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Raised by the courts: What happens when a judge has to be the parent?

Editor's note: Judge Irene Sullivan could write a book, so much has she seen in her Unified Family Court. Now she has. In Raised by the Courts, she recounts the balancing act she performs in trying to help rehabilitate kids who often grew up in horrible circumstances in her geographical area, which stretches roughly from Ulmerton Road in Pinellas County south to the Skyway, excluding the beaches. She has strong ideas about what works and what doesn't for young offenders as well as society. Her book is timely, coming as the NAACP just held a crowded community forum in St. Petersburg to sort through solutions to the dismal graduation rate of black males in Pinellas schools — among the worst in the nation by one measure. Staff writer Waveney Ann Moore interviews the judge, who is retiring in December, and intersperses Sullivan's observations with edited excerpts from the book.

Standing before me, he looked younger than 15. Slim, with neat dreadlocks, sad brown eyes, his trademark jeans and plaid shirt and silence. That set him apart, the silence, because most juveniles are anything but silent in court. Trying to avoid incarceration, they are agitated, pleading, imaginative and dramatic. They flap their arms, raise their voices, beg, smile and agree with everything you say. The clever ones write letters.

"I'm turning my life around, Judge, you gotta believe me."

"You can't send me away. I gots me a shorty (a child)" — or "a job," or "a test to take," or "a sick grandmother."

"I know you gave me a second chance before, but this time I really mean it. I won't go near those guys again. I'll keep my curfew. I really mean it."

When sentenced, some of those same youth scream "F--- you!" when taken into custody.

Javaris didn't say a word. He stood silent and alone. None of his relatives was with him in court. I wanted to hug him rather than sentence him.

"Javaris is a good kid, but we can never find him," said his probation officer, a large, kindly black man, his hand resting on the youth's shoulder.

"He's a drug dealer and a thief," the victim in the front row interrupted, "and his family doesn't give a damn."

Family? What family? A bed or a couch at his grandmother's or aunt's house?

"He's basically been raising himself," the psychologist said at the podium, "roaming the streets at night, occasionally at school, finding his own food, violating curfew."

"I'm sorry, Javaris," I said after sentencing. "I can't excuse your crimes, but somehow I think that we failed you too. Your family failed you, the system failed you."

His sad eyes met mine, and he still didn't speak when handcuffed and led away.

— From Raised by the Courts

Judge Irene Sullivan, 68, speaks forthrightly about juvenile justice and her passion for kids. There are no bad kids, says the woman once referred to by a local Fox TV reporter as Judge Hug-A-Thug. After all, children don't choose their parents. "We want people not to have children if they can't responsibly raise them in the first place,'' she says. "Secondly, we want them to be there for their children, both parents, ideally.''

So instead, she claims as her own the kids who appear in her courtroom at the Criminal Justice Center in Clearwater — making cocky excuses, cajoling, hanging their heads or struggling to hold up drooping pants while being fingerprinted. Some have been neglected and abused by parents who lost their rights or simply gave them up without hesitation. Many stand before her for infractions from skipping school to shoplifting to serious crimes such as gun and vehicle thefts, drug sales and home invasions.

She'll miss them when she retires in December. In her nine years as a juvenile judge, she has presided over the lives of children for whom a court appearance often is more routine than an outing to the beach and whose future points to adult prison, not a college campus. That world is at once hopeful and tragic.

WATCHING a 10-year-old jump for joy, pointing and screaming, "That's my judge!" brings a bittersweet smile. Why does he have so many criminal charges at age 10 that he has his "own" judge? Where are his parents? Why is he living in a group home?

— From Raised by the Courts

Even though the United States locks up about 1 million teenagers a year — more than any other nation in the world — Sullivan offers a surprisingly upbeat outlook, focusing on the people and organizations committed to alleviating this national crisis of teens awaiting trial and serving time in detention facilities.

For Sullivan, who has traveled the country speaking to experts and sharing her own knowledge, the good news is about prevention, diversion and innovative programs that are keeping juveniles from crime or relapsing into crime. It's about a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on defendants younger than 18 and another more recent ruling stating that it is cruel and unusual punishment to send juveniles to prison for life without parole if the crime they commit does not involve killing someone. Her message is about giving young people and their families the help they need and even a second chance.

