In court that same morning, Mary admired the way Kristin gracefully hopped up the four steps to her seat on the bench, surrounded by the American flag, the flag of the great state of Florida and the seal of the Sixth Judicial Circuit. Mary suppressed a smile while remembering a not-so-nimble new judge last year who lost his footing in his new black robe, grabbed for something to hold on to and brought both flags down with him. She barely knew Kristin but she would bet that would never happen to her.
Mary saw Deputy Sandstrom move in front of Kristin’s judicial bench to give the judge a heads up on Monday morning’s activity. Mary told the deputy that she wanted to be first on the docket, so she quietly inched behind him where she could hear their conversation. Deputy Sandstrom pressed his barrel chest against the light mahogany judicial bench, looking up at the judge. Mary had a perfect view of the top of his head and the bald spot his comb over didn’t reach.
Kristin and the deputy locked eyes. Hers icy blue; his a milk chocolate brown. The deputy suggested that they take the domestic violence case first, as the defendant was a fourteen-year-old girl weeping, cursing and causing trouble in the holding cell. Mary sighed with relief and turned to leave when she heard Kristin respond.
“Ya,” she said, in an exaggerated singsong Norwegian accent, leaning over the bench to get closer to the deputy. “Deputy Sandstrom, what you say goes. You are so wery experienced in juvenile court and you are always awailable.”
Sandstrom smiled widely, tapping his fingers on the bench. Mary knew that he was Swedish and the judge was Norwegian. Ancient enemies, she thought, but friends in the courtroom.
Mary almost got her wish of going first. Kristin went through a few routine shoplifting and curfew violations, explaining the charges and appointing a public defender. Of course, to the kids, the conditions of release were paramount. Would she release them outright to their parents, put them on house arrest or keep them locked up? Mary didn’t envy a judge making those decisions.
Sandstrom called the Mikayla Wright case. Kristin beckoned Mary to the podium. “I’m glad you’re on this case, Dr. Visconti. It sounds terrible. Domestic battery, 14-year-old girl, mom the victim. She threatened her with a knife. I don’t know what you will recommend, but I’m worried about sending her home to her mother.”
“Judge Dahlen, sometimes the police report reads worse than the reality. I had a chance to meet with Mikayla and her mother, Ms. Wright, at the detention center this weekend. The backstory may surprise you.”
Kristin raised her eyebrows skeptically, “Okay. Deputy Sandstrom, bring Mikayla Wright into the courtroom.”
While they waited, Mary saw Raphael Gonzalez, the assistant state attorney, look quizzically at her. Mary felt his gaze and knew he was wondering what drama would unfold. She turned towards him, distracted by his drop dead gorgeous presence in a tan suit and dark brown dress shirt that matched his eyes.
Jamie, the probation officer, walked over to stand next to Mary. Mary glanced at Public Defender Lee Ann Morris and sighed with relief that Lee Ann was covering the hearings. She didn’t grandstand and she routinely gave a business card with her contact information to the parents or kids. She was the consummate professional woman. Tailored blue suit, bright yellow blouse, paisley scarf and three-inch navy heels. When she flipped her blunt cut auburn hair from side to side, it meant she was fully prepared and ready to work hard.
“Mrs. Wright, please join me at the podium,” Mary called to a tearful African American woman in the first row of the gallery. When she looked confused, Mary walked back, took her elbow and guided her to the podium.
Mrs. Wright gasped when she saw her daughter brought from the holding area in a baggy grey scrub suit and handcuffs. Mikayla raised both cuffed fists to wipe the tears from her red, swollen eyes. Her unkempt dreadlocks seemed too big for her thin face. She looked around the courtroom, at the judge, the deputies, anywhere but at her mother. Mary’s heart broke for this struggling family.
“Dr. Visconti, want to tell me about this case, please?”
Mary smiled a bit. Judge Dahlen was new to the juvenile bench but so professional. Mary had worked hard for her doctorate in psychology and she was pleased to be identified as such. Not all the judges did that.
