It's been nearly a year since Circuit Court Judge Tracy Sheehan was reassigned from Juvenile Court in Tampa to the satellite court house in Plant City to hear family law, divorce and probate cases. • Since being elected to the court in 2007, Sheehan, 53, has built a reputation as being tough on abusive and neglectful parents while having a soft spot for children's causes. She once donated $100,000 from her retirement fund to build a children's shelter. • Then came the war of words with the Hillsborough County's Public Defender's Office in June 2012. • After a supervisor at the office called off a deal that Sheehan says would have lessened the time a teenage boy spent in a juvenile facility, she called Assistant Public Defender Kay Murray "an inept and mean-spirited individual who publicly berates her underlings." Sheehan was reassigned to Plant City as punishment. • A Harley-Davidson riding, self-professed gym rat, Sheehan grew up in Alaska and worked as a TV reporter at WTSP-Ch 10 in Tampa before attending Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. She went on to work with Tampa defense attorney Barry Cohen and to open her own practice. Helping troubled kids became an outlet after two bouts of breast cancer. Three bulletin boards brimming with photos of children she's helped as a judge adorn her office. • Sheehan recently spoke with the Times' Rich Shopes about how she's adjusting to the slower pace of Plant City and about her time in Tampa overseeing hundreds of juvenile cases, from adoptions to domestic abuse to crimes by children.
How are you getting along in Plant City?
We get assigned where we get assigned but this is a pretty good gig. The court house is wonderful: the building, the staff, the clerk's office, the lawyers. Everybody does their work. My preference is to work on juvenile cases. In family law you still have a chance to do good and to have this sense of contributing, but that feeling of wearing a white hat happens a lot less often in these types of cases.
What did you like about presiding over juvenile cases?
It was rewarding helping families, helping children to have a better situation with their parents or otherwise, helping people navigate the courts and the big bureaucracy of the system. I was gratified to be in a position to help and to see families do better. For every nice story, there is an ugly story that you hear. Somehow you have to look beyond the ugliness.
Tell me about the frustrating side of juvenile cases.
So often you have parents come in and say, "Judge, I'm sick of this kid. You take him." It just blows me away. Families are struggling. Even for those of us who are resourceful it's difficult. The system isn't cut out to raise kids, in particular the older kids who get into trouble. I remember the situation with Jared Cano (charged with planning a bombing at Freedom High School in August 2011). He was arrested the night before and the next morning he's in court in his beige jumper. His hair was in his face and he looked hurt and shocked, like a little kid. I said, "Where is your family?" And he said, "I don't know." I said, "Where is your mom?" He said he didn't know. He had just been arrested so his mother had been notified and she just opted not to be there. He just looked like everybody's son. How does your kid get so out of control at 16? Surely, something must have been going on there for a while. He just didn't suddenly become a beast at 16.
Then there are plenty of drugs and kids stealing, breaking into neighbors' houses. I remember this one boy. He was from a nice, middle-class family and was addicted to pain pills. In one short stint, he broke into three neighbors' house on the same cul-de-sac, including crawling through a doggy door. I told him that breaking into people's houses might get you shot. I told him, "Do you realize how foolish that is? You gotta be stoned to do that." He acknowledged how he was in a bad way. The boy went into treatment and had one relapse but did fabulous after that.
What is the saddest part of those kinds of cases?
What's really sad is when you think about the kids who have never had great guidance. They get into a little trouble and then they go back and end up in the same environment around the same people. Then they get into a little more trouble and go back to the same environment. And it goes on. And then they're 18 and they up the ante of running the risk of spending a significant amount of time in prison. Imagine being 18 and going to prison for 10 years. You lose your entire youth. You lose a son or a daughter. You lose a taxpayer, a citizen. You maybe lose a mommy or a daddy. And then you come out of prison and can't get a job. Shame on the parents who create those kinds of situations. I know it's not always the parents' fault, but it's certainly not the kid's fault when he draws a bad hand.
How do you keep from becoming overwhelmed personally?
You just have to turn the page. I remember so many times as a journalist, learning to deal with the emotional side of a story. You just compartmentalize. It's a good defense mechanism if nothing else. You have to look forward and not backward. A good example is the boy crawling through the doggie door. He got put on a better track and it's working. Those successes buoy you. I remember a judge once told me, "Not being able to do it all is not an excuse for doing nothing." It resonated. I can't fix society. I can't fix every problem in town, but I can fix some, and you just keep plugging away at it.
Do you regret your comments about Assistant Public Defender Murray? In retrospect would you have handled things differently?
Do I regret it? If I could go back I might have tempered a few words. I do not regret my being outraged for their disregard for their client's well-being.
Do you miss your old job, overseeing juvenile court in Tampa?
I do miss the old divisions. That was something I loved, the children, helping families, sitting as a judge and deciding cases. You have a lot of opportunity to help and to show that you care. You can tell when a kid feels like no one cares about him and you're able to show that you care. It's a wonderful opportunity to help out, to help a kid.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.