THE judges who preside over the nation's juvenile courts see it as it is. Now they are starting to tell it as it is. Several years ago a select group of jurists representing the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges launched a comprehensive probe of how the nation's courts handle the delicate matter of sexual abuse of very young children.
Child molestation, surrounded by all its social horror, was a relatively new phenomenon for US courts. The system was not ready for it.
The council of judges, however, was willing to face up to the immensity of the problem and the courts' inadequacy to deal with it. A series of studies, conferences, and reports got social workers talking to court personnel, judges sharing ideas with medical and psychological experts who interview molested children, and communities alerting themselves to the intricacies of abuse.
Among other things, the judges made recommendations to strengthen the prosecutorial process while protecting the constitutional rights of defendants. Now about 20 states have adopted laws stemming directly from the work of the juvenile judges.
Today, these judges are engaged in another social project - one that deals with the underlying symptoms of alcohol and drug abuse that spills into their courtrooms in up to 90 percent of child-related cases.
A recently issued position paper terms substance abuse by juveniles a ``moral and spiritual dilemma'' that faces society - one that particularly plagues the family. It charges parents with the prime responsibility for preventing their children's use of substances - through example and enlightened teaching.
The tone of this document - which awaits final ratification by the juvenile judges association - is not finger-pointing. It is rather one of reconciliation and healing.
There are specific points that are worth heeding. Among them:
The need for society to firmly reject drug and alcohol abuse as acceptable behavior.
It is encouraging to see that the judges clearly point out the ambivalence that many families have about drugs - on the one hand condemning the use of certain chemical substances but on the other filling their medicine cabinets with prescribed pills and drugs and their refrigerators with alcoholic beverages.
In other words, there are ``good'' drugs and ``bad'' drugs, ``social lubricant'' liquors and life-threatening booze.
``Popular culture in America has consistently glamorized the use of substances,'' the judges point out. ``[But] seldom is there a distinction made to suggest that `good' times can have bad consequences,'' they add.
Tobacco, along with alcohol, is a ``gateway'' drug through which youth enter into more serious substance abuse.
It is significant that at a time when courts are just starting to hold cigarette companies at least partly liable for the detrimental effects of smoking, a prominent group of juvenile judges is characterizing the use of tobacco as a first step toward serious substance abuse.
Some studies show the current average age for first use of tobacco as 11; for alcohol it is 12.
``During the 1980s, experimentation with these gateway drugs has become a `rite of passage,' or transitional experience, from childhood to adolescence,'' the council of judges' draft report points out.
It goes on to say that not more than a decade ago, this use - and possible abuse - was a ``late adolescent experience'' and associated with youth's transition to adulthood.
Federal and state statutes should be enacted to limit advertising and to place warning labels on alcohol and other dangerous products.
This idea is not entirely new. Lawmakers are often very uneasy about putting such stipulations on products. And cigarettemakers and liquor manufacturers stress that they have a constitutional right to advertise.
Perhaps they do. Society, however, also has a right to protect its children from harmful and addictive products.
The juvenile judges would place the burden on industry to limit advertising of those alcoholic beverages that most influence juveniles; clearly identify products that are illegal for consumption by minors and harmful to their health; and require manufacturers to assume some of the cost for juvenile abuse prevention and treatment through special fee assessments.
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges also recommends that existing state ``dram shop'' laws be extended to hold adult providers of substances liable for damage caused by an impaired minor to whom they have sold or supplied alcohol or other drugs.
To focus national attention on their efforts, the council is sponsoring a major conference on substance abuse in late September in New Orleans.
A Thursday column