But I am Not Soft!

By Judge Michael Key

Not that you asked out loud but, yes, you can be trauma responsive and still do your job, no matter what your job might be. In early 2019, I wrote an article for Georgia’s Courts Journal entitled, Is Doing Justice Really Enough, wherein I confessed that, after thirty years on the bench, I had come to understand and accept that my charge as a judge is not just to do justice, but to do justice and promote healing; healing among those we serve, among those who serve with us, and within ourselves.  Recently, I witnessed a powerful demonstration of the fulfillment of that charge from what some might believe to be an unlikely source.

The fifteen-year old young man had suffered through more adverse experiences as a child than anyone should have to experience in a lifetime. Travis (not his real name) had embarked on a course of crime, mostly entering autos … a lot of autos. After his most recent string of thefts, he stood before me at a detention hearing. Whether there was probable cause to believe he committed the offenses was not at issue; the evidence was more than sufficient. I had to decide whether to detain Travis pending trial. It is something juvenile court judges do almost routinely where there is no good choice: balancing the risk of harm to a child by placing him in a secure detention facility against the risk to the community if the child is not detained. Travis was clearly uncontrollable, with no one able to keep both him and the community safe pending trial, and I was left with no viable alternative to detention. 

Before continuing with Travis’s story, let me tell you about the Juvenile Court prosecutor, Lynda, who had a reputation for being tough as nails when she came to our Court. Some were concerned that Lynda might not be able to adjust to the restorative culture of a juvenile court.  But Lynda had worked with our Felony Adult Drug Court, which is also restorative in nature, and I had always found her to be appropriately balanced in her approach.  But even with that, I would never have imagined what happened in court that day.

When I announced I was detaining Travis, he walked quietly along with the deputies out of the courtroom to the holding area, where he became belligerent and disruptive. His mother jumped up from the defense counsel’s table to go to him, but Travis’s attorney grabbed her by the arm and said to her, “you can’t go back there.”  Spontaneously, Lynda got up out of her chair and told Travis’s attorney to go take care of his client. “I’ve got this,” she said.  Lynda then embraced Travis’s mother, the same mother whose son she just argued should be locked up. Travis’s mother reciprocated and they embraced for what seemed like an eternity. As I was leaving the bench to go to my chambers, I saw Lynda motion for Travis’s mother to sit down and, I am told, Lynda explained to her what was going on and what would happen next. I am sure what Lynda did could not fully erase the harm done to Travis’s mother by seeing her child taken away and hearing what was going on in the back, but it created an environment that minimized the harm and promoted healing.

I came back into the courtroom a little while later and only Lynda, court security, and a court staff member were there. I thanked Lynda for what she had done and she said, “that is what I was supposed to do,” to which I replied, “but you didn’t have to.” She walked away dismissively as if I were making too much of it, and then she turned and said, “But I am not soft!”

That is the point, the point made better by Lynda’s actions than I could ever make it in all of my teaching and writing about trauma.  You can do your job and still be trauma responsive, whatever your job is. Being trauma responsive does not equate to being soft on crime.  Being trauma responsive does not require compromising other values or commitments. Being trauma responsive is just treating people the right way even in the worst of circumstances.  The late James Weldon, a good man and a great lawyer from our community, shared with me almost forty years ago the secret to his success, and encouraged me to use it in my practice.  He told me to represent every client to the best of my ability and to try to win every case, but to always treat the adverse party and counsel with respect. He said my clients would love me and the adverse party would speak kindly of me.  He said it is a win-win for everybody. He was right and it worked well for me most of the time.  I think it would work well for all of us if we just give it try.  What do you think?  

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