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Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009

Crimes Against Children

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When a Wisconsin newspaper is looking for a sleazy, tabloid headline, it’s hard to top “Girl, 13, Accused of Killing Man After Fight Over Milk.”

Talk about a media bonanza. You have a 13-year-old “Bad Seed,” the same sort of evil, subhuman child who recently terrified audiences and appalled adoption agencies in the film Orphan. And a special bonus for the dairy state was the opportunity to get a spat over spilled milk into the same headline.

It fits perfectly into the condescending view of the mainstream media toward crimes that take place in poor communities of color.

Life is so cheap among “those people.” It proves how barely civilized they are when a 13-year-old child is accused of murdering a man in cold blood because he poured milk down the drain rather than let her have it.

All those prejudiced cliches fall away, however, as the real facts behind such cases come to light. In fact, it turns out Labrina Brown (who recently turned 14) and her younger siblings were reported to authorities as victims of crimes in that home from very early ages.

No one condones a child violently taking a human life, but if the system adults set up to protect children such as Labrina and her younger sisters had worked properly, the crime never would have taken place.

Rather than denigrate children in horrific circumstances as savages, we should recognize the sheer courage it takes for small children to report sexual and physical abuse to outsiders. And there is simply no excuse for failing to protect such children when they appeal to others for help as we tell them to do.

School officials, when they heard stories and saw evidence of abuse and neglect in the home, followed proper procedure by calling the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare. There were heartbreaking stories of the children bringing extra clothes to school with them, desperately hoping someone would show up to remove them from their home.

Instead, the system repeatedly put them back into unsafe conditions.

One consequence was escalating fear and anger in young Labrina. The adult male she fatally stabbed with a knife was one victim. She was another.

Now the same criminal justice and social welfare systems that failed Labrina and her sisters will be making another decision that could profoundly affect the lives of Labrina and other children throughout Wisconsin.

During the mean-spirited ’90s, when state politicians were competing to show how tough on crime they could be, a law passed requiring children as young as 10 years old in Wisconsin to be initially charged as adults in homicide cases.

Child or Adult?

After a preliminary hearing, adjourned to Sept. 18, on the adult charges against Labrina, another court hearing will be scheduled to determine whether Labrina should be tried in adult court or children’s court.

If convicted in adult court, Labrina could spend the rest of her life in adult prison. If convicted in children’s court, she could be incarcerated in the juvenile system up until age 25 with access to extensive youth rehabilitation services.

This should be a pretty simple decision on the facts. After all, a 13-year-old child is not an adult. Period.

And a 13-year-old who may have been sexually abused for five years and witnessed other children in her family sexually abused at even younger ages certainly is more deserving of protection and rehabilitation than retribution.

But the ugly political climate that decreed children as young as 10 should be charged as adults in the first place now threatens to victimize Labrina again.

No one can seriously suggest a 10-year-old or a 13-year-old is an adult. But supporters of such vicious laws see them as perfectly appropriate for people unlike themselves.

None of those mean-spirited folks were adults when they were 10 years old either. But they survived into adulthood without suffering any life-destroying consequences as a result of the impetuous, thoughtless, childish decisions we all make.

Now it’s open season on “these kids today.” Letters to the editor rage that children who commit “adult” crimes such as murder should pay the full adult penalty.

Actually, there is nothing adult about the crime of murder. It is an act of total disregard for human life. We hold perpetrators accountable for such crimes, even when there is often strong evidence of mental illness or diminished capacity, simply because they are, well, adults.

Adults are legally responsible for the consequences of their actions. Ten-year-olds aren’t. Studies show physically the brains of children are not fully developed to allow them to make adult decisions.

The system adults set up to protect Labrina and her sisters allowed crimes to be committed against them for years. Trying Labrina as an adult would be committing another crime against a child.


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