Q&A: Juvenile Judge Irene Sullivan, Part Two

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On Wednesday, we ran the first part of Youth Today’s interview with former juvenile judge Irene Sullivan, author of the recently released Raised by the Courts. Yesterday, we ran “The Crossover Killer,” an excerpt from the book that covers a case early in Sullivan’s career from which she said she learned a great deal.

Today, we present the second part of our interview with Judge Sullivan.

Youth Today: The chapter on Leo Boatman [click here to read it] is wrenching. What did you take away from that situation as a judge?

Irene Sullivan:  It was kind of an evolving thing. He was a Pinellas County youth, and it happened right when I was beginning.  

[To clarify what follows: Boatman was in foster care previous to his involvement in the justice system, and according to Sullivan, the duration and severity of his confinement was augmented by a number of altercations he had with staff and other inmates].

It took awhile for me to assimilate what happened to him. When I did research into his history it affected me a couple of ways.

On the foster care side, I make sure kids have good guardians ad litem. They have to have advocates. A kid just can’t exist on his own in state care. So I became very aware for the need for ad litems. We now have crossover specialists [in Pinellas County] who handle system-involved juveniles who were in foster care.

Then, it’s kind of sickening when kids are in facilities and commit offenses, and then they are charged with felonies. Some of that [conflict] is poorly trained staff with low salaries; they’re angry or think the kids are punks.

[Another note: Sullivan was on the team known as the Blueprint Commission that toured Florida determining avenues for reform of DJJ and the state system.]

I’m not familiar with workforce issues. Something a lot of other people said on the commission was that if we improved the staff at these programs – ensure they are paid more, they get certification, learn about complicated cases – the kids will have better outcomes.

YT:  You mention in the book’s closing that juveniles with significant mental health problems should be treated outside of the juvenile justice system.

IS: There are residential mental health facilities in Florida that are not juvenile justice facilities, we call them statewide inpatient psych programs (SIPS). We just don’t have enough beds. The requirement to get in, if you want Medicaid to pay, is you have to have exhausted community-based interventions. Now, the problem with that is you have kids out of control, running away, not making the appointments [with community providers]. And no-showing the programs does not count as having exhausted them. The child would have to actually complete the program and have had it not work.

It sounds good on paper that in order to get into residential, you have to have all this community care. But if you have a mentally ill kid, out at night, he’s not getting it.

That has to do with waiting lists. If we had more beds, they would let [kids who couldn’t handle community care] them in. We have to ration these beds.

YT: How would decision-making on that point best be done, as to which offenders should be dealt with only by mental health and which ones warranted a juvenile justice intervention?

IS: We have three psychologists doing evaluations in our circuit. They can identify who needs to be only mental health. We’re the only circuit who has that, it’s paid for by our juvenile welfare board.

[Note: juvenile welfare boards in Florida are local entities, mandated by state law, that  draw a percentage of property tax revenue to use for youth development and well-being]

YT: There are some who believe that, as rules have tightened on the use of physical restraints in juvenile facilities, more of them have started to rely on drugs like anti-psychotics and anti-depressants to keep juveniles under control. What are your observations on the use of psychotropics, and how much do you know as a judge about prescriptions for any one juvenile?

IS: Very little. That comes up all the time with foster kids. Under law, you now need an affidavit about the dosage, the why, the need. When I presided, I had an ad litem making sure counseling was paired [with prescriptions] so drugs weren’t given in a vacuum.

On the delinquency side, it doesn’t come up with me that often. Once you are sentenced by a judge to a commitment –level in Florida, DJJ decides where the kid goes.

YT: So would a judge be apprised of drugs a kid was on in those commitments?

IS: No, I probably wouldn’t. Unless they were a foster kid in a DJJ facility.

YT: Is it appropriate for teens to be tried as adults? If so, what are the best determinants of that?

IS: I think it is in a small number of cases…if there’s been a string of cases, of horrendous crimes. I wish judges had that final say. Before there were transfers, there were hearings. In Florida, it’s all prosecutorial discretion or mandatory [now]. I wish it was at the discretion of judge. Too many kids are being direct filed. Sometimes I wonder if that’s not part of the reason juvenile crime is going down. Those kids aren’t counted as juveniles.

I had a tragic case a year after I became a judge, where two 14-year-olds with no priors were following a man and saw a cell phone sticking out.

One youth grabbed his shoulder while the other grabbed his cell. As the man turned, his feet got tangled, and he fell, striking his head on the ground. The man later died of his injury. They were charged with felony murder.

Adult judges will sentence the transferred kids back to juvenile programs. But they’ll have an adult jacket. In other cases, the adult judges will often go lighter than a juvenile judge might have.

I have kids who say they want to be tried as adults. In juvenile court we might say, commit him, an adult judge might say, one year on probation.