"What to do with James?" a film produced by Rich Field Productions of Takoma Park, Md. portrays three months in the life of James Morrison, a fictional character who reenacts a real-life drama played out in Washington's juvenile court system daily.
For nearly 90 minutes, the players in the film argue about the future of James, a mentally disabled youth whose "case" questions whether adequate city services are available for young offenders who are also mentally disabled.
"What are we going to do with you, James?" they ask.
He steals and allows rough boys in his class to lead him around. When afraid, his baleful brown eyes well up with tears as he stammers a reply.
The fictional James is a seventh grade student who functions on the academic level of an 8-year-old test scores show. At age 15, he doesn't know his birthdate - 1972?" he ventures - or his home address.
His distraught mother works two jobs and can't find help for him through the juvenile court system. Private special education schools don't want James because he's a behavior problem, she laments, and the court programs don't know how to help mentally retarded youths.
"I just don't know what's going to happen to James next," says Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler in the film, admitting she has no solution to his problems.
The film and its theme were the subjects of a recent juvenile awareness workshop sponsored by the Department of Human Resources and attended by nearly 30 youth workers and counselors.
Don Hammer, director of the Georgetown Adolescent Intervention Team (GAIT), which evaluates court-referred youth believed to be mentally handicapped, told workshop participants that James Morrison is typical of youths GAIT sees in its program.
About 5,000 youths are arrested in the city each year, Hammer said. An estimated 200-250 of the youth are referred to GAIT annually but only 75-100 need testing, he said.
"The (other youth don't) need a psychological evaluation but a big brother," Hammer said.
GAIT services to District youths began about three years ago after D.C. Superior Court Judge John Fauntroy asked Yetta Galiber to consider ways to obtain evaluations of young offenders who appear to be mentally disabled, Hammer said. Galiber, executive director of the D.C. Information Center for Handicapped Individuals, asked Georgetown to conduct diagnostic evaluations of the court-referred youth. Evaluations include testing for speech, hearing and mental problems.
The color film was funded by the school's child development center and featured real-life attorneys, Superior Court Workers, police officers and D.C. Superior Court Judges Kessler and Fauntroy.
The roles of James and Mrs. Morrison were played by Chuck Lewis, a senior at the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts and local resident Deborah Johnson, the mother of a learning disabled child.
Despite the film's good intentions, Galiber bristles with anger at the mention of the docu-drama.
"I don't like it," she says emphatically. "Of course, some of the youths are developmentally disabled, but James didn't sound to me any different than any other (normal) child who comes through the D.C. school system."
Most of the youths who come the court are not retarded, Galiber said. "They're not functioning because someone decided they could not learn and has programmed them to fail!"
Galiber contends that most of the youths who come through juvenile court system are victims of unstable homes and a backward school system trying to cover its own deficiencies by labeling the youths as retarded.
"I know the're educationally deprived," she insists.
In 1976, Galiber's office conducted a study of 129 males ages 16 to 21 who were confined at Lorton prison. Of those tested, about 40 percent were functioning at the third grade level and about 60 percent at the fourth grade level and below, she said. A study of 94 males admitted to the Lorton youth center the same year revealed most are functioning at the seventh grade level.
The "labels" and misleading information feeds the prejudices some people have about mentally disabled, she said. And now the revised federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is so broad "the legislation now doesn't even identify the problems," she adds.
She said her anger over the film also stems from the negative ending, showing a black child helplessly trapped in a white justice system that says it has no solutions for his problems.
In comparison, she offers an upbeat film, "Would We Not Long for the Fair?" produced by the National Association for Retarded Citizens. The film features white actors and persons who actually are retarded as successful, productive citizens aided by neighbors who have taken the time to understand their problems.
"I get so upset (about the film) I can't even talk," she said choking on emotion.
And James? As the film credits roll across youths tearful face, the judge implies that there is little available in the court system to offer the youth other than certain imprisonment.