Rebecca Nathanson has one goal in mind: make sure children can tell their story in court.
"The reality is, many people don't think kids belong in court, but it's always been important to me for kids to be able to tell their story in court," said the James E. Rogers Professor of Education and Law.
The Kids' Court School, established in 2002 by Nathanson, educates children about the courtroom process, reduces their anxiety before legal proceedings, and helps facilitate their ability to tell their story in court.
The program has garnered national recognition as a model for children's courtroom education. In 2012, it won Harvard University's Bright Ideas award, a recognition given to programs that can be models for improving government at different levels.
"My career has focused on examining the capabilities and limitations of children, with a specific interest in kids with disabilities," said Professor Nathanson. "I began this as a research fellow at UCLA Medical School, and over the years I've developed various strategies to enhance the completeness and accuracy of children's reports. It is from this work that the Kids' Court School evolved, a program I take great pride in since it has the potential of helping so many children and youth."
The program's curriculum is not only evidence-based but standardized, so that parties on all sides of a case know what participants are being taught.
Research conducted by Nathanson last year shows that the Kids' Court School does indeed reduce children's level of stress.
"This research is exciting because it's helping instill more confidence in kids. It could potentially affect the way people look at kids in the legal system," said Nathanson.
Since December, Nathanson has turned her attention to research exploring attorneys' and guardians' perceptions of Kids' Court School.
"We think parents who are hesitant to have their kids testify would be more comfortable if they perceived their kids' anxiety as lessened," said Nathanson. "The second implication of our research is if attorneys perceive their clients' anxiety as less, it may increase their confidence in their clients' ability to testify in court. Many attorneys are hesitant about putting kids on the stand, but it's important that they do."
Kids' Court School was developed originally for child witnesses, but the curriculum more recently has been expanded to help juvenile delinquents. Recently, Nathanson and her team began collecting data on the efficacy of this component of the Kids' Court School.
"The juvenile system has been sending to us juveniles who are about to stand trial. Because of the need to remediate juvenile competency in this community and country, we began developing an additional curriculum for kids involved in delinquency proceedings," Nathanson said.
Soon, she will undertake research to determine attorneys' and judges' perceptions of the credibility of children who go through the Kids' Court School. In the near future, she will start another study to determine if juveniles have the ability to stand trial, or if developmental issues - problem-solving or decision-making skills - preclude that.
"We want to explore if the development of such processes, which typically develop in later adolescence, can be accelerated through the Kids' Court School," Nathanson said.
Since opening in 2002, more than 740 children have participated in the Kids' Court School.
"It gives me great pride that many of these kids who wouldn't have had a voice, did," Nathanson said.