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A Just Cause

Family heartbreak. Teenage criminals. Community crisis. The daily struggle in Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.


According to the Virginia 2003 State of the Judiciary Report, 20,241 new cases began last year in Richmond J&DR court, the oldest family court in the state. Half of them were domestic, half were juvenile. A total of 49,955 hearings took place. Likewise, five judges averaged 4,048 new cases each with total hearings averaging 9,981 per judge. The workload explains, in part, why it's called the ER of courts. Judges tend triage. And how they do it, is upsetting the reputation that the court has endured as the "kiddie court" of minor consequence. This isn't minor stuff.

"J&DR court was the Siberia in the office," Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks says of how his prosecutors used to respond to family court assignments. That stigma is beginning to disappear, he says, thanks to J&DR judges he calls pioneers who want to stay there. "In a sane system we're really about family," he says. "I tell people J&DR is our most important court. It has the most painful cases. And it has the greatest wear and tear on my people."

While their efforts rarely make headlines, the decisions made by J&DR judges — good and bad — affect more than the immediate families they serve. They extend into the persistent and puzzling societal realms of poverty, education, crime, economic development, public housing, health and safety. Facing spiking homicide rates, reports of gangs and the state's highest rates of foster care and infant mortality, city officials repeatedly say the problems start at home.

Perhaps no one knows whether this is true more than J&DR judges. They struggle daily to balance the extremes in human behavior, to reconcile the good and bad, to weigh information, to apply the law and to make decisions that ultimately shape communities. But the work itself is rarely seen. Because of confidentiality and general lack of interest, little is known of what occurs behind J&DR court's closed doors.

So Style Weekly asked to go behind the bench. We received unusual access and observed a variety of cases and dockets in the courtrooms of all five of Richmond's J&DR court judges: J. Stephen Buis, Anne B. Holton, Clarence N. Jenkins Jr., Kimberly B. O'Donnell and Angela Edwards Roberts. In respect to juvenile privacy laws and at the request of the court, Style agreed to withhold the names of individuals in this story.

"I constantly remember, 'There, but for the grace of God, go I,'" Judge Angela Edward Roberts says of how she prepares herself for work.

"The families in my court are in crisis," she says. "They need to know that the judge will listen and decide both fairly and compassionately. I realize that most people are nervous and uncomfortable in court, whether they are the accused or the victim, so I try to maintain a calm demeanor to put them at ease."

On a Tuesday morning 28 cases fill Roberts' juvenile delinquency and adult criminal docket. Court starts precisely at 9.

"We did start running but then I stopped because there was no reason to be running," explains a 15-year-old male accused of destruction of private property.

Lawyers, a probation officer, the arresting police officer, witnesses and the teen's grandmother — his legal guardian — are present. Roberts rests her chin on her hands and studies the boy. He explains the reasons for his whereabouts the afternoon he happened to show up just as his brother and a friend were caught breaking into a parked vehicle by a city police officer. After an exchange of questions and answers from the prosecutor and the defense attorney, Roberts finds the defendant guilty and orders him to pay $170 toward the $339.56 restitution in damages.

"You were just in court in May and placed on probation," Roberts says incredulously. "This happened in June." Still, the boy's probation officer recommends a light sentence.

The judge has questions: "What have you done positive this summer? Is it safe to have you out there? Grandma, do you think he's changing?"

The woman nods a yes and says her grandson has been making curfew and doing things to help out around the house.

"Sir, I'm going to let you go home this time on probation," Roberts says. "But you need to know, if I see you back here you're going to be leaving home for a long time."

When the courtroom clears, she vents aloud: "I don't believe him. He lied to me." But she doesn't betray the content of what's called a "family profile information" report kept by the defendant's various caseworkers. The teen has had significant setbacks and still managed much success, the assessment says. His mother died of cancer in April. He's made progress in his special-education program at school.

When there is conflicting testimony and she has to determine the credibility of witnesses, she says: "I can often sense deception, but still must be guided by what the facts support. For instance, in a criminal case, if I am not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, I cannot convict. This is similar to what a jury does when they are the triers of fact."

There are no juries in J&DR court. It's a judge's charge to know and follow the law in every case type — criminal/delinquent, support, custody, visitation, abuse and neglect, traffic — making sure that the legal requirements are met. In a criminal case or delinquency case of assault, for example, Roberts must determine whether the allegations have been proven before she can find guilt or innocence, she says.