“Yes, of course, judge,” Mary said. “The child, Mikayla Wright, is charged with felony assault and resisting arrest. She threatened her mother in their kitchen with a butcher knife and struggled to get away from the police officers who were called by a neighbor.” Mary moved closer to Mikayla and put her hand on the girl’s arm.
Judge Dahlen looked sternly at Mikayla. “According to the police affidavit, the string of obscenities Mikayla screamed at the officers was the worst they’d ever heard from a young girl,” she said.
Mary tried to respond, but Jamie, Lee Anne and Raphael rose from their seats and began speaking at the same time. The judge was bombarded by the threesome, all eager to present their positions. Raphael stressed it was a “very serious felony” while Lee Anne emphasized it was Mikayla’s “first offense,” and Jamie stated the incident was “triggered by an argument.” The judge banged her gavel and held up both hands.
“Stop talking all at once,” she said. It’s obvious that we have a bad situation on our hands. Let’s settle down and figure out how to handle it.”
Mary saw the opening. She stepped even closer to the podium, gently tugging the mother to follow her.
“Judge,” she said, “I had the opportunity to visit Mikayla in the detention center late yesterday afternoon, after her arrest. I also met with her mother, Rashika Wright, before court this morning. I know it sounds bad, but as you know this is only an advisory hearing. Once Mikayla gets to talk to a lawyer and the state looks into all the circumstances, there may be room for compromise, perhaps even a diversion program with some counseling. The question today is whether Mikayla can be safely returned to her mother so she can get back to school. My brief report, which is in the file, recommends that”
Mikayla and her mother both wiped tears from their eyes.
“I’m taking a five-minute break to review this file,” Judge Dahlen announced, tapping her gravel. Deputy Sandstrom ushered her out. Mary drummed her fingertips on the podium. Five minutes seemed like an hour. Mary liked the new judge; found her to be patient and fair. She hoped she was willing to go out on the limb for a kid if Mary suggested an unconventional solution. Mary wasn’t a lawyer, probation officer or police officer, but she knew that as a child psychologist, she played an important role in the juvenile court’s goal of rehabilitating the child. Mary thought that Judge Dahlen appreciated that role.
“It looks like a good plan, Dr. Visconti,” the Judge said, returning to the bench, “but I’m still concerned about the violence.”
“Thanks so much, Judge, but I have another request – a behavioral evaluation.” Mary held her breath and Mrs. Wright’s arm and hoped she was on a roll.
Like the other juvenile judges, Judge Dahlen could order behavioral evaluations in complicated cases, to draw up safety plans or make recommendations for sentencing. In this way, they were like a team. No other Florida court had anything like this.
Each time Mary paid her property taxes, she remembered to thank the taxpayers and the Juvenile Welfare Board for their insight and generosity in funding the program.
Rashika Wright smiled a bit through her tears as Mary patted her arm in support. Mikayla still looked at the floor. Uninterrupted, Mary continued.
“Mikayla is not used to structure at her mother’s house. She’s flexing her wings. She’s skipping school, staying out late and hanging out with some older men. She needs counseling to build back respect for her mother. Mrs. Wright needs to understand that Mikayla has had more independence in that group home, probably more than she should have. That’s led to some major arguments between them, including yesterday’s.”
What happened next was so intimate that Mary wished she was a cameraman who could zoom in and capture the moment. A mother and daughter, staring through tears at each other, oblivious to everyone else in the courtroom.
“I love you, Mikayla. I’m trying to be a good momma. I want you to come home.”
“I wasn’t gonna hurt you, Momma. I’m so sorry about yesterday. I just want to go home.” Mikayla raised her cuffed hands again to wipe away tears.
Mary couldn’t help but notice the change in the judge’s demeanor. “Of course, I’ll order the behavioral evaluation, but I want to make sure that Ms. Wright feels safe if Mikayla is returned to her home.”
