By: Professor Amy D. Ronner J.D. Ph.D., Professor of Law, St. Thomas University School of Law.

Abstract

Undeniably, the physical and psychological abuse of children is a recurrent theme in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s fiction and journalism, particularly in The Brothers Karamazov and A Writer’s Diary.  In three parts, this paper explores Dostoevsky’s fixation with childhood suffering and suggests that he implicitly predicted the core tenets of a relatively new legal movement, called “therapeutic jurisprudence” (“TJ”).  Part I tells the story of how in 1873, a humanitarian, Etta Angell Wheeler, met nine-year old Mary Ellen Wilson and how together they alerted the world to the hidden epidemic of child abuse and to the need for radical reform. This part advances in time to focus on child abuse statistics and victims today in the United States. Part II, turning to TJ, an interdisciplinary approach to law with a focus on healing, defines the core components of therapeutic justice: voice, validation and voluntary participation. The centerpiece of this part is Judge Cindy S. Lederman, an expert in mental health interventions in juvenile court and a jurist whose life’s passion is saving children. Almost daily, Judge Lederman confronts dysfunctional families and sees every conceivable form of neglect that a child can endure.  Here the paper describes how Judge Lederman, applying TJ principles to children and parents, offers guidance, motivation, and techniques for healing the family. Part III revisits Dostoevsky, who wrote many of his great novels in the wake of the Russian legal reforms in 1864, and shows how his depiction of child abuse anticipated therapeutic jurisprudence, along with its innovative approach to protecting maltreated children.  The Conclusion attempts to answer the overarching question of why all of this matters.  In so doing, the paper not only identifies Dostoevsky as an early ombudsman for therapeutic juvenile justice, but expounds upon his transcendent concept of merciful jurisprudence as one granting voice, validation, and voluntary participation to each and every tiny soul.