A prosecutor with the Commonwealth's Attorney's office files a motion to separate witnesses. They are an 11-year-old girl and her step grandfather. The step grandfather was charged in June with aggravated sexual battery. The girl had been living with her grandparents and was removed from the home and taken into custody of Richmond Department of Social Services.

Now before Roberts, the girl wears a pink top and blue shorts. She appears nervous and scared standing between the prosecutor and a social worker. According to the girl's testimony, seven months ago her step grandfather began entering her room at night and molesting her. She says she pretended to be asleep as he "fiddled" on her. When questioned by the public defender what that means, she says, "He had his hands on my underclothes."

"Where did he touch you?" asks the prosecutor. "Down in my private area," the girl answers.

The defendant's lawyer explains to Roberts that the girl has a bed-wetting problem and that her grandparents routinely wake her up late at night to make her use the bathroom. An exchange of questions between the attorneys follows in which the girl is forced to tell the court details of her bed wetting. She fights back tears.

"He denies any kind of sexual touching," the public defender says of his client. Roberts determines there is probable cause and sets a date for the case to proceed.

A few cases later two smiling adults wearing silver-and-black matching jerseys that read "New York" enter the courtroom. They stand next to one another before Roberts. Within seconds, a sheriff's deputy signals the woman to move to the left of an attorney and a police officer. She is the complainant. The man is charged with assault and battery. Roberts inquires about their relationship.

"He's my husband of 21 years," the woman responds. "We got into an altercation. I told police I just wanted him to leave."

"What happened here?" the prosecutor for the Com-monwealth's Attorney's office asks, displaying for the judge a picture of the woman taken after the incident.

"I got hit in my face," the woman answers. "By my husband. He caught me with another guy."

In cross examination, the defense attorney asks the woman: "How many times did he hit you?"

"I don't know, four or five," she says.

Soon after the conflict the couple reconciled, they tell the court. The attorneys ask the judge to require the man attend an anger-management and family violence prevention program. The court will keep the matter "under advisement" for two years. A follow-up hearing is set for Aug. 8, 2006. If no other problems occur in the case, it will be dismissed.

"I'm giving you an opportunity to keep the peace," Roberts says to them. "Good luck."

"Nothing is hopeless," Chief Judge J. Stephen Buis says of the tangled families he sees. Similarly, he reminds a mother who has just been granted sole legal and physical custody of her two kids: "Nothing in the world of custody and visitation is totally permanent." Hers is one of dozens of custody cases he hears Monday mornings. Lawyers are less prolific in these proceedings. A large woman, her head wrapped with dozens of braids, ushers a young girl before the judge.

Buis studies a report that his clerk hands him. The girl is 14. The woman is her godmother who is seeking temporary custody of the girl for six months. The teen attends Mosby Middle School. If she lives with her godmother she can continue going there. In his customary soft-spoken and fatherly manner, Buis tries to assuage their concerns.

"Young lady," he begins, "from what I understand your mother is on the run from police, you're father's whereabouts are unknown." The godmother interrupts to say that the girl's mother and stepfather are both suspects in a bank robbery.

Buis issues the woman the temporary custody order. "What I'll do is make a note," he says to a reporter, updating the girl's file as she and her godmother exit his courtroom.

Once a case comes before a judge it typically stays with that judge through a series of hearings. Consequently, J&DR judges know the histories of most families that come before them. Still, a primary challenge in many custody, visitation and child support cases is determining the relationship between family members. In one case that originated from an abuse and neglect charge in 1994 — before Buis' appointment as judge — a divorced man and woman with two teenage daughters have each remarried. Their new spouses have teenage daughters too. The divorced couple's two daughters are split between the new blended families. The mother before Buis says she's certain her daughters are sexually active and it's causing problems. She wants to change the custody arrangement, to switch daughters. The father insists the daughter living with him is not sleeping around.

Buis offers a plan.

"I'll tell you what we'll do, folks," he says. "We'll have someone from social services come down. That will allow you to stabilize things. It sounds like you all can use some assistance and I don't mean that negatively at all."

