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For the past three years, Judge Cindy Lederman has walked by a half-dozen statues of playful bear cubs every day on her way up to her high-ceilinged, top-floor office looking out toward Miami’s waterfront. On a shelf behind her desk, below rows of glass awards and family photos, sit two teddy bears. In six months, she’ll take them with her and walk past the statues for the last time.
The stuffed bears are from a program the retiring judge helped start 20 years ago to give every child who came to juvenile court a teddy bear. The building, Miami-Dade County’s three-year-old children’s courthouse, and its bear statutes — meant to be played with by those same unlucky children who find themselves needing court hearings — were a project she began working on with colleagues more than a decade ago to replace Miami-Dade’s previous and notoriously horrible children’s courthouse.
Lederman’s legacy stretches far beyond bears. During her 25-year tenure as a juvenile court judge, including a decade as the court’s top judge, she’s ruled in some of the most important cases to pass through, including that of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, a child lost and apparently killed, and her decision to strike down the state’s gay adoption ban. Lederman has also led a movement to introduce science into the courtroom. Collaborating with child development experts, she transformed the Miami-Dade children’s court. Lederman’s reforms spread around the state and the model she built has been replicated across the country.
She has seen thousands of children in her courtroom, making difficult decisions about foster care, adoption and family reunification. Throughout the decades, she has been a strong advocate for the best, most scientific option in deciding the future of a child.
“She seemed to put her life into it,” said retired Judge Seymour Gelber, a decades-long children’s court judge and mentor of Lederman’s from her early days on the court. (The courthouse was named for him and another former judge, the late William Gladstone.) “She was one of the great things that happened to the juvenile court.”
In court, Lederman moves quickly, conducting her busy courtroom like an orchestra. Children’s court can be chaotic, with case workers from child welfare agencies, lawyers, guardians, parents and relatives moving in and out and speaking out of turn. Lederman stands unfazed behind her bench with the easy authority of experience, making decisive rulings.
This past Monday afternoon, she heard 10 cases in just over an hour. She oversaw an inmate signing away the rights to his three children, shouted down an irate grandfather, reprimanded a child welfare agency for not putting a 3-year-old with developmental delays into treatment quickly enough, told a mother she was responsible for coordinating $7,000 worth of dental work for her children, refused to rule in two cases without more information on related child abuse investigations and pulled over a school bus by calling the driver from the courtroom to ask how his children were doing. It was a light day.
When Lederman arrived at the juvenile court in 1994, the state’s child welfare system was a mess.
“It was almost like we were engaging in criminal behavior every day, the way we were treating these children,” she said.
Lederman got to work. The junior judge had already made waves in county criminal court when she helped establish a separate domestic violence court. Her efforts got her labeled an “agitator” by a superior and earned her an invite to sit on a research committee at the National Academy of Sciences.
“I went to Washington and my whole world — my whole professional, legal world — completely changed,” she said.
Lederman found herself on a committee with some of the nation’s top child psychology researchers. She began to learn about evidence-based practice, and what science said was best for children. She had been a judge for seven years and on the children’s court for one.
“I thought every day I was helping people,” she said, still haunted by those early decisions. “I thought every program I sent a child or parent to was helping them. It never occurred to me that that program could be hurting them.”
Tenacious and curious, Lederman began a campaign to learn more and bring child welfare science into the courtroom, in what she calls the marriage of science and law. She spent the next decade serving on panels, committees and research projects with the National Academy of Sciences, integrating what she learned into her court and starting local research partnerships that continue to this day.
One of her first partners was Dr. Lynne Katz, who runs the Linda Ray Intervention Center for high-risk children at the University of Miami. Katz, whose research focused on babies born with drug exposure, received a subpoena to appear in Lederman’s court in the late ’90s about a child who was in a program at her center.
“We were never invited into court,” Katz said. “No one ever asked our opinions. We would send our reports and they would fall into black holes.”
In court, Lederman told her to approach the bench.
“It was very intimidating,” Katz recalled. “I didn’t know if I’d done something to be arrested. She said, ‘What is this program? What is this center about? Can we have lunch?’ ”
It was the first of many meetings between the two women discussing the overlap between the children they worked with and the expertise they held.
“She said we need to collaborate, and that’s how it began,” Katz said.
Nationwide, juvenile courts, sometimes called children’s courts, are seen as low-status — the bottom of the barrel. They are where new judges go, or judges in trouble. Most don’t stick around long. But Lederman chose to stay.
“It’s a national problem…I don’t know why they think this isn’t real judging,” Lederman said. “To me it’s so difficult and so stressful and so frustrating. But the people who stay here have this passion for it.
