Camp turns kids into mini-sleuths, sets criminal justice focus at early age

Camp turns kids into mini-sleuths

(Miami Herald) – Shayna Grife carefully studied the ridges that her thumb left in the ketchup when she placed her finger on a piece of cardboard in front of her.

The pint-size sleuth studied the lines looking for arches, loops and whorls, wanting to know what kind of fingerprint she left.

”You can see it the best in the lipstick,” the 9-year-old said, as she used a magnifier to look at her board, colorfully marked by mustard, peanut butter and chocolate impressions. “I never realized there were different kinds of fingerprints.”

Shayna, who sneaked a quick taste of the chocolate, is one of about 25 children ages 7 to 12 who are part of a summer program at the North Miami Public Library to learn about how to investigate a crime scene.

North Miami Crime Scene Investigator Sharon L. Plotkin, who has been with the department’s CSI Unit for 14 years, is taking time from her world of yellow tape and plastic gloves to teach children about evidence at a crime scene, making invisible fingerprints visible and studying shoe imprints.

Once a week for six weeks, the gumshoes-in-training don special police badges and listen to stories, answer logic questions and then delve into the world of CSI.

Some, barely old enough to know what the word forensic means, now know that fingerprints left on coffee cups and DNA samples taken from lipstick can help solve crimes. Last week, a mannequin lay on the floor of the library. Eight-year-old Valencia Thoby said she walked around the ”body” dozens of times to look for something that might help police determine what happened.

”I was looking for anything that could have DNA,” said Valencia, with a grin.

At a recent lesson, the children rubbed their hands on their hair, foreheads and noses at Plotkin’s urging to get their hands oily. Then they touched clear plastic drinking cups to see what evidence remained.

Then, it was time to thrust fingers into a smorgasbord of food and cosmetics to compare the kinds of fingerprint impressions left with each substance.

At least, they tried to — some of the substances left impressions on the kids.

”I can’t get the peanut butter off my finger,” Shayna said. “It doesn’t want to stick to the paper.”


Sponsored by Friends of North Miami Public Library and the Dade Community Foundation, the camp uses forensic investigation as a way to encourage reading and critical thinking skills in children. Freelance storyteller Melinda Munger told tales and presented some logic puzzlers designed, she said, “to get little brains thinking.”

The program also shows children that not everything they see in television shows like CSI: Miami and Law and Order reflects reality. She said the program helps children appreciate that the work of real-life investigators is not as glamorous as it is on television, she said.

”For one thing, crimes don’t get solved in an hour,” she said. “Unfortunately, people see these shows and think that’s easy, but there really is a science to the job.”


North Miami Police Chief Clint Shannon said the program also helps give children an awareness of law enforcement they wouldn’t otherwise have. ”We are hoping children will see a different side of law enforcement and get interested,” he said.

Shayna’s 11-year-old brother, Noah, said now when he watches CSI, he tries to solve the crimes along with characters.

‘Now I watch it and say `That would never happen in real life,’ ” Noah said.

Plotkin said her job also requires reading, writing, deductive reasoning, curiosity and intuitiveness — all skills she hopes the children will enhance by the end of the course. She hopes that by camp’s end some of the budding investigators will be on their way to future careers.

”We want them to look beyond the obvious,” she said. “CSI is all about using evidence to solve a crime.”

Rhode St. Fort, 11, said he has added police work to his prospects for the future after he realized he was good at it.

”I want to be a doctor and a CSI,” he said. “Then I can save people and solve crimes.”

© 2008 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

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