The man and woman reluctantly agree. The courtroom is quiet while everyone waits for an available social worker. After a few minutes have gone by and Buis finishes typing notes on his laptop, he looks up at the parents. "Girls ages 14, 15 and 16 are the hardest," he says sympathetically. "You don't want them to get into trouble at school, stay out late and hang out with the wrong men."

A quote from the book of Philippians is posted in Judge Anne B. Holton's chambers. It reads: "Whatsoever things are true ... honest ... lovely ... whatsoever things are of good report, if there by any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things."

"Sometimes I feel like a triage doctor in a busy urban hospital emergency room," she says. "I remind myself often that the matter I am about to hear could be, to some child or family, the most important case I will ever decide, and it deserves the best I can give it. The power we wield in people's lives is an awesome and humbling responsibility."

The responsibility is voluminous too. J&DR judges may hear 20 to 30 cases in a morning, deciding to deprive one person of his liberty, set another free, separate a child from his or her parents perhaps forever, or send another child home in hopes of keeping him or her safe there.

"Like everyone else who has worked here for any length of time, I have had people die or kill someone in circumstances they might not have been in, had I done something different in a proceeding in my court," Holton says. "In that sense, it's like emergency-room work. If you deal with critically wounded patients for a living, some of them will die on your watch, try as you might to save them. And yet folks think of doctors being in that situation, not necessarily judges."

On a Wednesday morning, Holton's first foster review case on her docket is a happy one. Two brothers in their late teens receive glowing reviews from their foster care supervisor. Eight people face the judge for the news. All of them — sisters, the lawyer representing the city's Department of Social Services, the lawyer advocating for the youths — know what her words might mean: a permanent home.

The two brothers have been living in a group home for two-and-a-half months awaiting the court's approval to allow two older sisters to be jointly named as their legal guardians. Holton gives the approval and orders follow-up services to ensure the teens adjust well to the arrangement.

It helps to acknowledge the positive, Holton says. "We see some mighty discouraging things here in J&DR court, but we also witness some amazing things," she says — "true saints committing true miracles, everyday kids and families turning their lives around, victims forgiving and encouraging juvenile criminals to change their ways — more often than you would think."

A teenage girl in another group home is the subject of Holton's second foster-care review case. The girl isn't faring well at all.

The 15-year-old wears large silver-hoop earrings and has her hair pulled neatly back in a bun. She looks like she belongs at a private school for girls. Holton asks her to step outside the courtroom.

On July 13, the girl and one of her friends at the home jumped out of a second-story window and escaped, spending nearly a week as runaways before they were picked up in Richmond by social services. To add to her troubles, she recently received five charges in Chesterfield County for assaulting a teacher.

"When certain situations occur she just loses it," a social worker tells Holton. "Until we get this rage under control and deal with some of these grief issues, I don't know what will help." The girl's mother died when she was young. She was living with her father in New Hampshire until he remarried and moved to Virginia, where he died in December 1999. The stepmother couldn't or wouldn't care for her.

The hearing is well under way when the girl's older sister appears, faulting a flat tire for her tardiness. "She still sees her stay [at the home] as punishment and not protection," the girl's lawyer says. Neither the girl nor her older sister wants the older sister to become legal guardian of the younger one. The problem is, that's what the lawyer for social services is recommending to find permanent placement for her.

Apparently frustrated that there are more people before her than options for the girl, Holton turns her attention to the older sister. "Do you see yourself as ever being a placement for your sister?" she asks.

The adult sister hesitates. "I don't think I'm capable of dealing with her issues," she blurts out. "I'm 26, on my own, I have a 6-year-old and I'm in college and work full time."

At this, Holton turns to the lawyers and other parties present. "I'm not going to approve a goal that's not really a goal," she says. "Come back in 60 days after you've proposed a plan that's realistic."

"Each day before I start my docket, I pray for wisdom, guidance and understanding," says Judge Clarence N. Jenkins Jr., "to allow me to be completely fair and impartial in my decision making."

The nascent J&DR judge on Richmond's bench — he was appointed to his first six-year term two years ago — Jenkins says he doesn't allow personal convictions to factor into his decision-making. He's constantly reminded, he says, by how connected his job and the courts are to everyday life in the city. "I really feel like I have the pulse on things," he says. "You open the newspapers and it's all about families."