"I'm not trying to be soft,'' she said at her home in Pinellas Park. "It's just that you have to recognize that these are kids. Not to excuse their behavior. They have to be taught, mainly. Also punished, sometimes."

One morning last week Sullivan presided over cases dealing with abuse and neglect and juvenile crime. She praised a caregiver who stepped forward to give a home to a 14-year-old whose father regularly abused him. She listened to a young mother who had used opiates and marijuana throughout her pregnancy. Her baby was positive for OxyContin at birth. A couple appeared before her who had been arrested after their five children were found in filthy conditions in their home. A neighbor found their 18-month-old and 4-year-old wandering a nearby street.

That morning, a 14-year-old getting A's and B's at Dunedin Middle School looked shamefaced in his detention uniform. He had been picked up for burglary. Sullivan didn't want to interrupt his schooling, so she placed him on home detention for 21 days. His co-defendant got the same. The boys were not to have contact with each other, she instructed.

"He won't have contact with anybody,'' said the stern-faced mother of one boy. She already "has put his punishment in place,'' she told the judge.

Sullivan ordered home detention for two more boys. One had left the scene of a crash and another was arrested for possession of cocaine and marijuana. All four boys in trouble that morning were African-American.

Disproportionate minority contact (DMC) is the elephant in my courtroom. Nobody mentions it, yet twice a week when I take the bench in delinquency court, I face a courtroom full of black faces. Most of the kids put on probation are black, as are the vast majority of kids committed or charged as adults.

— From Raised by the Courts

It frightens her to see African-American males, ages 12 to 17, enter what she called the "pipeline to prison,'' Sullivan said in her book. Close to 70 percent of the juveniles in her delinquency court are African-American, though roughly only one in five people in her court's geographical area is black. She believes she knows the prime reason the numbers are so high.

"If there is an area of white kids exposed to guns and gangs and such, they would have the same problem, but there are so many more single black mothers than there are single white mothers,'' she said.

"And there are — this is from my observation in the court over nine years — there are more single black fathers having multiple children. This is done very young. … I'm talking about 16 years old, boys and girls, 14, 15, 16. I've had a number of people 16 and 17 who have two children, young men who have two children and one may be two years old and another on the way.''

I remember bringing my Norwegian cousin to my Florida court. She runs her own child welfare agency outside of Oslo. When she saw kids ages 10, 11 and 12 in handcuffs, leg restraints and jumpsuits, she scowled and asked, "Does Amnesty International know about this?"

— From Raised by the Courts

Sullivan's court takes in an area of St. Petersburg recently in the headlines for a middle school's brawls, an 8-year-old girl killed in a drive-by shooting that sent bullets ripping through her bedroom and a high school senior shot in the head while standing in front of a house.

Sullivan has toured the area with state Rep. Darryl Rouson. She was impressed with the parks, community centers and many modest but neat homes. She made a point to attend the 8-year-old's funeral. She later saw a juvenile involved in the shooting in her courtroom. More than a year after the funeral, Sullivan can't forget the little girl lying in her tiny coffin.

As she sat in the spacious home she shares with three rescued cats and a rambunctious golden retriever, she discussed the cumulative effect of what she referred to as "risk factors."

"Kids can live in poverty or poverty level if they have parents that are urging them to get an education and reading to them at night and interested in their grades and wanting them to succeed,'' she said.

"If you combine poverty with drug use in the home, which might be a reason for the poverty, then you have two risk factors. It's very common to combine poverty and drug use. Many combine them with domestic violence, because a mother who is poor and on drugs can't support herself, so she has to put up with a man she meets at a bar on Monday night moving in with her on Wednesday night and certainly is a stranger to her little girl. He will often become violent with her, either because he's prone to domestic violence, anyway, or because they have no respect for each other. He wants sex and she wants support, financial support. ... It always amazes me and has broken my heart when sometimes in court, these mothers choose that person and the children are removed for foster care.''

Still Sullivan mines nuggets of hope from what appear to be dismal prospects. She says there's public support for reform. They generally understand "that services on the front end, counseling, drug treatment, preventing kids from being locked up, preventing removal of kids, is really the way to go,'' she said.

Advocates for that approach, though, can't seem to get the support of legislators, she said. Instead, Sullivan said, lobbyists for prison industries tend to get the ear of candidates running on a platform of being tough on crime.

