By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
part 2 of 2
Magistrate Melvin Okamoto runs Division 6 in Denver Juvenile Court. It's a place where families in crisis shuffle in and out, in some cases demonstrating their dysfunction in full view of everyone present. On the rare occasion where two parents exist and show up at court, they are often at odds, arguing bitterly around the backs of their separate attorneys. At one recent, contentious hearing, a mother refused to turn over her infant's car seat and clothing to the custodial father.
Here the magistrate's job is more than judge. It is alternately mentor, enforcer, cajoler and psychologist. Okamoto is good at what he does. And one of his pet peeves is children in the courtroom.
"They don't want to see their parents in that position," he says. "They've been hurt enough."
Sometimes, however, it can't be helped.
Jeremiah sits on the hard oak bench watching Okamoto order his mother to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Jeremiah is eleven, with a James Dean haircut and puffy bags under his eyes. He has just run away from his placement at the Child Opportunity Program, a private, nonprofit shelter for kids who are waiting for their parents to get their acts together. Jeremiah hates the place.
His mother looks to be in her late twenties, dressed in a tube top and purple cutoffs with a hairbrush stuck bristle end up in her back pocket. She's begging Okamoto to give her her son back.
Mona Goodwin, Jeremiah's GAL, looks on.
Goodwin has spent a lot of time on this case. She doesn't take GAL work very often. Her practice is mostly domestic relations and probate. But from time to time, she takes on a child. She's been doing it off and on for the past ten years.
For Jeremiah's case, she has visited both the mother's home and the maternal grandmother's home on several occasions--in the former instance to encourage the mother to take the necessary steps (like drug rehabilitation) to get her son back. In the maternal grandmother's case, Goodwin tried to coax the woman into taking her four grandchildren into her one-bedroom apartment.
Neither plea was successful.
Now Jeremiah sits in a cool courtroom and listens while three attorneys, a social worker and a magistrate try to figure out what to do with him.
"Jeremiah has said he will run again if placed back at Child Opportunity Program," the social worker tells Okamoto. "And the department is afraid that by doing so, he will not only endanger himself--as he did the first time--but also others, as he's threatened to take other kids with him."
The Child Opportunity Program sits in the middle of Five Points, and Jeremiah spent several hours wandering the streets on the evening he ran away from the facility. Jeremiah's brother and two sisters, all younger than he is, are also at the shelter. They're the ones he's planning to take with him.
Okamoto knits his eyebrows together. "Any relatives?" he asks.
"No, your honor," says the social worker.
"So what alternatives do we have?" asks the magistrate.
"The only opening is at the Child Opportunity Program," says the social worker.
Jeremiah's mother can stand it no longer. "How is it better for them?" she shouts, startling the participants with her loud, awkward protest. "How is it better that he go there, that they all go there, and not with me, when my daughter calls me up and says she wants to kill herself?"
Okamoto looks at Goodwin.
"Did you know that?" he asks.
"Not until today," she answers.
"How can you send him back there?" the mother continues, working herself into a frenzy that makes it impossible for her to go on.
Okamoto tries to soothe the woman. "There is no question they're going to go home at some point," he says. "The question is when." He directs his clerk to schedule a return-of-custody review for no more than three months from today.
Then he returns to the question at hand. "So where is Jeremiah going?" he asks the social worker.
"Child Opportunity Program is the only thing available, Your Honor," she repeats.
"Do you have any problem with that, Ms. Goodwin?" Okamoto asks, turning to the still-silent GAL in the corner.
"No, Your Honor."
"Child Opportunity Program it is, then," finishes Okamoto.
The mother gives Jeremiah one last hug and walks away sobbing. Jeremiah shuffles out with the social worker.
Mona Goodwin was so concerned about Jeremiah that she accompanied him back to the center at 25th Street and Curtis and talked with him for an hour, trying to convince him not to run away.
He took off that night, anyway.
According to a study conducted in Denver Juvenile Court between November 1993 and March 1994, guardian ad litems agreed with the placement recommendations made by the Denver Department of Social Services--or voiced no position at all--98 percent of the time.
It's a statistic that signals a breakdown of the most important part of the guardian ad litem system: an independent recommendation to the court.
Even some of the most dedicated GALs don't believe they have a responsibility to independently investigate placement alternatives. "I'm not the social worker," says Mona Goodwin, who despite spending a great deal of time and effort in Jeremiah's case, did not conduct her own search for a place for the boy. "I rely on her to tell me what's available and what's not."