In the classic 1938 movie, Boys Town, Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan pleads with his bishop to let him open a home for troubled boys.
"If there's one thing I know, I really know. There's no such thing in the world as a bad boy," the priest said. "I'm sure of that." In the movie, boys are getting into trouble for stealing salamis and throwing rocks at windows.
In the real world of Minneapolis in the 1980's juvenile crime became a much more serious matter. When Allen Oleisky took over as juvenile court judge then, children went from settling disputes with fists and baseball bats to automatic weapons.
"There are bad children," he said, "kids for one reason or another sociopathic personalities, psychopathic personalities. Kids who you see as juveniles committing crimes at early ages, you see them coming into the adult system."
Oleisky is credited with helping juvenile court adapt to an increase in the number and severity of delinquency cases. He changed the courts from just viewing children as juveniles but also taking into consideration the severity of the crime committed.
If a child shoplifted, Oleisky typically didn't send him to the county home school. But if the child committed a more serious crime like robbery or assault, that child would have more serious consequences.
Oleisky said that means in some cases adds that many children can be saved because their behavior is a result of their environments: poverty, drugs, and violence. He said it's extremely difficult for children who grow up with absent or abusive parents.
Juvenile court judges may decide to terminate parental rights and place a child in foster care. In these cases he said there is no right decision only the least destructive. He said severing the bonds between a child and a parent is traumatic and remembers one case.
"The therapist thought is would be good for a final goodbye, and we had it in the courthouse," he said. "It was so sad because the little girl started crying, and I don't think there was a dry eye among any of us in the courtroom that day. When the finality of the situation came upon this nine-year-old girl that she wasn't going to have a mom anymore, even though this mom couldn't care for her."
But Oleisky said the girl grew into a productive adult.
"You know, I think she finally turned out pretty good," he said. "It's amazing, the resilience of so many kids that they bounce back."
Oleisky sees a mixed future for today's children. On one hand, he's optimistic that there are many dedicated people trying to help. Yet while he says children can be remarkably resilient, poverty, guns and gangs are taking their toll.
"I think unless we make some changes, we're going to reap what we sow," he said. "And we're seeing an increase in violence among our young adults--the 17, 18, 19 and 20 year olds -- murders, gangs, drugs and turf wars. I don't think it's a real pretty picture."
Oleisky said the picture doesn't need to be that dark. He said communities should focus more of their resources on intervening earlier in children's lives by helping their families, particularly those living in poverty. He said mentoring programs are critical.
"Kids who have role models give them some stability, someone they can look up to, somebody that's going to be there for them." he said.
"Just think if you're a single parent and you've got three or four kids. Boy, and you're trying to support that family, take care of the home, and raise other children. It's pretty hard for a two-parent family to do it, and one parent is usually overwhelmed. So, if you have those resources, it's going to make a difference."
Oleisky said convincing the public that putting money into prevention is a hard sell.