“We help children, we help them grow, we change their path. There’s no more important court.”
In Florida, they’ve been going away. Since the early 1990s, juvenile courts across the state have been merging with family courts — which generally handle internal family issues such as divorce, custody and domestic violence. Lederman has fought to keep Miami-Dade Children’s Court independent.
She argues that the separation is important. Children’s court is the one place in the legal system where the child comes first. The court proceedings are about what is best for the child, not what the parents want, a responsibility Lederman takes seriously, and has defended vigorously.
“There’s a canon of ethics in California for juvenile judges that requires you to fight for children, for the needs of children. We don’t have that here,” Lederman said. It’s something she strongly believes in.
“I feel that any child in my division I am ultimately responsible for. Period,” she said. “The judge has to be a leader. The judge has to advocate for the needs of these children. Because if we step back,” the judge says, pausing. She shakes her head. “Imagine.”
Throughout her career, Lederman’s strong principles and willingness to call out behavior she finds unacceptable have brought her attention and no shortage of criticism. Lederman has had her share of fights, facing off with the Department of Children & Families, lawyers who won’t reveal the whereabouts of the underage children they represent and the county public defender.
Lederman has presided over more than an average judge’s share of newsworthy cases, some of which still conjure nightmares. The first that thrust her into the national spotlight was the disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson in 2001. The scandal began when it emerged that DCF had not seen Rilya in 15 months, did not know where she was and had been filing false paperwork that said the girl was fine. The case was one of Lederman’s.
Remembering Rilya, Lederman grows quieter.
“We never found her. Never found her body.” The memory still shakes Lederman. “Just think about it. How could they not have known that that child was missing for all those months when they’re legally obligated to go out every month and see the child? It’s just inexcusable.”
Lederman’s courtroom flooded with reporters from across the country. She made headlines for publicly chewing out DCF for its failures. Rilya’s ordeal led to a new emphasis on keeping track of children in care, and the passage of a state law — the Rilya Wilson Act — that required greater oversight of pre-school-aged children in the child welfare system.
In 2008, in a case that happened behind closed doors, Lederman struck down Florida’s ban on gay adoption. Lederman had a case where a gay man wanted to adopt his foster child. Under Florida law, she could grant him a permanent guardianship instead. Lederman chose not to. She refused to close the case and a four-day trial ensued. A lawyer from the ACLU came down to represent the would-be adoptive father, an expert from the U.K. flew in to testify. Her ruling, later upheld by an appellate court, made national news.
It came back down to science.
“What is the science in terms of ‘are gay and lesbian parents horrible human beings and they destroy their children or not?’ Of course not. And the science was very clear,” she said.
Now, the science is even stronger. And she sees case after case of gay and lesbian parents adopting, bringing children out of the child welfare system and into loving homes.
“It’s just such a beautiful thing. They cherish these children,” she said.
Originally from the Philadelphia area, Lederman came to Florida for college and never left. She’s always kept busy. Between caseloads sometimes as heavy as 23 a day, to giving presentations or writing articles, her schedule is full. But she is finding time to learn the violin, practice French and tend her garden.
Lederman’s last day will be December 21. When asked if she’ll miss it, she answered no, then, immediately, yes.
“After all these years, it’s very painful, you know? My case today was a little girl whose father had raped her year after year after year after year and it’s just — I think a human being who has done it this long needs a little rest,” she said of the grind of being a judge.
An avid traveler, she plans to hit the road with her husband as soon as she retires. First stop: Sydney, Australia to see the New Year’s fireworks over the opera house. After that? She’s not sure.
But Lederman doubts she’ll leave the child welfare world entirely.
Lederman’s to-do list for her final six months is clear: ensure the children in her charge are safe, that the evidence-based work she’s incorporated into the court stays and that Dr. Katz has the tools she needs to continue their work.
“What we’ve tried to do with the work,” she explained, “the concept was that, we’ve transformed the system, so it didn’t really matter who was in charge.”
Though she insists her shoes can be filled, others are less sure.
“When Cindy goes, I really think it will be the end of an era,” said Judge Jeri Cohen, Lederman’s close friend and longtime colleague on the juvenile court bench. “I just don’t know of any other judges who have been able to persevere and do their job so well and make so many innovations and improvements to the system.”
The challenges of helping kids in terrible situations with an imperfect system still remain. Lederman is hopeful the system will continue to improve. That’s one of the reasons she stuck with this court for so long.
“Doing this work changes you,” she said. “You know there’s scientific research about it too. It really changes you, and your outlook on the world and the way you feel about humanity. So you have to step back for a while I think, to kind of — what would the word be? — heal.”