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Chapter 18

For Robby, the past six weeks seemed like the longest in his life, filled with changes. He was the boy who stabbed a beloved school resource officer and almost blew up the school. He knew that he was doing better than he had any right to expect. And, he was grateful. The feeling that he would be better off dead wasn’t as strong as it was in the beginning nor as frequent.

The staff was beginning to relax around him. His behavior was good. Mr. Bernstein, his lawyer, told him that would help to keep his charges “downstairs” in juvenile court; that, and agreeing to stay longer in detention than the law allowed. He worried what “upstairs” meant, but he tried not to think about that and he sure wasn’t going to ask about it.

Most of the boys in his class were sleeping with their heads down. A few were talking and making noise but Robby kept doing his work. He knew his teachers were surprised by his studies and behavior, but he wasn’t a bad person and he wasn’t going to act like one ever again. Most of the kids left him alone.

A shadow crossed his desk and he looked up at Officer Hammond. He put his papers away in his desk.

“Robby, let’s go.” Officer Hammond took his elbow and guided him to the cafeteria. “Just keep being good, right?” he said softly.

“Yes, sir,” Robby answered. He couldn’t undo what he’d done, but he understood that he didn’t have to make it worse.

Robby hiked up the pants of his grey detention scrubs, getting ready for an important meeting, or so he’d been told. A month ago, he’d been scared to tears, but not today.

The hot Florida sun felt warm on his back as he and Officer Hammond walked across the enclosed courtyard to the cafeteria. Maybe everything will be okay.

Mr. Bernstein rose to greet him, dressed in a fancy suit. Robby saw two tables full of people. Are they really all here for me?

“We are just going to talk about your case,” Mr. Bernstein said. “Don’t be nervous. I am here and so is your family.” His smile made Robby feel stronger.

Robby sat next to his grandmother, who gave him a quick hug. I’ve really missed that most of all, he thought. He hugged her back and smiled.

Dr. Visconti was sitting across from him. She had explained that a lot of people would be present and he was grateful.

Jamie Ackley, his probation officer, smiled and he returned it, although he didn’t really know her. He hadn’t really needed a probation officer since he’d been in detention since the incident, but she’d visited him twice for a few minutes each time. She seemed like a nice lady, too.

A tall man with longish brown hair sat next to her, wearing a tan sports coat, blue shirt and red bow tie. He and Jamie were laughing together when he’d walked in. Robby couldn’t take his eyes off the bow tie. It was a cheerful bit of color in the drab cafeteria. His Boy Scout tie was the only one he’d ever worn. Maybe when this was all over he would try a bow tie. They couldn’t cost that much. He would ask his grandmother about it.

Suddenly, it was quiet. His lawyer, Sam Bernstein, stood and spoke first. Robby gave him his full attention. His stomach had butterflies in it now.

“I represent Robby Hartman. Robby and I appreciate so many people coming together like this. Robby’s grandmother and I hope to resolve the case. If we can’t, we’ll go to trial with the full resources of my office. We will not see this young boy rot in prison.” He sat down and nodded at the man seated across from him.

“Okay, then, let’s get started. I am State Attorney Clark Stackhouse. I’m here with Phil McGee, chief of the juvenile division,” he said, pointing to the man with the bowtie. “Also present is assistant state attorney Raphael Gonzalez. Yes, we would like to resolve this case. But these are very serious charges. We’re worried about public safety. Thankfully, Officer Bowman should make a full recovery, though.”

Robby felt his confidence draining away. So the man with the red bow tie was in charge of juveniles.

“What is the recommendation of the Department of Juvenile Justice?” Stackhouse barked, remaining seated. “By law, that recommendation carries the most weight.” Face flushed, he turned to the probation lady.

Jamie Ackley rose, after a nod from her supervisor. She didn’t seem nervous even though she kept rubbing her gold earrings. She didn’t look at Robby but straightened her blue blazer as she got ready to speak.

“I am Robby’s juvenile probation officer,” she announced clearly. “I have discussed the case thoroughly with my supervisors. Given the seriousness of the charge, we are recommending a high risk commitment for Robby at this time.” She lowered her lanky body to her chair. Tom, her supervisor nodded his agreement.

