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“Judges punish kids and put them in jail,” said 6-year-old Derrick C. when asked by his lawyer, Bonnie Erdheim, to describe the role of the person who wears a robe and sits on the bench in the front of the room. Derrick said he had seen mean Judge Judy on television. Undeterred, Erdheim, an animated 31-year-old assistant corporation counsel, asked if any of the other kids sitting with Derrick had a different answer. Joseph V., 14, said that real judges “find the truth by listening to the whole story.” Right, Erdheim said, adding, “In Family Court, the goal is to get all children, even respondents, the help they need, while keeping victims safe.” Then she and her volunteer co-teachers from the Brooklyn Junior League began to translate that statement. Using a prepared script and a toy bear named Carey, they introduced the class to the personalities, procedures and vocabulary of Brooklyn Family Court in New York. This is Derrick’s first day at Court School, a three-year old program run by the Corporation Counsel, the Junior League and the Brooklyn Child Advocacy Center, a division of Safe Horizon (formerly Victim Services). The school’s goal is to familiarize children complainants with the courtroom, dispel myths about the justice system they may have picked up from the media, and build their confidence before they testify against alleged juvenile delinquents, many of whom are classmates, family members and babysitters not much older than themselves. Many of the Court School kids’ cases involve school or street fights and petty thefts, but most involve sex crimes. THE CURRICULUM Court School is held in a courtroom at Brooklyn Family Court on the second Tuesday evening of every month for about two hours. Classes range in size from two to 10 children, ages 2 through 14. Volunteers and counselors participate, and parents are welcome to watch. Erdheim said talking to parents in similar situations can be comforting for mothers and fathers who, like their children, are scared and confused about the trial at hand. The focus of Court School, though, is the children themselves. After learning who is who in the courtroom, they get a chance to role play and pick up practical lessons about answering questions with words, not nods, taking deep breaths when they feel nervous and telling the judge if they need a drink or bathroom break. But they are also taught some legal fundamentals, like the difference between fact and opinion. Most importantly, according to the program’s organizers, they are taught to be honest when they do not know the answer and to always tell the truth. Organizers insist that children are not coached but prepared at Court School, since the specifics of individual cases are not discussed. Rather, organizers say, the class is geared towards making children feel comfortable with the courtroom so they can focus solely on telling their stories at trial. Erdheim said that Court School sessions also help her gauge whether a young child will be deemed “swearable” by a judge, a key factor in trying many of her cases that lack corroborating medical evidence. In New York State, children younger than 12 may not testify under oath unless the judge determines their ability to distinguish falsehood from truth and to understand the nature of an oath. GAUGING NEED When Derrick C. answered questions with his hand over his mouth and then began to cry during class, it was clear he needed more counseling by social workers and another session of Court School before meeting the judge or taking the stand. But the trial calendar for Derrick C.’s case may not permit him the time to go to another class. Erdheim said scheduling also makes it difficult to run classes exclusively for kids of the same age, which means complainants as different as Joseph and Derrick attend the same Court School session. This can be problematic since children of different ages, capabilities and backgrounds face different challenges in the courtroom. Older kids can have a hard time admitting they do not know the answer or articulating exactly what they mean, while younger children may worry that lawyers are screaming at them, Erdheim said. Alex Kirby, a veteran Court School volunteer from the Brooklyn Junior League said that even though the same script is used, each class session is different because the responses of the children are so diverse. ENROLLMENT, EXPANSION Crowding is not a problem in this program. Currently, fewer than 100 kids attend Court School each year. Some who are scheduled to attend do not show up, and others do not officially graduate. Between January 1999 and June 2000, only about 6 percent of the complainants whose petitions were filed by Brooklyn Corporation Counsel went to a class. Erdheim said that Brooklyn is the only borough that has a Family Court with Night Court hours to accommodate the Court School program. Although some children from Richmond County have come to her classes, she said it may be hard for parents and kids who live farther from Brooklyn to attend. If Court School cannot reach children in other boroughs, organizers say they are interested in expanding to the Criminal and Supreme Courts. In Philadelphia, the Children’s Alliance and the District Attorney’s Office run a much larger Court School program for all children who testify in criminal prosecutions. QUESTIONS RAISED But Executive District Attorney Ama Dwimoh of the Crimes Against Children Bureau in Brooklyn is not convinced that Court School is always the best way to acquaint a traumatized child with the courtroom. Dwimoh’s bureau has its own case-by-case, “vertical” preparation strategy for children testifying in felony abuse cases. “We don’t want to introduce too many new players, but have a child build a trusting relationship with an ADA and understand the importance of the proceedings without becoming frightened,” she said. Similarly, Monica Drinane, attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Division, whose staff prepares juvenile delinquents for their day in court, said assigned attorneys spend a great deal of time talking with clients one on one to get them prepared to testify. According to Dwimoh, group programs could be hard for children “who are possessive of their ADAs” or intimidated by other children in the class. And group programs could allow children to hear things from other kids that would influence their testimony. Moreover, she said, a playful Court School-type gathering may minimize the seriousness of the trial in the eyes of a child. “Using puppets to teach kids about the courtroom is great, but some kids may think this is how real court is.” But Court School organizers believe that attending a class on courtroom basics with other child witnesses can reduce the stigma of the trial experience and the anxiety about taking the stand. They insist suggestibility is not an issue because individual cases are not discussed. And they say that Court School does not preclude personal attention. “Of course we meet with kids individually to prepare them for trial,” Erdheim said. “Court School is not about their cases. It is an introduction to the court system. It comforts kids, and their parents, by letting them know there are others going to court too.”

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