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Judge recruits mentors for unaccompanied teen defendants

Sometimes, Circuit Judge Ashley Moody sits in her court awash in disbelief.

Moody, who hears juvenile cases in Hillsborough County, can't comprehend when teenagers — and some even younger — enter her court unaccompanied by a parent, guardian or attorney.

Just a 14-year-old, standing alone before the law.

She remembers the first time it happened.

"The breath went out of me," Moody said. "I couldn't believe it. I couldn't understand it. But for the grace of God I was born to two parents who would never dream of me appearing in court alone."

Moody could have chosen to grow numb to the trend, dispassionately disposing of the cases and emptying her docket with an empty heart.

Instead, she advocates for help.

First, she sought out lawyers who would volunteer to stand with the juveniles in court. She received an encouraging response.

Then she began to explore why parents choose to leave their teens fending for themselves. In some cases, single parents find themselves choosing between appearing in court or appearing for one of their two jobs — jobs they might lose because of too many absences.

In other instances, the parents just refuse. Moody has encountered mothers and fathers who see nothing wrong with their child staying out past 1:30 a.m. When she engages the kids, she discovers they crave discussion about what's going wrong in their lives.

"There's a lot more going on in these kids' lives than just delinquent behavior," Moody explained. "There's a void of accountability, support and guidance at home.

"There's a lot going on with the symptoms of juvenile delinquency."

To help fill the void, Moody turned to Stephen Koch, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay.

She wanted to know if the organization could work with the disproportionate number of African-American juveniles in the system. They make up approximately 20 percent of the overall juvenile population but 50 percent of delinquency cases.

Koch knew the national arm of Big Brothers Big Sisters traced its roots back to assigning mentors to delinquents, but in the decades that followed, it had moved away from that specific goal.

Moody's idea seemed worthy, but Koch feared there wouldn't be funding to spur a new program.

Then Big Brothers Big Sisters won a grant from the state Department of Juvenile Justice. He hopes to have funding for the next three years to work in tandem with Moody and fellow circuit judges Lisa Campbell and Ralph Stoddard.

"We're working with juvenile judges to help match up certain kids that they refer to us," Koch said. "And we're also focusing on other kids who may not have gotten arrested but live in ZIP codes where there's a high incident of arrests.

"We're trying to match 35 children the juvenile courts have referred to us and another 40 to 50 from those ZIP codes."

The delinquent program will take mentors of any race but would like to match the African-American youths with African-American mentors. Koch sounded encouraged this week, noting that Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller is working to attract volunteers.

The need is pressing, but Koch says the task isn't overwhelming.

"We do a screening of volunteers but it's not as onerous as people think," he said. "We just want people who are good working with kids and can do it in a safe way.

"It's not that hard. We provide the training. By and large, these kids are going to be wonderful to work with and a lot of fun."

Moody also touts Goodwill's GoodGuides program, which has matched youths with 30 mentors. But like Big Brothers Big Sisters, it needs more people to step up and help.

So many times we read about juvenile delinquents and want to label the problem as unsolvable. But as Moody notes, these are kids who need help not just for their own sake, but for the sake of the community.

That's all I'm saying.

FAST FACTS

Want to help?

• To become a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay's juvenile delinquency program, contact Laura Prevatte (laura.prevatte@bbbsfl.org) or Stephen Koch

(stephen.koch@bbbsfl.org) or call (813) 769-3608.

• To become a mentor for the Goodwill GoodGuides program, go to tinyurl.com/26qze4d or call (813) 287-2210.

Judge recruits mentors for unaccompanied teen defendants 12/02/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:49pm]

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