“Judge,” Assistant State Attorney Raphael Gonzalez stood to get her attention. “There’s more to this case than a mother-daughter spat. The state believes this young lady has been prostituting herself and …”
Judge Dahlen leaned over the bench, fixing those cool blue eyes on Raphael. “Yes, I’m aware that she is associating with adult men, Mr. Gonzalez. There is plenty of time to go into that later. This child is fourteen. A victim, not a defendant, if she is involved in prostitution, or more accurately, human trafficking. We don’t call children ‘prostitutes’.”
Mary stepped in front of Raphael, closer to the bench. “It’s one of the problems I’m discussing with Mikayla and her mother, Judge. Mikayla has recently become involved with an older man who bought her a cell phone, new clothes and French manicures. We don’t think it has gone past that, but he is definitely off limits as far as the safety plan goes. I’ll make sure both Mikayla and her mother know that.”
Mary looked over at Mikayla, who was still wiping tears away and smiling at her mother. She looks like any fourteen-year-old. Remorseful and seeking forgiveness, not anything like a woman selling her body. Mary couldn’t picture her with an older man, but the chipped white tips of her fading French manicure gave her away. Mikayla and her mother were having trouble putting food on the table. A professional manicure was not in their budget. By law, a fourteen-year-old can’t consent to sex, so how can she be called a prostitute? She would take it up with Raphael sometime soon.
The judge cleared her throat and looked directly at the child. “Mikayla, I’m appointing Ms. Morris, the public defender, to represent you. You’ll be released to your mother under strict conditions. Obey all her rules, go to school each day, no older men and no violence in the home.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Mikayla answered, smiling just a bit.
“Thank you so much, Judge,” Mrs. Wright sighed.
“I’ll take Mrs. Wright to my office to start the paperwork for the evaluation. We’ll talk about a safety plan,” Dr. Visconti finished.
Mary saw the judge cross her fingers and tap them on the bench. She still looked skeptical. She hadn’t fully bought into the plan. Mary hesitated as she tried to imagine herself in that black robe, but with her unruly black hair and tendency to weep or laugh out loud, she couldn’t picture it.
“May I approach the bench again, Judge?”
Mary signaled an “off the record” conversation.
“Judge, it just occurred to me that Mikayla would be a good candidate for the Girls Court. I have a couple of others in mind too. We wanted to start small. If you have any free time this afternoon I could drop by your office to talk about it.”
The judge flipped the calendar.
“I’ve got domestic violence cases all afternoon. Orders for Protection. Stalking. Dating violence. I should be through by four o’clock and I’m certain to need a big dose of positive thinking by then,” she said, smiling.
“I hate to interrupt you Judge,” Deputy Sandstrom pushed Mary aside, “But we have an urgent matter here. The State Attorney called. He is bringing in a middle school kid who stabbed a police officer and tried to bomb the school this morning. They want an immediate detention hearing. I have him in the holding area. I can bring him out right now.”
Heads turned as the courtroom door banged opened. State Attorney Clark Stackhouse barreled through dressed in his trademark dark blue suit. Phil McGee, chief of the juvenile division, followed closely at his heels, dressed more causally, grey slacks and a blue blazer. A two-man tornado. Could have been G-men or Homeland Security, Mary thought. She ducked her head to hide her smile at the theatrics.
Deputy Sandstrom signaled for Robby Hartman to be brought from the holding cell. The Bay Area News 4 camera man rose from his seat and the news anchor grabbed his microphone. The elected state attorney smiled at the camera.
Here we go, Mary thought. Bombing the school? It was barely October but this was sure to be the crime of the school year. She watched the short, chubby, red-faced boy in grey fatigues enter the courtroom. His eyes were fixed on the floor. His hands and feet shackled in steel cuffs and leg restraints. He looked awfully scared.
But he didn’t look like a terrorist.