Before a Friday morning docket of juvenile and adult criminal cases begins, he explains to a reporter what everybody at J&DR court calls GILS. It stands for Graduated Intervention Level System and it means juveniles are assessed by their behavior on a level of one to four then given the relevant supervision and services.

Proponents say it works well. Sometimes it doesn't. A tall, lanky 16-year-old wearing a navy jersey and jeans comes before Jenkins accompanied by his tiny grandmother — his legal guardian — and his lawyer. Next, an officer with the J&DR Court Services Unit and a prosecutor for the Commonwealth's Attorney's office appear. The youth was charged in December with aggravated assault and, by court order, placed on GILS Level 2. Among his requirements to keep curfew and attend school, he was supposed to complete an anger-management program along with 50 hours of community service. He didn't.

The prosecutor and the caseworker argue that the teen didn't follow guidelines. His lawyer argues that too many generalizations made them unclear.

"I'll dismiss the charge," Jenkins says. "But young man, now is the time you've got to take responsibility. If you get more charges it means more restrictions."

The teen is not finished with Jenkins. He's a defendant in the next case, too. He and another boy are charged with the simple assault of a schoolmate. The second defendant, wearing a striped button-down shirt and braids enters with his attorney. Both defendants plead not guilty. The alleged victim — 15 and small for his age — tells the prosecutor that the two defendants approached him at a bus stop saying they wanted to fight him. The two defendants' lawyers contend it was the other way around. As the case unfolds another lawyer shows up, and then the arresting police officer. By now 10 people are before Jenkins arguing who hit whom first.

Jenkins intercedes. "It seems to me that you young men were responding to street rules, that if somebody talks to you, street rules dictate that you have to fight back." To the teen he previously let off light he admonishes, "Your claim of self-defense is gone because you ran after him."

The youth now has two assault convictions on his record. The prosecutor from the Commonwealth's Attorney's office recommends GILS Level 3. "Now instead of a case manager, you've got a probation officer," Jenkins informs him.

Despite his troubles, the boy appears attentive and respectful. Jenkins addresses him: "What you have to understand is this is not that difficult. You have the power. Keep the peace."

The teen's gray-haired grandmother is visibly upset and shakes her head disapprovingly. She had wanted her grandson to at least be placed on electronic home monitoring. Throughout the proceedings she intermittently quipped that she suspected he was dabbling in drugs. But when asked by the prosecutor, she couldn't say for sure.

"We consider parents and grandparents the first line of defense," Jenkins says, though it appears the grandmother considers that the court's position. She is slow to leave the courtroom. Nearing the door and with her back to Jenkins, she gets the last word.

"He needs to be locked up," she grumbles, then disappears.

"Every judge brings a whole host of life experiences to the job of judging. They are the things that make us who we are," Judge O'Donnell says.

"Just like everyone else, we have deep beliefs about many things. That doesn't mean we are at liberty to substitute our personal beliefs for what the law requires us to do. But the law often asks, indeed requires, that judges exercise their discretion, and use their best judgment to fashion a remedy that is wise and just within what the law allows. And wisdom and justice, if they can be discerned at all, usually come from the fullest and deepest parts of our life experience."

On Friday, Aug. 27, at 3 p.m. in the Robert Shepherd Conference Room of the Oliver Hill Courts Building, a 16-year-old male is untying a knot before a packed audience. He's an addict and an offender. But for the past 16 months he's kept his life on track and followed the steps of the rigorous Richmond Family Drug Treatment Court, a collaboration of the city's Department of Social Services and Richmond J&DR court.

"If we have one, we honor that one," O'Donnell tells a crowd of about 50. She oversees the incentive-and-sanction-based drug court. For today's graduation ceremony she wears her black robe and a red ribbon around her wrist.

She turns to the honoree. "We've had our ups and downs," she says. "Holding up a mirror and looking at yourself can be a difficult thing. There was a time when we thought we'd lose you, and you know when that was."

Dressed in a suit before his peers, family and supporters, he smiles, his perseverance the reason.

O'Donnell explains the Celtic tradition that just as people tie the knot when they commit to enter a bond together, they untie the knot when they are ready to be free. There was never the expectation that the teen's presence in drug court would be permanent. She faces him and exclaims: "You've learned all you can from us." She holds up her wrist for the teen to pull the ribbon. He does. S

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