By Patrick Boyle and John Kelly
Those who have worked with Mary Mentaberry, executive director of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, are rarely neutral about her. “People either love her or hate her,” said one former executive at the council.
At the end of this month, Mentaberry steps down from the council, which is the primary policy voice for, and training provider to, judges who handle child welfare and juvenile cases around the country.
Her departure ends a nearly four-decade career that saw the council significantly increase its federal funding, get mired in a fraud investigation that muddied its image and make a major policy reversal on handling status offenders.
Retired judge Dale Koch of Oregon will serve as interim executive director while the council, which reports a membership of about 1,900 judges, commissioners and other law professionals, searches for a successor.
Mentaberry was not available for comment this week. The council said she “is stepping down to pursue other interests.”
Her career at the council is an up-from-the-mailroom kind of story. She was hired in a clerical role soon after the council moved from Chicago to Reno, Nev., in 1969, and has been there since, except for one four-year absence. She rose to become the council’s primary lobbyist to Congress and head of its department on permanency planning for children.
From the latter post she essentially ran the operation, and had ambitions to rise to the top. After Executive Director Lou McHardy left in 1999, having served for 28 years, the next two leaders were outsiders who had rocky tenures of about two years each: David Funk and Judge David Mitchell. After Mitchell left in 2004, Mentaberry won the post.
By that time, Mentaberry had played a key role in boosting the council’s income from a plethora of activities, including training juvenile court judges, producing studies and guidelines about juvenile justice, and providing technical assistance to courts around the country. It also operates the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, Pa.
In 1998, the council reported just under $8 million in revenue. By 2002, revenue totaled $14.3 million, with $12.2 million from federal grants and cooperative agreements, most from within the U.S. Office of Justice Programs. The council’s budget reached $15 million for fiscal 2008, according to its federal tax returns.
The council’s specialty has been winning federal earmarks: It was the first organization to secure an earmark from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and has brought in more than $20 million in earmarks since 2001, pulling in between $1.75 million and $4.5 million each year.
Those earmarks earned the council a mix of admiration and resentment within the juvenile justice field. Some Justice Department officials, such as former OJJDP Administrator Shay Bilchik, have said the council did good work for the money, while some providers have complained that the council won bloated grants because of its contacts in Congress, including Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) of the council’s home state.
While Mentaberry’s leadership style drew strong loyalty from some employees, others say she was harsh on those who questioned her. One was lawyer Serena Hulbert, who filed a wrongful termination claim against the council in 2005, saying that after she raised questions about the council’s use of federal grants, Mentaberry and others created a “hostile work environment,” harassed her and eventually pushed her out. The council settled the case with Hulbert.
Hulbert also filed a complaint with the Justice Department over the council’s use of department funds, which led to an investigation into whether the council falsified employee time sheets, billed the federal government for work by “ghost” employees, failed to disclose that it hired the spouses of employees and fired Hulbert for questioning those practices.
In 2008 the council agreed to pay $300,000 to settle the allegations. Mentaberry agreed to pay $16,500 to settle conflict-of-interest charges stemming from her husband’s being paid to negotiate leases for the council. Mentaberry and the council denied any wrongdoing.
When the settlement became public, Mentaberry wrote to supporters that the incident had created a “firestorm” and one of the “most significant challenges the NCJFCJ has faced in its history.” The council launched a campaign to repair its image, especially among members of Congress and federal funders.
It is unclear if the investigation had any long-term impact on Mentaberry or the council. In one memo from the investigation, an assistant U.S. attorney who was unhappy with the settlement wrote, “It is apparent that this investigation has adversely affected her [Mentaberry’s] career in a very significant way. Perhaps that is as much of a victory in that regard as we can reasonably hope for.”
The council’s 2008 tax returns show a $763,000 loss for the fiscal year, which reduced its assets from $1.1 million to $288,000.
The council’s federal earmark in fiscal 2008 dropped to $940,000, but many organizations suffered the same kind of cuts, because Congress temporarily cut back on earmarks. The council’s earmarks bounced back, totaling $5.2 million between 2009 and 2010.
Many juvenile justice policy advocates credit Mentaberry with swinging the council toward official opposition to the valid court order (VCO) exception – a loophole in the federal statutes against detaining juveniles who are guilty of doing things that are illegal only because of their age, such as buying tobacco, skipping school or violating curfews.
The exception was added to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act in 1980, largely at the behest of the juveniles judges council. The detention of status offenders is prohibited under the act for states receiving OJJDP funds, but the exception permits judges to detain a status offender under certain conditions.
The exception has always been hotly debated within the membership ranks of the council, and Mentaberry helped secure a reversal of the council’s position earlier this year.
Koch, the incoming interim executive director, was president of the council from 2006 to 2007. The council’s daily operation is overseen by the executive director, while a different judge is elected each year to serve as president.