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Reviewed by:
  • Gateway to Justice: The Juvenile Court and Progressive Child Welfare in a Southern City
  • Stephen Robertson
Gateway to Justice: The Juvenile Court and Progressive Child Welfare in a Southern City. By Jennifer Trost ( Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. xi plus 209 pp.).

Gateway to Justice meets a longstanding need for a study of the development of the juvenile justice system in the context of the American South. The southern city on which it focuses is Memphis, Tennessee. Jennifer Trost argues that several features of the city's juvenile court were distinctively southern, of which the treatment of race emerges most clearly in the book. Notwithstanding those regional variations, what is perhaps most striking about juvenile justice in Memphis is how similar to other parts of the United States were its origins, personnel and practices. Beyond its southern focus, the book also makes two broader contributions to advancing how we understand the juvenile court system. Trost locates the juvenile court within the context of the city's Progressive-era child welfare institutions and organizations, revealing how it operated as a gateway to that network. She also highlights the role the court performed in regard to dependent children, positioning that group as the objects of the court's work fully as much as the delinquent children who occupy most historians of juvenile justice.

The southern character of the Memphis cat g urt lay, Trost concludes, in part in "the levels of cooperation achieved between strong private activism and developing public institutions" (157), in contrast to the withering away of private organizations that accompanied public responsibility in other regions of the United States. That argument is not entirely convincing, in part because in Memphis public institutions dealt with delinquent children, and private organizations with dependent children, a group that, as Trost argues elsewhere in the [End Page 772] book, have been neglected in studies of other parts of the United States. Moreover, in New York City and Chicago, private organizations remained as integral a part of child welfare provision as was the case in Memphis, and acted on behalf of the state. The cooperation between public and private looks more like a trait Memphis shared with much of the rest of the nation—and despite the assumption that the southern experience would be different, much of Memphis story is familiar from accounts of juvenile justice elsewhere in the United States: the important role of middle-class reformers, particularly women; the incorporation of psychiatric evaluations; an increasingly professional staff; and a concern with efficiency.

It is the race relations that existed in the Memphis court that most clearly distinguished it from those outside the south. Blacks were segregated: cases involving blacks were heard on different days of the week from those involving whites; detention homes and court staff were segregated by race; fewer resources were devoted to black children; and consequently, the court less often prescribed supervision, treatment or punishment for black children. Few of the dependent children dealt with by the court were black, perhaps because black families avoided the legal system. Where the court paid attention to sexual behavior when it dealt with delinquent whites girls, it concerned itself only with the criminal activity of black girls, notwithstanding their families' anxiety about girls' sexuality. The black boys it dealt with generally faced more serious charges than their white counterparts.

Trost's achievement is not simply to give us a picture of a southern court, but to reconceptualize how juvenile courts are viewed. The third, and best, chapter of the book highlights the role that the Memphis court played as the "central node" (75) in a network of public and private agencies and charitable and correctional institutions that dealt with juvenile delinquency and poverty, directing children from one place to another. That position meant that the court's work went far beyond its ostensible task of responding to delinquent behavior. It operated as a social welfare agency, dealing also with dependent children.

Trost goes on to argue "to fully understand the operations of juvenile courts in the Progressive era, we need to examine their welfare work with dependent children as fully as their work with delinquent children" (92). Younger than...


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