OP-ED: A Good Captain Barks Orders

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Judge Steven Teske

Judge Steven C. TeskeIt’s not easy to turn a ship around in stormy waters peppered with icebergs. This is what it’s like for administrators taking on an agency that has been without consistent leadership for years. Like a ship without a captain, the agency is floundering in the sea of agencies.

I am amused as I read the recent news stories describing the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) as “embattled” by employees’ accusations about his management style coupled with allegations that for years OJJDP has been handing out grants in violation of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

As is usually the case, the truth is never black or white, but somewhere in between, muddled in one of the 50 shades of gray.

Unfortunately, these issues are not forthcoming in a courtroom subject to the rules of evidence to separate the real from imagined or the rub between aggressive leadership and sensitive feelings, or any other rubs playing out in having a captain at the helm of a ship floundering for several years without a captain.

For now, it will be played out in the media and the gossip universe of water coolers and break-room galaxies, opining on and concluding if the accusations have merit or show hypersensitivity toward leadership.

I mean real leadership, the type that can make the weak scared and the contrarians angry.

Sen. Chuck Grassley’s letter to OJJDP head Robert Listenbee states that whistle-blowers allege that a handful of states fraudulently obtained grants since 2000. If true, let’s not act surprised and appear naïve. We already knew, unless some of us have conveniently forgotten, there were dark clouds over OJJDP long before Mr. Listenbee arrived on the scene.

Youth Today during that decade was constantly on the back of then-Administrator Robert Flores about his grant-making decisions. I served two terms during that decade on the Federal Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice (which advises the president, Congress and OJJDP on juvenile justice matters) and recall a number of members questioning the administrator’s grant decisions. That decade ended with Mr. Flores’ exit from OJJDP, having been cited with an ethics violation for mismanagement of grant funds.

After his exit, no one was appointed to the administrator position for four years. No one could lead with presidential appointment authority.

With Mr. Listenbee at the helm for less than two years, allegations of fraudulently obtained grants going back to the beginning of the last decade now surface. Is this an oversight? Is it because someone in Congress finally cares enough to ask the pointed questions that should have been asked in the last decade?

Or maybe it’s all the above, with someone conveniently blowing the whistle now that there is a leader who rubs the blowers the wrong way?

I certainly don’t know the answers, but I do know, as we say down South, that something “is outta kilter” or smells to “high heaven,” so bad it would “knock a buzzard off a gut wagon.”

I just don’t get it.

In the first story in JJIE we read about allegations involving “fraudulent grants” to a handful of states, which had been going on for many years before Mr. Listenbee’s entry. The second story is about the union leader asking for Listenbee to step down because OJJDP has “spiraled out of control” under his leadership, citing the alleged “fraudulent grants.”

That, if true, has been going on long before he took the helm. They also complained of low morale, citing in part that Listenbee has not made clear to the union employees “what his vision is or what he hopes to change.”

In the most recent JJIE story, juvenile justice advocates lined up to sing Listenbee’s praises, citing, now get this, a clear agenda established by Listenbee. In fact, Mr. Listenbee came to Atlanta and visited with me early last year, shared his vision and asked for my thoughts.

“Well, slap my head and call me silly,” as grandma would say. It looks like Mr. Listenbee does have a serious problem at OJJDP — employees who don’t know “crap from apple butter.”

Why do these union employees not see what the advocates and experts see?

Is it because their “porch light’s on, but no one’s home”?

Or maybe they see it and don’t like it?

And if the latter is true, this may be the root of “top staff … yelling, doors slamming and papers being thrown.” I would be doing that if I had subordinates who disagreed with my agenda — oh wait, I did!

After taking the bench in 1999, the helm was handed to me to change the direction of our ship. Introducing detention reform and best practices angered some employees. There are also the few who don’t care about any agenda because “they will complain if they were hung with a new rope,” as Mom would say. It was these employees who witnessed my yelling, door slamming and paper throwing.

They jumped overboard or I threw them overboard for insubordination.

Captains don’t get ships out of stormy waters without barking orders. The sailors who block them puts kids in harm’s way — and this is treasonous.

Someone once said it best — “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”

It’s the getting people out of the way that “can make a preacher cuss.” So cut the rest of us laity some slack for losing our cool with the agenda blockers.

Whistle-blowing and agenda blocking are not synonymous. Confusing the two in our line of work destroys kids.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor’s Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence and the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.

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