"It is true when you start an infrastructure of prisons, juvenile jails, they have to be staffed, they have to be air conditioned and it's hard to shut them down and go in the other direction. It can be done by not building any new ones. In fact, that's kind of what's going on nowadays. Due to a shortage of funds in Florida, they're closing residential programs,'' she said. "Bad times kind of make for good decisions that should have been made a long time ago.''

There have also been bad decisions, she said. Last legislative session, funding for Florida's Healthy Families Program was cut by $10 million. "It's going backwards, because we know from the evidence that Healthy Families, which is a nationwide program, works to prevent child abuse and neglect at a very early, critical time in children's lives and we know that preventing abuse and neglect prevents delinquency,'' Sullivan said.

Innovative intervention and prevention programs can be found in Pinellas County, across the state and throughout the country, she said. Some are funded by organizations like the Annie E. Casey, MacArthur and Eckerd Family foundations. A few require stable infrastructure, but some are dirt cheap, like the chess club initiated by Sullivan's colleague Judge Raymond Gross. The game is taught by volunteers in St. Petersburg and participation sometimes is part of the disposition of a juvenile's case.

A member of the Juvenile Welfare Board, Sullivan attended an institute offered last year by the lauded Harlem Children's Zone in New York City. The program headed by Geoffrey Canada motivates children in poor, high-crime areas and emphasizes education and parental outreach. Recently it was introduced at Fairmount Park Elementary in St. Petersburg, an area covered by Sullivan's court.

Canada's message, she said, is that kids without hope commit crimes and that those with hope succeed.

Picture the scales of justice sitting on the bench in juvenile court. Stacked on the left scale is a bunch of blocks, sacks or bars of gold, with labels that say: "teenage brain," "victim of abuse," "can't control the situation," "acting in self-defense," "failing in school," "influenced by bad adults," "untreated mental illness," "uncontrolled anger," or, simply, "a child." On the right side is one huge block, sack or bar of gold that says in big black letters: "Public Safety."

Absolutely, it is my duty to commit a youth to a locked-down, secure, residential facility if there is no other way to protect the public from the crimes the youth is committing. Public safety concerns trump social, psychological and parental concerns for the child. A juvenile judge has the same obligation as an adult criminal judge to protect the public's safety. That's the first order of business. It makes sense. A community held hostage by juveniles committing crimes is not going to be interested in rehabilitating those kids.

— From Raised by the Courts

Sullivan is finding it a little difficult to let go as she prepares to leave the bench. She's watched the same kids come before her again and again, like the boy who stole a monkey.

"He struggled through his teens. He was a foster kid and went back with his parents and they were homeless and had drug problems, so we moved him out a lot in and out of foster care,'' she said.

At 17, he was charged as an adult for burglary. He's now 18.

"So he came in the other day. Fortunately, not from jail,'' Sullivan said. "He came in and he said he had a good chance of getting a job and we put him on a payment plan to pay off this couple hundred dollars he stole. The state attorney set a hearing in three months to four months to see if he got the job and could start making the payments. The hearing was set for Jan. 5, and so that's the first time I thought, I'm not going to see him in January. I've known him since he was 10. So I got a big pang in my heart.''

No other division of the court provides a judge with such a chance to make a difference in a person's life for better or worse. Juvenile judges hold delinquent or dependent children in the palms of their hands, looking for solutions: programs that work, caregivers that are nurturing and responsible, therapy that's appropriate and punishment that is effective. The contradictions break my heart.

— Raised by the Courts

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

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Meet the author

Irene Sullivan will be a featured author at the 2010 St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 23 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Admission is free. For information, go to festivalofreading.com.

The judge's life

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Irene Sullivan, 68, was elected to the bench in 1998. Presiding in the Unified Family Court, she handles delinquency and dependency cases and related family matters. She also presides over the truancy court in Pinellas County. She previously presided primarily in family law. Before becoming a judge, Sullivan was a general partner in the law firm of Harris, Barrett, Mann & Dew in St. Petersburg. She serves on the Juvenile Welfare Board, PACE and the Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida. She also is a board member and second vice president of the National Truancy Prevention Association. Born in Detroit, she graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism and earned a law degree from Stetson University College of Law. She has three children and five grandchildren. After retirement she plans to travel the nation, speaking, teaching and sharing her passion for improving the lives of children.

Raised by the courts: What happens when a judge has to be the parent? 10/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 9, 2010 5:30am]

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