That doesn’t sound so good, thought Robby. Maybe he was going “upstairs” after all. He felt tears begin to fill his eyes. He closed them for a minute, then opened them when Dr. Visconti began to speak.

She smiled at him, encouraging hope. Raphael’s eyes were on her, serious and respectful.

Mary stood, not waiting to be introduced. “Welcome everyone. First, thank you Robby for your exemplary behavior so far in JDC. Staff and teachers report that you are cooperating with the curriculum and you have been extremely hard working and respectful.”

He nodded at her, but couldn’t find a smile. Then she looked at all the adults in the room.

“This case is difficult. We have a very serious charge, from a child who does not have any previous offenses and has not had any prior behavioral problems at home or in school. Robby lives with his grandmother. His nineteen-year-old sister recently moved out of their mobile home. Robby has lived there for the last seven years, after his mother fled the state due to felony drug charges. Ms. Hartman has tried to provide a stable home for Robby, but there have been struggles along the way. Finances have been tight. Ms. Hartman has significant medical problems. Most importantly, there has been a lot of pressure on Robby to do well.”

“I’m not hearing anything different than what a lot of kids go through. A rough start and parental disappointments,” Raphael interrupted.

“You’re right,” she responded. “It’s an all too common story. Most parents have high expectations of their children. Robby’s case is different because he’s been abandoned at least three times by his mother and abused by his alcoholic father. He was in fear that if he was not good enough, he would be abandoned again.”

“So you’re saying that Robby’s fear of abandonment made him more, I guess, more vulnerable?” Phil McGee looked skeptical as he straightened his bow tie.

Robby held his breath and his grandmother took his hand in hers, giving him a little squeeze.

Mary leaned toward Phil, looking him in the eye.

“You’re absolutely right, Phil. This is not a simple bullying case, as I told Mr. Bernstein. Robby suffers from past trauma. The bullying was mostly minor, but it was part of a perfect storm. The abandonment, the abuse, not living up to expectations. Those were at the heart of the issue.

“Think about it. He is exceptionally polite and helpful. No disciplinary referrals at school. If not for the arrest, he was scheduled to become one of the youngest Eagle Scouts in Florida this year. He was trying to prove he is worthy. Academics were average, with some struggles in math. Robby hid his assignments and tests because he thought his grandmother would reject him if his grades were poor He knew his grandmother dreamed of him going to West Point. He didn’t want to disappoint her.

“Sure, he was the victim of slight bullying at school. It was enough to make him feel self-conscious, but he still had friends and assumed leadership roles in his Boy Scout troop. Lastly, he also overheard some disturbing information about the identity of his biological father shortly before the incident. Robby focused on getting back at kids at school because it was easier than thinking about the issues in his life.”

Jamie cleared her throat. “I can see the back story here that speaks to Robby’s state of mind. I don’t quite see how that justifies the attack on a school resource officer,” she said. Phil McGee gave her a nudge of approval.

Robby shifted in his seat and started to raise his hand. He wanted everyone to know that no matter what, he loved his grandmother. Sam leaned over and whispered to him.

“Let Dr. Visconti handle this. I’ll jump in if necessary. I don’t want you saying anything that can incriminate you.”

Robby wasn’t sure what “incriminate” meant but he lowered his hand.

“It’s difficult to provide a psychological explanation for the attack on Officer Bowman. He was likely in a panic over being discovered and acted out without thinking. That’s only a hypothesis. I don’t know for sure why Robby acted with such violence that day and we might never know. I also don’t know that if the perfect storm of events should occur again, he wouldn’t behave similarly.

“However, what I do know is that this young man has been subject to trauma and early abuse. He suffers from depression and anxiety and the constant fear of abandonment. Those are painful issues, but issues that can be addressed. Before this moment, he worked part-time for his grandmother, cutting lawns, volunteered in the community and demonstrated exemplary behavior.”

“So, you are suggesting mental health treatment?” Stackhouse snarled sarcastically. Robby lost a little hope, but Dr. Visconti continued to speak.

“I think the best chance for Robby’s success and the best way to keep the public safe is to place Robby in a psychiatric program for a few months with careful supervision upon release. The supervision would be indefinite or until the Department of Juvenile Justice no longer felt the need to provide the oversight. He would continue with therapy in outpatient treatment, along with his family, until released from those services.”

