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."
But Irene Cook, the executive director of Denver's Court Appointed Special Advocate Program (CASA), disagrees. "It's absolutely critical that a child's representation in court is based on a thorough independent investigation," she says.
State senator Elsie Lacy of Aurora, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, says lawmakers expect GALs to do their own footwork. "It was our understanding that the GALs would conduct their own investigations," says Lacy. "Now we hear they're getting most of their information from Social Services. That's not the way it was supposed to be."
Independent recommendations by GALs are crucial, because "sometimes Social Services is wrong," says Roy Wallace. "Sometimes the Social Services worker has developed a bias," he says. "There needs to be a check and balance."
Judge Wakefield agrees. He says independent investigations are necessary, because Social Services may have other masters besides the best interests of the child, including budgetary constraints that make recommending private placements or extra supervision costly and unpopular actions.
But despite the findings of the study, which was conducted by a third-year CU law student, Wakefield isn't convinced that GALs go along to get along. "I haven't seen too many guardians lie down to Social Services," he says. "I think people get the wrong impression because they [GALs and social workers] sit on the same side of the courtroom."
Melvin Okamoto is calling another case on his docket. They call it a "forthwith" down in Juvenile Court--a quickly scheduled hearing (usually with only a day or so of notice) to determine a child's placement or a pressing custody issue. The attorney for Denver Social Services is present. The attorney for the respondent parent is present. The social worker is present. The child's mother is present.
The GAL doesn't show.
Okamoto proceeds anyway. The case is quickly disposed of. The Department of Social Service's recommendation is accepted without question.
Later Okamoto hesitates a moment when asked if GALs often fail to show up in court. "A lot?" he says, considering the question. "Yes, I'd say they don't show up a lot of the time."
Art Lucero, the city attorney primarily responsible for representing Denver Social Services, says in his experience, GALs are absent "more often than not" at forthwith hearings. "There's just no time to schedule it in," he explains. "Sometimes GALs have so many cases [that] they're discussing one in the hall when they're supposed to be in court, and vice-versa."
Judge Wakefield says he's aware of the attendance problem, especially at forthwith hearings, but he sees no solution. "It concerns me, but as a practical matter, I can't do anything about it," he says. "Every lawyer has more than one case, except Johnnie Cochran," jokes the judge, "and even he has the fertilizer thing."
For a system that has been sorely neglected for years, guardian ad litem representation is facing a sudden surge of scrutiny.
State representative Tony Grampsas of Evergreen, chairman of the legislature's Joint Budget Committee, is promising hearings on the subject in November. Grampsas doesn't mince words about his impression of the GAL system: "I don't know of too many [GALs] who are doing their job," he says.
In the other chamber, Elsie Lacy echoes Grampsas's concerns.
"We've gotten reports that they're not doing what they should do," says Lacy. "Not talking to the kids, not conducting individual investigations. I've been on the budget committee for two years, and we've been getting complaints ever since I've started."
The Colorado State Judicial Department is conducting its own study of the problem. Using $90,000 of federal grant money, the department is assessing the entire dependency-and-neglect system across nine judicial districts. "We've just started looking into Denver's juvenile court," explains Laurie Shera, the state policy analyst in charge of the study. Her agency hasn't come to any conclusions yet, says Shera, but it expects to complete its study in December.
That's just about the time that State Auditor Tim O'Brien will be handing a report of his own to the legislative audit committee, an eight-member bicameral group that reviews audits and recommends remedial legislation. O'Brien says no particular concern prompted him to audit the GAL program. "It's just a program in state government that hasn't been audited for a period of time and was due," he says. O'Brien estimates that the last time the GAL program underwent a substantive program evaluation was at least seven or eight years ago.
Colorado statute prevents O'Brien from discussing the audit's scope, focus or findings until the legislative committee has received the report and released it. O'Brien says that he plans to give legislators the report by December 5.
By that time, roughly another 160 kids will have been appointed GALs in Denver Juvenile Court. At least a quarter of them will have Allen Alderman as their attorney.
