
“It’s a foreign concept to many families to talk about sitting down for one meal together, but if they don’t, they can lose touch with what’s happening in the kid’s life,” Davis says.
Davis says that until a few years ago kids brought before her weren’t younger than 14, but now some of the kids are as young as eight.
“The most impact we can have as people who work with kids and families is to listen and to care,” Davis says. “When kids feel someone cares and that someone’s rooting for them, it raises their self-esteem.”
Davis adds that many parents forget their role and she reminds parents that they are in charge and the ones to set the agenda.
For the kids, Davis says:
“Think before you make a decision. Do what’s right, not what’s easy and what you think you can get away with.”
She says that often when she asks children why they did something wrong they respond, “It was easy.”
Davis tells kids that if there’s something they want to do, they should talk to their parents. For example, if a child ditches school to go to Universal City Walk, she says that if they’d talked to their parents it could have been planned as a family outing.
She also talks with the kids about learning to say no in a cool way.
“You don’t have to alienate others to say no,” Davis says.
“You don’t have to say, ‘It’s against the law’ or ‘I’m not allowed.’ Focus on school and what you’re supposed to do. Say, ‘I’m going to finish this and I’ll catch up with you later.’
“We try to prepare kids for what’s out there.”
Davis loves to see kids do well and learn.
“When a kid comes back to show me their report card that has As and not Fs, it feels great,” she says.
She adds that through her work and the programs, “If we save one life it’s worth it. If we help one family, save one kid, that’s enough.”
Julie Kirst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org