Unsung Heroes. Complex and often heart-wrenching: the work of the Juvenile Court, with its closed courtrooms and confidential records, is mostly unknown, even to many Trial Court employees.
The Juvenile Court's dedication to the state's youngest and most vulnerable residents must, by the extremely private nature of its business, largely go unheralded, both in and outside of the court system. But the cases the Juvenile Court hears, and the dedication of its judges, clerks, probation officers, case managers, clinicians, and staff have a profound impact on children and their families for generations. For FY 2014, the Juvenile Court Department had over 37,000 case filings, keeping its 41 judges across the state busy.
A Devoted Court Community. “Our Juvenile Court community is a collaborative group of professionals devoted to positive outcomes for children and families,” says Juvenile Court Chief Justice Amy Nechtem. “The Juvenile Court Department is uniquely positioned to be the first line of opportunity to intervene with our children and families, and to affect the well-being of society.”
Chief Justice Nechtem “applauds and appreciates” the devoted judiciary and staff “who work as a team towards achieving the best interest for children. They are sensitive to the trauma experienced by children and families who enter our courtroom.”
A Holistic Approach to Justice. Suffolk County Juvenile Court First Justice Terry Craven agrees. “In our court, you’ll have social workers, medical professionals, law enforcement, probation, guidance counselors, teachers, counselors, different program and agency representatives, parent-guardians— everyone combines resources and works together to help child and family,” she says. “Judges must take in a vast amount of information from multiple sources to try to make an informed decision on some extremely challenging cases.”
Massachusetts is the only state where Juvenile Courts work collaboratively with the Department of Mental Health to provide onsite assistance in evaluating children and families, ensuring that judges have a thorough understanding of each case. With a high percentage of court-involved children diagnosed with cognitive disabilities, and struggling with substance abuse, trauma, and mental illness, the Court must identify the issues, and develop strategies that address the factors influencing a child’s behavior.
The Specialists. With so much at stake, having responsibility over the well-being of a child can weigh heavily on Juvenile Court judges and staff. Among their many duties, judges are charged with overseeing the details of highly complex cases, such as monitoring anti-psychotic medications.
“We’re the specialists,” says Suffolk County Juvenile Court Judge Joseph Johnston. “Some of us are seeing third and fourth generations of families in our courtrooms. That’s very frustrating. There are so many issues: drugs, violence, lack of education, lack of opportunity; mental health problems – it’s all intertwined, and every case is different.”
Changing Family Structure. A Juvenile Court care and protection case may involve a family with multiple parents and children, each of whom is entitled to separate counsel. Judges must manage potentially volatile and emotionally charged courtrooms, while balancing the needs and interests of each party. Situations can be extremely fluid and change as a case progresses—sometimes even during a single session.
Everyday Personal Struggles. “I won’t forget this case,” says Clerk-Magistrate Donna Ciampoli. A single mother of five, ages one to 13, cries as she talks about her insomnia; her untreated bipolar disorder and depression; her 3-year old son with Cerebral Palsy; the incarcerated father of her kids. With 37 years of experience serving the public, Clerk-Magistrate Ciampoli can quickly evaluate people and their situations.
The woman explains that it is an ongoing struggle to get her children to school. “It’s clear that you love your kids, and want the best for them,” Clerk Ciampoli tells her, while urging her to address her own issues. The mother will have to appear before a judge on her failure to send the children to school in two weeks if there are any more absences or tardiness. Mother seems relieved when she leaves, armed with a plan to meet with the school and contacts for additional family services.
Success Stories. With the Court’s oversight, each year scores of children and their guardians overcome a myriad of challenges and “successfully hurdle the obstacles in their path,” says Chief Justice Nechtem, who has kept in touch with some of the youth who have appeared before her over the years, including one of the musicians who performed at her swearing-in ceremony last July.
“Adoptions and reunifications are the happy part of my job,” says Judge Johnston. “When a parent pulls it together, gets into treatment and works towards reunification with their children is a big deal, and thankfully it happens often.”