Kindness in the Courtroom as a Child Launches into a Violent Outburst

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I had been on the bench for a couple years when I met her. Her name was Jade — she was 12 years old when she appeared in my court. Besides being disrespectful, not following the rules at home, and staying out all night, she was caught giving oral sex to two adult males. Her mother did not know what to do. The police told her to come to juvenile court and file what is known as an unruly petition.

Jade displayed a very disrespectful demeanor. She slouched in the chair, rolled her eyes, and answered my questions with a hateful tone. I could tell she angered everyone in the courtroom. I could tell they were frustrated with me–I didn’t get angry and lock her up.  Make no mistake — I was angry. I just didnt show it. I was biting my tongue — and it hurt.

I just wanted to get her out of the court room and hand her over to the professionals to do their thing – which was to figure out why Jade is such a pain in the ass. Apparently, I was asking too much to hand her off so quickly. While explaining to Jade and her mother the next step in the process, Jade’s disposition deteriorated from disrespectful to abusive. I made reference to her friends — stating that she could not associate with those friends not approved by her mother and the court officer. She gave me that look of defiance — that “yeah, right” look. It was not that look that started the meltdown. It was my next statement.

“I hope you don’t have contact with these friends, but if you do,” and I hesitated –giving that look my children know so well — “I will bring them into court with their parents and I doubt they are going to like that.”

By her reaction, I knew she didn’t take a liking to that admonishment. She jumped out of the chair knocking it over behind her. She shouted expletives that would put Linda Blair’s character in the movie “The Exorcist” to shame.

I could make out, “You Mother #@$&?#” and “You Son of A #%@&.” The other words were indistinguishable, but I could tell by the expression on her face they were not nice words. Tom, my deputy, ran to her. It was as if she was suddenly possessed by a demon, but without her head turning 180 degrees. Just as Tom was about to take her into custody, I told him to stop. He stopped dead in his tracks with his arms out and about to grab Jade. He looked up to the bench, with this confused look, and said, “But Judge — she’s cursing at you!”

“I know Tom,” and hesitated for a moment and said,” She’s simply saying out loud what everyone else is thinking.”

It was as if Jade’s wind had been taken from her sails. She stopped her tirade, looked at me for a brief moment with her jaw slightly dropped, and slowly turned and picked up her chair and  sat in it — looking down at her lap. She never said another word. She didn’t show any expression.

Don’t ask me how I knew she would shut-up — I didn’t. I just knew she wanted to make me mad — and she did. I didn’t want her to know she had pushed my buttons. Sometimes those of us with the authority to lock up kids aren’t thinking about appearance when we use detention in anger. The beauty of having this authority is in the discretion not to use it. We demonstrate genuine judicial temperament when we come to appreciate that real power is not in the authority to detain, but in the discretion not to when it hasn’t anything to do with serious risk of injury to others as contemplated in most juvenile detention statutes across the country.

Besides, if not for any other reason, it doesn’t look flattering for a professional  to lose control, especially to a teenager. Let’s not be fooled — people do talk about us, and behind our backs. It’s not always flattering.

I will confess I did not come to this job with the right attitude. I made some decisions in anger, and I look back and regret them. I would rather have people question my philosophy than my temperment. The former goes to the way we do business — the latter to our character.

I will also confess that I still struggle with temperamental restraints when it comes to those disrespectful and ungovernable kids. I have a lamenated sign on my bench for my eyes only. It says, “BE NICE.” It’s simple, maybe corny, but it’s effective. When I begin to feel that adrenaline going and the anger rising in me, I look at that sign and like Jade — the wind is taken from my sails.

Speaking of Jade, she went on to be assessed and with the help of intensive services that included multi-systemic therapy for the whole family and individual counseling for Jade, she never returned to court. I remember she was an emotionally troubled child having suffered the trauma of a rape at age 11. It’s important that we keep in mind that many status youth come to us angry – that’s why they make us mad — and detention is another traumatic event on top of another. We risk making the problem worse as well as the child when placed in the best delinquency training school in America — the detention center.

In 2009, while presiding over an arraignment docket, a young man was before me for a misdemeanor delinquent act that had he admitted at intake would have been handled informally. Once I told him of the trial date, his mother asked if she could say something.

“Yes Ma’am, what is it?” I answered.

She pointed to a young adult female and said, “This is my daughter. When she heard you were the judge, she asked to come to court to see you. Is it OK if she says something.”

I shrugged my shoulders and I am sure with a confused look replied, “Sure.”

“Judge,” she said, “You may not remember me. It’s been a long time, but I was before you and said some really awful things.”

She began to cry and I told her it was OK and that I am listening.

Wiping the tears from her cheeks as the bailiff was handing her the tissues, she said, “I think of you every once and while and what you did — or should I say didn’t do.”

“I didn’t undertand why you didn’t lock me up,” she continued saying. “I get it now. Jail wasn’t the place for me.”

She told me she graduated high school and went to cosmetology school. She works as a hair stylist.

She ended the description of her progress saying, “Thank you Judge Teske for not getting mad at me.”

I came down from the bench and walked up to her. I gave her a hug and said, “I did get mad Jade–but that’s not enough to throw you in jail.”

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