Can Maricopa County’s Juvenile-Justice System Fix Troubled Teens? Rarely, One Judge Laments

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The judge already had revoked the girl's probation for various reasons, but where to place her after the delinquency hearing was the nagging question.

Judith was running out of places to stay — short of a locked state juvenile facility — and CPS was not going to allow her to return to her parents anytime soon.

At that hearing, Judith had sat between her parents at the defendant's table, a moping girl with long, dark hair that she kept yanking.

She told the judge, "I'd like to go home. I think I'm well enough. I'm never going to do any of that stuff again."

Her father promised that Judith "is not going to be a problem now. She realizes it ain't a game anymore."

Judith chimed in, "I do. I do."

The judge said, "You've sat there three times already and told me the same thing. The best predictor of future is the past."

Judith said, wailing, "But I promise. I promise."

Kemp told her, "I would be irresponsible if I let you go home today."

Judith's mom sat mutely, a shrunken woman maybe in her early 40s.

But Dad wouldn't give up.

"What will you need to believe that I can control her?" he asked Kemp. "It's 100 percent in my mind that it's all under control."

"It's not going to happen today," Kemp replied, ordering Judith back into lockup at the county detention center until he could figure out what to do.

A follow-up hearing was scheduled. Before it occurred, Judith's father invited New Times to the couple's modest west Phoenix home.

The residence was dark, dank, cluttered, and smelled of urine and rotten food. Judith's mother was in a back room and would not come out.

Her father was beyond irate, claiming the state of Arizona and Judge Kemp were "conspiring" to keep Judith behind bars.

He pulled out a Phoenix police report dated several months earlier that described how his daughter claimed to have been sexually assaulted by two male staffers at a residential-treatment center where she was staying.

County prosecutors had declined to file criminal charges against the men.

He said the treatment center settled the matter out of court for more than $50,000, but he complained that the money would not be available until the girl's 21st birthday, years later.

At that moment, the family's latest CPS caseworker unexpectedly knocked on the door. Grudgingly, Judith's father let her in but blocked her from getting too far into the front room.

The woman asked him how things were going.

"You know exactly how things are going," the man snarled at her. "You people have no heart."

The caseworker responded gently that whatever was going to happen would take time, and she hoped that he and his wife would change their attitude.

A minute or so later, she excused herself.

Judge Kemp was able to find a place to put Judith before the girl's next court hearing a few weeks later.

He told Judith and her parents at the hearing that a bed soon would be opening at a residential treatment facility in northern Arizona. The judge suggested that she would be living there for months before the next step — whatever that might be.

"Who's paying for it?" the girl's father asked.

"Frankly, I don't care," the judge responded. "It will get paid for."

"I'm ready to go," Judith blurted.

Reports from the facility over the next few months suggested that she was doing surprisingly well.

But her parents' lives continued to crumble.

Their home was about to go into foreclosure (and later did).

Judith's father became increasingly obsessed and depressed.

Months after he met with New Times at his home, he called to say that his daughter would not even speak with him on the phone anymore.

He blamed Judge Kemp and CPS for having poisoned Judith's mind.

A few weeks after that brief conversation, the man hanged himself.

At last word, Judith still was not living with her mother, who now is in parts unknown. Judith apparently hasn't gotten into trouble with the law for more than a year.

Mike Kemp continues to wonder what difference, positive or otherwise, he had on the lives of Judith and the other children who came into his court day after day.

He questions whether he was spinning his wheels, trying to craft solutions in situations where none existed.

In the end, he says, "I wasn't their parents, was I?"

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin