The judge with a big heart

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‘This guy has a huge heart.”

That was my first thought when I sat in Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Zagelow’s courtroom for the first time, more than a decade ago.

As the kids stood before him in their jumpsuits and shackles, he’d regard them with a mystified expression on his face. Hands spread wide, head turned slightly to one side, he asked questions.

“Young man, you’ve got quite a history. What do you intend to do?” the judge asked a repeat juvenile offender, his tone somehow stern and gentle at the same time.

“Young lady, you’ve got a real opportunity here to turn your life around,” he said to a 13-year-old. “What will it take to do that?”

His questions were often met with silence and shuffling of feet. Sometimes with anger or hostility. But Judge Z’s compassion never wavered.

When he retired as a superior court judge five years ago, I knew we were losing a great advocate for kids and families. For Judge Z was a problem solver. He disliked the cookie-cutter approach. He clearly believed that every individual who stood before him, waiting for “judgment,” was unique and deserved to be heard.

“I wasn’t elected as a social worker but as a judge,” he told me a few months ago. “Adults often didn’t want me to interfere. But with adolescents, it was my business not just to mete out the punishment, if that was appropriate, but to figure out the root cause of the problem.

“I asked the ‘Big Four’ questions. First, is there gang involvement? If so, that presents a different set of problems.

“Second, is there a drug problem, is the youth chemically dependent?

“Third, are there mental health problems? Is the kid depressed?

“And fourth, the question I always asked — is the family part of the solution or are they part of the problem?”

Remembering those courtroom scenes five years after he left the bench, Judge Z once again looks mystified. Perhaps a better word is frustrated.

“People rail about dysfunctional families, but one of the most discouraging things for me was the parents who did everything right and it still wasn’t working. They spared no expense to help their kids, they spent themselves into the ground, and it still didn’t work. That’s heart-wrenching.”

“I was frustrated because the system didn’t seem to be working. Here’s some kid, something has happened, he’s acted out. So we look for the root cause and well, yeah, it’s no wonder he’s depressed because he’s doing drugs all the time.

“The drug problem is so pervasive, and drug use and mental health problems are joined at the hip. So the next question is what do we do about it? Where do you go for help?

“If you’re lucky, you get funding for 30 days of treatment. Everyone tells me that’s not particularly effective, especially with kids, but it’s better than nothing. With more intensive programs, six months and longer, the effectiveness goes way up.

“But who has the money to pay for it? I’m not blaming anyone, it’s just a lack of services.”

The “system” of delivering services to those in need, Judge Z says, is “broken and everybody knows it.” But he’s optimistic about the future.

“I’m not so naïve to think that we can wave a magic wand and make these problems go away. But if we can get people to work together, we can do better.

“We need a whole systems approach for the community, a total reorganization. We need to have serious discussions about how to address chemical dependency and mental health problems with all the community players, including the people who are being hammered by these problems.

“Where we are now — well, it can’t get worse. Any solution we try is worth the effort. Will it be 100 percent better? No. Can it be somewhat better? I hope so. Substantially better?”

He sighed, hands spread wide once again as if to ask, “Do you have any answers?” I imagined him back in the courtroom in his black robe, dispensing justice, dispersing compassion.

And I remembered the questions he asked the young people in his court. “What do you intend to do?” “What will it take to change things?”

For a “systems” change requires a “we” approach. Only if we join together, putting our prejudices and biases aside to work for the common good, can we achieve true and lasting change.

“I would hope,” Judge Z said, “that we are up to the task.”

Kathy Ketcham is the co-author of 14 books and co-founder of Trilogy Recovery Community. For more information, go to www.trilogyrecovery.org.

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