Reporter’s Notebook: Probation Officer & So Much More

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Kathy McNamara

Kathy McNamara

Kathy McNamara has played the roles of surrogate mother, mentor, big sister, coach, cheerleader, kindly counselor, confidante, inspiration and friend to her young charges.

All the while, McNamara’s also served as their probation officer just outside Chicago in DuPage County, Ill.

For 16 years now, she has worked on hundreds of the toughest of juvenile cases — those of so-called “dual-status youth,” kids entangled in both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

Here and there, on the juvenile justice beat, you discover someone who goes so far beyond the call of duty you want to tell the world about that person.

Kathy McNamara, a senior probation officer for juveniles, is one of those people.

I first learned about McNamara, 45, while reporting on a JJIE story on dual-status youths.

Those youths’ cases can present daunting challenges: Many are chronic runaways who have suffered from severe physical or emotional abuse, neglect and abandonment. And they typically come from troubled homes often beset by domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness.

Some of those who know McNamara best — including Robert Anderson, a juvenile court judge in DuPage County, and Hunter Hurst IV, a senior research associate at the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice — extolled McNamara as someone who personified everything a juvenile probation officer should be, and then some.

She calls those she supervises “my kids” and offers them guidance on a wide range of practical skills from making a delectable meal out of ground turkey and sauce to baking brownies and balancing checkbooks.

More than that, she’s always there to listen and to offer gentle wisdom.

McNamara works closely with child welfare staff as part of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation-backed DuPage County initiative designed to improve outcomes for dual-status youth.

She often stands up for the youngsters when they could face the loss of their group placement for acting up and tries to de-escalate situations with police when the kids could be arrested and possibly detained.  She strives to respond to domestic violence through a multidisciplinary approach to keep kids out of detention and safely together with their caregivers.

One youth with whom McNamara worked closely had been calling her “Ms. Kathy,” then began calling her “Kathy.”

Before long, he told her “if he could ever pick a mom, he would pick me,” McNamara recalled.

A young woman who had completed probation contacted McNamara to tell her she had married and had twins. Introducing McNamara to family members living in a nice suburban community, the woman said, “This is the lady I told you about.” As a girl, she had been in and out of foster care and in and out of juvenile detention centers.

Then there’s the young man who had been in foster care and in detention who called to tell her he was in medical school to become a cardiologist, and another man, just off probation, who texted McNamara to say she, Judge Anderson and a state’s attorney were like the family he never had.

Not all the stories have happy endings, of course.

One man, now 22, whom McNamara had supervised is in prison for a serious crime. But she saw growth even in him:

“He was able to have a relationship with me,” she said. “He learned that not everybody was going to dismiss his feelings. He learned that his feelings meant something and he was able to say what he wanted. That was a huge victory because he had had no relationship with any adults. Those things are necessary life skills, and he learned them and he wrote me from prison that he liked working with me.”

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