View Point

By Annabel Murray
and Judy Sobin

Friday, April 30, 1999

For children:
Na Keiki Law Center

Nearly every day we are tormented by more terrible news about children: children abused, children killed, children killing others. As a society and a community, we are outraged when we hear about the way children are treated and terrified when we hear how children are treating others.

We look for someone to blame: the parents, the courts, the media, the police, the "system" itself, whatever that may mean.

We never blame ourselves. How could we? We didn't know the teen-agers in Littleton, or little Cedra Edwards or Jennifer Felix.

While we as individuals and as a society say we value children above all else, in practice it just isn't so. In Hawaii, children account for nearly half of the poverty population, with close to 65,000 children living in poverty. In addition, a growing number of children, about 20,000, are without health insurance.

In 1995, there were 2,635 cases of confirmed child abuse and one-third of the children who are abused and neglected are native Hawaiians. In 1998, every two hours a child was reported abused or neglected. Every five hours a baby was born to a teen-age mother. Every three days a baby died during the first year of life.

Examples of injustices to children abound. There are homeless children who cannot get off the street, ignored until they commit crimes that get them into the juvenile criminal system.

Family Court judges request services for children and are told that there is simply no money to pay for them. Teen parents are unable to obtain housing or health care because they are minors, even if they have been rejected by their families. Child victims of violent crimes testify in court without representation. The list goes on.

The solution is not finding blame, but truly making children a priority from birth to adulthood. Each of us can do something.

Na Keiki Law Center, a project of Hawaii Lawyers Care, will focus exclusively on the legal needs and the rights of children. It was planned with the assistance of more than 50 individuals and organizations. Na Keiki's clients will be Hawaii's children; its mission their welfare.

Na Keiki will be a voice for children and will represent their unique special needs.

It will give expert guidance and direction to children and their families who are in need of legal services, be it advocacy for a child who has witnessed domestic violence, legal support of a child witness, representation of an abused and neglected child, or helping a child get off the streets. It will be available to the community and to individual children to ensure that children have a voice in the judicial process, in the administrative process and in the legislative arena.

Hawaii's Na Keiki Law Center will be a unique institution in our state and a model for the nation. Some states are spending legislative time and money working on statutes to ensure that children as young as 12 can be tried as adults. People throughout the United States are advocating the execution of teen-age criminal offenders, some as young as 14. Hawaii has not yet gone down this dark path.

Founders of the Na Keiki Law Center believe adequate recognition and representation of children's legal needs can preclude us from ever having to look toward these extreme solutions. The Law Center is grounded in the belief that nothing is more important and more valuable in maintaining a strong society than ensuring children's rights are protected and that they are able to live productive lives free of violence.

The Na Keiki Law Center will bring to the children of Hawaii a resource that is not currently available.

THIS resource will move them toward a healthy and self-sufficient adulthood, not just by throwing more tax dollars at the problems, but by utilizing the talents of our private bar to represent children and by recognizing systemic problems and how they can be changed.

The recognition of the worth of Na Keiki and the importance of funding it even in these bleak economic times is an indicator of our commitment to Hawaii's children and of our determination to ensure that we think of our children always, and not only when hearing of tragedies on television.

For Cedra, for Jennifer, for all the nameless children in our streets, forget the blame and move ahead with our children as the priority. The real tragedy will be to do nothing.

Annabel Murray is an attorney who works on behalf
of children and their families. Judy Sobin is the executive
director of Hawaii Lawyers Care.

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