The Exeter Bulletin — Summer 2001
Stephen Cahn '58
July 15, 2001
Turning Lives Around
Thinking on his feet, attorney Stephen Cahn '58 may have only minutes to come up with a creative solution that could turn a life around. Cahn devotes his practice to representing the interests of young people in the Massachusetts Juvenile Court system. That often means devising a strategy that will not only satisfy a judge, but also address the very complex needs of a child from a complicated home situation. His style has been called "creative lawyering."
In a field filled with often emotionally wrenching issues, Cahn says he draws his energy from "the limited successes, the kids who succeed or at least do better, the ones who go on to live their adult lives with meaning." He recalls one such case. "One client came to me in serious trouble. He had assaulted a judge's son. The boy was committed to the Department of Youth Services and later came out. He still had a temper, and I defended him twice after that. He then married. He now has several children and works as a truck driver. Whenever he sees me on the street, he stops to talk. I believe that it means a lot to these young people when someone sticks with them."
Cahn is committed to working on solutions to the underlying problems that face his young clients. He devotes his time and fund-raising skills to boards and committees that deal with issues concerning youth services; he also serves on advocacy groups for children's justice. He has long served Y.O.U. Inc., a group that provides educational, therapeutic and residential services for troubled children. Since 1988, he has served as a board member of the Children's Trust Fund, an organization that provides and promotes programs that prevent child abuse. The Child Welfare League of America recently cited Cahn for his work with its New England Region Award. He is also active in the National Association of Counsel for Children, a multidisciplinary organization whose purpose is to train and support children's advocates.
"Over the years the pathology of kids has changed," Cahn observes. "There has been an increase in damaged children, both physically and psychologically. Abuse and neglect in the home have serious long-term effects. Treatment of these kids becomes more and more expensive, and shrinking resources continue to be a problem." Cahn also points to an increase in the use of weapons by kids. "When I was first in practice, fists were the way to settle arguments. Now I think children often carry guns because they are afraid that others are carrying them."
He sees truancy as a larger issue than in the past, and suspects that testing may play a part in this. "These kids are worried that they will not pass and that they will never get a diploma, so they just don't bother."
But Cahn does see reason for hope. At least in his home state of Massachusetts, lawyers who opt for public policy work are better paid than in the past, although the salary scale is still well below that for other brands of law. Six years ago, Cahn decided to limit his practice solely to juvenile court cases and accepts these lower fees for his work.
He also highlights figures showing that despite an increase in news coverage of young people who violate the law, there has actually been a drop in juvenile crime. He observes, "There have been some signs of people veering away from the strict law-and-order approach, and working to find more rehabilitative ways of dealing with kids and crime." Certainly, Cahn is a fine example of this trend.
— Julie Quinn