Judge Manning: Too Many Children Fending For Themselves

Judge Manning: Too Many Children Fending For Themselves

Spread your wings, Arkansas, and take underneath them the welfare of the children in your neighborhood. For our next generation to thrive, the children must have that guidance and strength from their communities, says Tjuana Byrd Manning, Juvenile Circuit Court Judge in Pulaski and Perry counties. So many children are overlooked in Arkansas today.

“Children are too often fending for themselves. They are trying to figure out what they’re going to eat. They have parents who either don’t have the capacity or are stretched too thin, or have their own adverse childhood experiences that have carried over into their parenting.

“And so kids find themselves just struggling to survive, doing the best they can. But it’s way short of what is needed for kids to be healthy and make the kind of progress that we want them to make."

“I feel like, somewhere along the way, we lost the sense of community that I grew up with. My neighbors were part of my experience; if there was an adult around me, that person had some say, an influence in what was going to happen with me.”

In many families, generational problems, traumas and poverty feel normal.

“Clearly, what the parent or parents have experienced plays over into what our children are seeing and are experiencing, if not addressed. Kids find themselves just struggling to survive, doing the best they can. But it’s way short of what is needed for kids to be healthy and make the kind of prog- ress that we want them to make,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s happening on our watch.”

Fresh from law school, Manning worked in Juvenile Court for Circuit Judge Joyce Warren. “And the bug hit me,” she said. “I knew that was the work that I wanted to wake up to in the morning and do. Judge Warren is one of the smartest people I know. She knew the law; she was super smart. But there was this ‘Aunt Joyce effect’ with the way she managed the people in our courtroom. And I had to say,"I want to be that when I grow up...I need to be part of the solution to improve the status of our kids."

“We all have a responsibility. It’s everybody’s responsibility. Our society is what we make it, what we put into it, how we contribute to it,” she says.

Manning’s wish list includes more therapists who are willing to work with children.

“For the therapists who are in these private practices, who are doing a great job at the work that they do, if they could carve out a space for a child or two who are part of this process. We need more therapy for our children. I would imagine it’s hard. I know it’s probably draining, but our kids need it.”

She also longs for peer mentors to support parents who face lost custody of their children, because those parents struggle to see the state’s efforts as helpful, rather than oppositional.

“Matching people who’ve had the experience of the foster care system, of being a parent who had to go through this process and successfully reunify with their family, with parents that are going through the process,” she says.

“Because a lot of times the court is expecting the parents to do most of the work, to change the situation, to be able to put the family back together. And if people who have successfully done that could handhold, walk together with, explain that although this feels like everyone is against you, the objective is to get your family together – and the quicker you can fix your mind to that, the more success you are likely to have.

“When families get back together, they often realize, ‘I thought you were against me, but I now see that this family service worker is my best friend.’ That doesn’t happen all the time, but the sooner that they could get to that point, it chang- es the mindset of the parent to believe that this process is about keeping families together and then putting them back together when they’ve had to be separated.”

Judge Manning oversees cases involving delinquency, Families in Need of Services, and child welfare or dependency neglect cases where children are removed from the legal custody of their parents to protect them from a risk of harm, abuse or neglect. Often there are mental health and substance use issues, or parents face criminal charges and there’s no other legal caretaker for a child.

“The most amazing days for me are the days when I can play, because I’m good about queuing up a song on YouTube when we know something good is going to happen. When a family is able to reunify, because a parent has worked his or her butt off to make sure that their child knows that they are a priority, I que up ‘Happy’ or ‘Celebrate,’ and we have a party. When families can’t get back together, when a child gets a forever family, we make a celebration about that, too.

“The community was part of making me who I am, so I feel a responsibility to do that for others. Then when the community is involved with families, kids are less likely to become part of any of the court systems to begin with.”

“I feel like, somewhere along the way, we lost the sense of community that I grew up with. My neighbors were part of my experience.”

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

The podcast is available on all major podcasting platforms.

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