Mary sat down and several people began to talk at once.

“He’s not going to a cushy place with a pool and tennis courts. He nearly killed a police officer. He put twelve hundred students at risk with his bombs.” Stackhouse glared at the others, slamming his briefcase closed.

“Robby, you are not crazy, I am not letting them lock you up with crazy people,” Mrs. Hartman cried, pulling him close to her side.

“We can’t place a youth with these charges on probation,” Jamie said, getting to her feet again. “There’s no precedent for that. He needs serious sanctions, despite what you say, Dr. Visconti.”

Robby felt like the air was being sucked out of the room, out of him. He felt sick to his stomach. He was glad his grandmother was holding onto him or he might just disappear.

Dr. Visconti took a deep breath and looked around the room. Robby felt sorry for her, too. She looked a little scared.

“If I could address the Department first. Robby is not a behavior problem. If he enters a juvenile commitment program, he will stand in line, do his work, and see a therapist once a week who will barely scratch the surface of the issues I’ve mentioned.”

“That works with most kids,” Phil McGee drawled. He leaned towards Jamie in a show of support. She sat down, whispering a “thanks” to him.

“He does not need the behavioral management component of a juvenile program. Their mental health staff is not equipped to deal with this level of complexity and family dynamics. He will leave the program in record time because of good behavior, but the real work – the therapeutic work – will not be done.”

“Are you saying that going to a treatment program would be a more difficult sanction than a commitment program?” Raphael got to the core issue. Like the predator he was, he zeroed in on the heart of the matter. Robby wondered if this was true.

Dr. Visconti nodded. “The psychiatric hospital is not a five-star resort. It may be more comfortable than the commitment program. However, for Robby, it will be by far the most difficult placement. He will be forced to confront his biggest fears on a daily basis, with staff specifically trained for this type of intensive work, in a therapeutic setting. He will have to address his fear of abandonment, talk with his grandmother about the expectations she has for him and how that makes him feel, and process the news about his father. I can assure you that he would rather go through the motions at a commitment center rather than face those issues.”

Everyone was quiet.

“However, he is willing to choose the more difficult path,” Dr. Visconti continued. “Quite frankly, putting aside Robby’s needs, I think a psychiatric program is the best guarantee for public safety. This approach is most likely to get at the heart of the issues that triggered the behavior.”

The doctor sat down quickly. She looked around the room to see how she had been received. Stackhouse and McGee were quiet, looking thoughtful. Raphael flashed her a genuine smile of affection and respect. Jamie fiddled with her pen. Her supervisor, Tom, looked restless. Robby felt exhausted.

“Thank you for putting that together for us, Dr. Visconti,” Tom began. “My concern is that while the psychiatric program may be the best treatment option, I don’t feel comfortable with putting a youth on probation with these charges. If he gets discharged from the program for one reason or another, he will not have the consequences that need to be reinforced for this type of charge.”

Dr. Visconti leaned toward him and the probation officer. “Yes, of course Tom, that’s an excellent point. I believe the Department allows you to commit a youth to other facilities beside their programs for treatment. Robby could be committed to a psychiatric facility. If he is discharged due to lack of compliance, he could then be transferred to a juvenile program. I hardly think that will be the case, but it would be a safeguard.”

She glanced over to the end of the table where the three state attorneys were seated.
“I’m wondering if the State agrees,” she added. Robby wondered too.

Stackhouse pushed his chair back, rising to leave. “On face value,” he said, mechanically, “it seems that the recommendations meet our primary concern of public safety. He will be in a locked-down facility. Failure to comply with the program would mean an automatic transfer to commitment. Still, we need more information about the program. About security. Also, no offense Dr. Visconti, but we want other expert opinions.”

“I know we will not have a solution for Judge Dahlen tomorrow, but maybe we do have a direction to explore.” She smiled broadly at everyone at the table.

She looked at Robby. “Don’t worry young man, your attorney and grandma will go over everything with you later.”

Sam stood, clearing his throat. “Actually, now that I have wrapped things up, I would like to talk to Robby privately.”