People have tried to reform Colorado's GAL system before. There have been three attempts in the last three years to make improvements, or at least provide a safety net for some of the children subjected to the current system. All three have been squelched.
In the first instance, the Colorado Bar Association's Juvenile Law Forum Committee and Family Law Section worked for three years drafting, publishing and revising proposed standards of practice for guardian ad litems. Those standards require GALs to have an independent position concerning the child they represent, although they do allow the attorney to send surrogates to meet with the child client. The CBA standards also discuss education and training for GALs, as well as appropriate compensation guidelines.
The Colorado Supreme Court reviewed the draft standards last year but declined to accept them.
The other two attempts at revamping the GAL system have come from the Children's Legal Clinic. In 1992 the clinic took a case all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, arguing that children have a right to have their wishes represented by their own attorney during a custody hearing. The case was significant, because GALs are not charged with representing children's wishes, just with their "best interests." (As Denver District Court Services Director Timothy J. Turley tersely puts it, "What the child would want is immaterial.")
In the case brought by the CLC, a twelve-year-old named Eric Hartley wished to be placed with his mother after his parents divorced. His GAL argued that custody should be awarded to Eric's father. Eric went to the Children's Legal Clinic and asked to hire one of that organization's attorneys to press his case in court. The lower court denied the request, and an appeals court declared the issue moot. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case but issued a decision declaring that children have no right to independent counsel.
The Hartley case has ominous ramifications for the kids now subject to the GAL system. It means that if a GAL fails in his duty--either because he is overloaded with cases, doesn't understand his responsibility or just plain doesn't care--that child is now barred from being represented by another, presumably competent, attorney.
The third proposal for addressing problems with the GAL system also came in 1992, when the CLC proposed a pilot project under which a state-wide pro bono GAL system would be run out of its office. The system would use attorneys who volunteer their time to take one or two GAL cases every year. The CLC proposes to train those attorneys and oversee their efforts. The idea is that well-trained lawyers will take one or two cases a year and dedicate themselves to fully representing children in a system that now cranks out cases like sausages. But so far, the court has not responded to the proposal.
In November 1992, Shari Shink, director of the CLC, wrote to Wakefield's predecessor as chief judge, Orrelle Weeks, offering to take three GAL cases a month--at no cost to the state. Shink says her goal was both to ease the load on overburdened contract GALs and to serve as a role model. She received no response. (Judge Weeks did not return phone calls seeking comment.)
The CLC recently submitted another proposal to the Colorado State Judicial Department. That proposal is still pending.
In the first five months of 1995, Denver Juvenile Court experienced a 45 percent increase in dependency-and-neglect petitions from the previous year: a total of 550 cases in which a judge was asked to determine a child's future. Judge Wakefield thinks the increase is a trend that will continue through the year as more and more families disintegrate.
One reason for the likely upsurge in cases requiring GALs, says Wakefield, is a recent successful lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. In that suit, the ACLU convinced a federal district court judge that Colorado wasn't providing enough social workers to handle the burgeoning caseload. The state responded by hiring more social workers--and the corresponding increase in D&N petitions may have the ironic effect of further swamping the GAL system.
But Wakefield doesn't expect lawmakers to respond with an accompanying budget increase for the juvenile court or the GAL program. "Last year the legislature cut some of our budget," he says. "I don't have much hope for next year."
By September 1, Denver Juvenile Court will have renegotiated its latest GAL contract with Allen Alderman and, according to Judge Wakefield, a few other attorneys. Wakefield says he fully expects to renew Alderman's contract.
After Jeremiah ran away from the Child Opportunity Program the last time, he turned up at his mother's house--the place Denver Social Services thought was so dangerous that it sparked the D&N petition in the first place. Because the social worker in the case said there were no other placements available, Jeremiah was allowed to stay with his mother until one opened up. Today the eleven-year-old is in Bannock House, a facility for troubled teenagers. His custody will come up for review again in three months.
Alicia returns to court in September with Laura Cerasoli. The little girl says she's hoping it will be her last trip to court.
end of part 2
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.