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Family Court Judge Tracy Sheehan gets tough to help kids


The game: chicken. The opponents: a judge versus a woman with 12 homeless children and 12 suitcases of attitude.

State agencies had a rent-free house ready for the mother and kids. All she had to do was answer one question from Family Court Judge Tracy Sheehan: Was she pregnant again? The mom and the judge had battled through 31 hearings over two years. At hearing No. 32, when the judge asked if she was pregnant, she simply gazed at the ceiling.

But if she had peeked inside the judge's office, she might have figured this was a standoff she couldn't win.

Beyond the 2008 breast cancer calendar (the judge was Miss May), the dozens of snapshots of small kids, the Harley photo, the bumper sticker that says, "Screw it, let's ride," was a firing range target. The target showed a man riddled with bullet holes. It showed one shot below the left eye, two in the neck, four in the lungs and three in the heart.

It showed one last shot below his belt buckle.

The mom got a last chance to answer.

Again, she looked away.


Judge ruled her in contempt of court.


Bailiffs took her straight to jail.


State retracted house offer.


State took custody of 12 kids.

By the time the mom got out of jail two days later, she'd lost everything.

Don't play chicken with Judge Tracy Sheehan.

• • •

To explain her toughness, Sheehan's friends call her "the Alaskan wilderness girl." She grew up south of Fairbanks. As her family likes to say, their home met the modern definition of frontier — it was a hundred miles from the nearest McDonald's. The local magistrate ran the gas station and liquor store.

Sheehan goes back twice a year to a cabin in the mountains. It has bear shutters. Another of Sheehan's bumper stickers describes the amenities: "No water, no toilet, no problem."

In Tampa, the 50-year-old judge rides a 2005 Harley-Davidson Road King Custom that outweighs her by 600 pounds. She packs a raspberry-colored .380 semiautomatic pistol.

She's a good shot but doesn't hunt. When she comes home from court, after presiding as Solomon over the lives of scores of small children and parents deep in trouble, she vents to her favorite confidant, her Labrador retriever.

"Molly, you should see what Mommy saw today."

She is small, solid muscle, curses like a biker outlaw, refers to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan as "kinda skanky" and, not long ago, facing breast cancer twice, made a bargain with God that she would do good for others if she lived.

• • •

Sheehan dropped into the Lower 48 to study journalism at Washington State University and somehow never made it home. But Alaska never left her. When she steps off a plane in Fairbanks, the mountains still take her breath away.

Three decades ago, she worked as an itinerant reporter and anchor at stations in Washington state and Tennessee. Back then, her name was Brenda. A station in Chattanooga thought the name Brenda was boring. It renamed her Tracy. She kept the name when she landed at WTSP-Ch. 10 in Tampa in 1985.

She married briefly while at Ch. 10. Her husband wanted a Harley. She told him she wasn't hanging out with any tattoo crowd. But she took a ride and was hooked. She bought her own Fatboy.

Sheehan wanted out of television. TV reporting usually means moving every two years. She wanted to settle down back in Alaska. The best way home looked like law school.

Tampa private investigator Kevin Kalwary, then a reporter at Ch. 10, remembers that the station rarely let reporters out of their contracts. When Sheehan asked to leave, the answer was no.

"So," Kalwary said, "Tracy came to work with her hair dyed blue."

Within days, she was out of her contract and on her way to Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.

• • •

A law degree didn't get her home to Alaska.

Sheehan was offered a job by Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen, whom she had watched in trial. She swore she would do anything to work for him, even carry his briefcase.

Cohen planned a whole defense around her swearing-in as a lawyer. First, he asked the late Judge "Hangin' Harry" Coe to perform the ceremonial swearing-in during a recess. Then he arranged for Sheehan to defend a drug dealer before Coe the same day — even though the judge had already hammered a co-defendant with a 10-year sentence.

"I figured Coe wouldn't let Tracy's first client go to jail," Cohen said.

Their defendant got probation.

Sheehan worked for Cohen as an associate, then joined the Public Defender's Office for more trial experience, then returned to Cohen's firm as a partner.

In 2002, at 42, she got her first diagnosis of breast cancer. She got rid of it with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

At the Harbour Island Athletic Club, members saw Sheehan come in, sick from chemo, in pain from surgeries, to work out on a spinning cycle. Another breast cancer survivor who worked out at the gym — former Hillsborough County Commissioner Dottie Berger MacKinnon — had endured 11 surgeries. Friends urged her to speak to Sheehan.

MacKinnon approached Sheehan as she ran on a treadmill. "Don't worry," MacKinnon said, "in a year you'll barely remember."

The morale boosting fell short of its desired effect.

"A year?" Sheehan cried. "A whole year?"

MacKinnon found a better motivation to offer. She had helped found the Joshua House, a haven for abused children, in 1992. Those children always needed a good lawyer.

The cancer had shaken Sheehan's value system.

"When the cloud finally lifted, digging right back into making money felt so dissatisfying," she said. "I prayed to God, 'Let me live, I'll do good.' "

She considered joining the Peace Corps or teaching, but could see that MacKinnon offered the perfect answer. She spent the next six months taking pro bono cases for foster kids and working on child welfare projects.

More prayer would be needed. Three years later, the cancer came back. She was left no choice but a double mastectomy. She endured breast reconstruction, then ran for circuit judge in 2007.

She donated $100,000 out of her retirement account to a new project by MacKinnon — to build a shelter for children in Brandon. It was called A Kid's Place.

Sheehan figured she'd either live long enough to rebuild her retirement fund, or die so young that it wouldn't make any difference.

• • •

Between building a law career and fighting for her life, motherhood never came Sheehan's way, at least not biologically. Her office has three large bulletin boards that overflow with snapshots of small children who came to her court and have since been adopted.

Each month for the past three years has brought 20 to 30 new cases. Each case comes with a decision: to try to rehabilitate a neglectful or abusive set of parents, or to take away their children — sometimes as many as a dozen at once — and try to find new, safer homes for them. Each case leads to a venting by Sheehan to her dog: "What do I do, Molly? What do I do?"

In criminal law, it's not such a difficult question. Judges call the balls and strikes. They apply the law. But family court judges rely much more on intuition, on their gut.

Her first test as a family court judge came on Jan. 27, 2007. The test was a little boy named Choo-Choo. His parents were IV drug users. They begged Sheehan for another chance. "I told them, 'You have to get it together.' They said, 'We will, we will.' "

Within weeks, the parents were back on the streets.

Sheehan took Choo-Choo away from them.

She has a new photo of the boy, now a toddler, pinned on her overflowing bulletin board. It shows him riding on a toy, grinning. He's thriving with an adoptive family.

"He's one child who won't grow old in the system," she said. "He's the luckiest little guy in the world."

Kids need permanency, she said. That's why she ended the game of chicken with the mother of 12.

"I have no patience for delaying permanency," she said. "I have zero tolerance for diddle-daddling."

Diddle-daddling is a word she began using after she caught herself telling a neglectful parent in court that she would tolerate no more "fiddle-f------."

Hey, she's an Alaskan wilderness girl.

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or [email protected]

Family Court Judge Tracy Sheehan gets tough to help kids 05/21/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 21, 2010 9:31pm]
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