Journal Issue: The Juvenile Court Volume 6 Number 3 Winter 1996
The Mission of the Juvenile Court
The proponents of the Illinois statute quoted above believed that children differed from adults in significant ways and that these differences led to the need for a specialized court to handle legal issues involving children.4 Acknowledgment of these differences continues to support the mission of the court today.
First, children are dependent on adults in a way that adults are not dependent on one another. If children are abused or neglected by their parents, not only must the abusive action be addressed, but the state through its courts must step in to ensure adequate care for the child. As one Illinois advocate wrote, "The fundamental idea of the juvenile court is so simple it seems anyone ought to understand it. . . . It is the acknowledgment by the state of its relationship as the parent to every child within its borders."5
Second, proponents of the juvenile court recognized that children are developing emotionally and cognitively; they are impressionable and can be influenced, for good or for evil. The entire purpose of the juvenile court was to avoid treating the child as the system treated an adult criminal and, instead, to shape and mold the child as a parent would. Young offenders were not convicted as criminals but adjudicated as delinquents; they were not sentenced to prison or reformatory but committed to the care of a probation officer or an institution. A subjective determination of the needs of the offender replaced strict rules of evidence: "It will be seen at once that this procedure contemplated a complete change; instead of punishment and reformation, it was formation."6
Third, children have different levels of understanding than adults. Thus, although courts in Illinois in the late 1800s were cognizant of due process requirements for adults, the procedures in place in adult courts simply were not comprehensible to children. In describing the need for a juvenile court, the chief probation officer for Cook County wrote, "Imagine the solemn farce of proceedings where the child rarely understood a scintilla of their nature or purpose."7 Proponents of the Illinois statute believed that children needed a special forum in which they could understand and be understood. Indeed, such varying levels of children's understanding relate directly to their ability to take responsibility for their actions.
Although there have been significant changes in the mission and function of the juvenile court since 1899, these basic differences between children and adults remain and continue to support the need for a specialized court. However, the goals of the court have also evolved over time. For example, the goals of the juvenile court in delinquency cases continue to include formation or rehabilitation of the individual child, but they also include providing procedural protections of the law guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution as well as meeting society's interests in protection and punishment. Such changes are discussed in more detail in this journal.
Finally, since 1899, the juvenile court has had to work very closely with a wide array of public and private agencies both to identify children in need and to provide services to these children and their families. The Illinois statute formalized the relationship between the court and public and private child welfare associations by requiring certification of associations caring for neglected or delinquent children, requiring regular inspection of these associations, and authorizing judges to require from these associations such information and statistics about the children in their care as the judges deemed necessary.8 The need for close, working relationships between the court and agencies caring for children is greater than ever today; this theme echoes throughout this journal issue.