Dr. Visconti smiled at his pomposity while Phil McGee rolled his eyes and Jamie bit her lip. Robby was really confused. Was he in more trouble or was he going to be all right? His grandmother gave him another big hug. “We’ll talk during visitation later today. Try not to worry.”

No one spoke as Officer Hammond escorted the lawyer and his young client to a conference room. Mary walked out with Raphael and Tom. Raphael looked at her closely.

“Good job, Mary. You stood your ground and it sounds like everyone is going to get what they want. You are going to have to carefully monitor his progress. He can be transferred to a commitment program at any time if he’s not cooperating.”

“I know, Raphael. I’ll keep close watch on him and also on how the therapists approach the issues.” Then she turned to Tom. “This is the first time you’ve seen Robby, isn’t it? Maybe you would feel better about the situation if you could spend a few minutes with him.”

“Well, I am curious how such a good kid could wind up in this situation,” Tom replied. “Let’s see if his attorney minds me having a chat with him.”

They stopped outside the conference room and looked at the drawn blinds. The door opened. Mary asked Sam for permission to speak with Robby.

“No problem,” he said, his briefcase in hand.

The threesome entered the room and sat down so they were on eye level with Robby. Tom spoke to him directly.

“Son, not only were my boys Eagle Scouts, I was a Scout Master for more years than I can count. Let me hear the Scout pledge.”

Mary and Raphael left them deep in discussion, quietly closing the door as Robby’s words filled the room. This might be the first normal conversation Robby has had in a month, she thought.

“Walking or driving back to the courthouse, Mary?”

“Walking, I needed the fresh air to clear my head.”

“You impressed me in there, lady. We entered on different sides of the fence and you forged an agreement. Sometimes I think you are like the quarterback, setting up plays for the rest of us to follow.”

“Oh, ye of little faith. Do you feel bad for giving me such a hard time in the beginning?”

Mary gave him a sidelong glance. Raphael was usually so sure of himself. Mary thought he looked a little less confident at the moment.

“I didn’t think you would be able to get this far, given the media attention. There is still a long way to go. The judge has to agree. There will likely be some fallout with law enforcement officers. Robby has to do well, etc. But the bulk of the work may be done.”

Mary hoped she was on a roll. “Can you help me with Officer Bowman? Would he be willing to meet with Robby? Maybe accept an apology? I know it would help Robby with the healing process and it may also help Officer Bowman.”

Mary stiffened as Raphael put his arm around her waist. It felt like he was cRussong some boundaries. Although the situation with Joseph had cooled down and she knew Raphael was interested in her, there hadn’t been any overt moves. He was handsome, smart, assertive and passionate about his views. She relaxed and he held her a little closer.

“That sounds like a good idea. Officer Bowman wants treatment for Robby. Maybe he will meet with him. I have another suggestion, too.”

“Sure, like what?”

“Dinner next Saturday night. I would suggest sooner, but I’m driving down to Miami to see my family this weekend. I have wanted to ask you out for a while. I didn’t know if you were still dating Joseph.”

“Joseph and I are–or were–casually dating. It’s not serious. I haven’t dated anyone since…”

“It’s okay, Mary. I know about Chris. Not much stays a secret in the courthouse. I can’t imagine what it has been like for you. No pressure, just dinner. I like the way you think.”

“You like the way I think? Well, that’s different than ‘Mary, your dress looks great.’ Or, ‘nice haircut!’”

He laughed, releasing her. “I’m a modern man. I appreciate you. How you approach situations, how you interact. The fact that you are beautiful is a bonus.”

Mary wondered how the conversation had veered so quickly to the personal, in the concrete setting of the detention center. But she felt comfortable with Raphael. More than comfortable. Excited.

“Dinner sounds great.”

“Pick you up at seven, then.”

She felt herself opening up, becoming less guarded about an emotional connection. She always tried to seem friendly, but she knew she kept a private core that was difficult to breach. He had not entered into that territory yet, but maybe he was getting close.

“I can just meet you somewhere, Raphael.”

“I don’t think so, Mary. This courtship is now formal.”

He kissed her forehead and let her go, winking at her as he entered the state attorney’s office.

Mary was glad her office was on the other side of the courthouse. She had time to wipe that silly grin off her face.

But just what did he mean? “This courtship is now formal?”

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