Working with Teens is a Matter of Building Trust

Benjamin KaplanBenjamin Kaplan understands why the kids he works with no longer trust adults. By the time they enter his world, most have been abused, neglected or mistreated countless times by the adults who were supposed to keep them safe.

So if he tells a young offender he’ll call on Tuesday, he makes sure he calls on Tuesday. He doesn’t say “see you later” unless he really means he’ll see that teen later. And he tries to view his young clients for who they are in the moment – a traumatized kid in a bad situation – not for what they’ve done.

“A lot of what I do is simply about building trust,” he said. “I try to establish a relationship with them.”

Kaplan works with juvenile offenders as a mitigation specialist for the Department of Public Defense, a position similar to that of a social worker in that he helps his clients get much-needed services. His position is called mitigation specialist, however, because of another important role he plays: He takes a close look at what led that young person into the criminal justice system – the “mitigating circumstances” the attorney presents to the court to secure the best legal outcome for the client.

Many of his clients, for instance, have been charged with a sexual offense – from indecent exposure to molestation to rape. He ferrets out the teen’s history, discovers a troubled past and then uses that information to advocate for treatment rather than incarceration.

“The majority of these kids are not criminally inclined. They’re poorly socialized and don’t know how to express themselves,” Kaplan said. Labeling them a sex offender at a young age is tantamount to marking them with a scarlet letter for life. “And if we throw someone away at 13, what does that say about us as a society?” he asked. Read more.

(Reprinted from the Department of Public Defense’s For The Defense newsletter.)