Hancock County

Creating new judge ‘isn’t fair to children,’ Hancock County youth judge says

Hancock County Youth Court Judge Elise Deano addresses the Board of Supervisors on Monday. She could be out of a job if a countywide vote approved the creation of a county court office with a full-time judge and staff.
Hancock County Youth Court Judge Elise Deano addresses the Board of Supervisors on Monday. She could be out of a job if a countywide vote approved the creation of a county court office with a full-time judge and staff. rfitzgerald@sunherald.com

Hancock County children in the Youth Court system are in custody just less than the state average, a youth court judge told county supervisors Monday.

Youth Court Judge Elise Deano, whose official title in a part-time job is youth court referee, said she works full-time to help identify family problems and offer help for parents so they can be re-united with their children. And sometimes, she revokes parental rights.

She is admittedly taking it personally that county supervisors are talking about creating the position of an elected county court judge who would handle civil matters, appeals from lower courts and take over Youth Court.

The county has made headlines in recent years over allegations of wrongdoing by child protection workers and lawsuits directed against the state Department of Human Services, now Child Protection Services.

“The Board wants local control (with a county court judge) by a local person, Board President Blaine LaFontaine said.

Deano no longer lives in Hancock County.

There’s also been a high staff turnover under Deano, LaFontaine said.

A county judge’s workload and docket would likely extend meetings with parents from every three months to every six months, and will keep children in custody longer, Deano said.

“It’s not fair to the children,” she said. “It’s not fair to the parents. It’s not fair to the families.”

The latest available statics from Child Protection Services show Hancock County children are in custody an average of 562 days. The state average is 582 days. The highest average in the state is 1,963 days in Quitman County.

Deano said she will not run for county judge if the position is created.

“My focus is children and families, getting to the root of the problem that causes parents to lose custody of their children,” she said.

“We are not making a decision today,” Board President Blaine LaFontaine said.

Deano said it would put her out of a job and Senior Chancery Court Judge Sandy Steckler would no longer handle child custody and juvenile-offender cases in Hancock County.

Deano, youth judge for more than five years, said she wants to help supervisors make a smooth transition if they decide to hold an election and voters agree to the change.

Deano said she has obtained $1.6 million in grants for a Juvenile Drug Court program, a drug-testing program and for an attorney to represent indigent parents. She doesn’t want the programs to fall by the wayside.

Deano expressed concerns that the proposed budget, which is subject to change, won’t be high enough to cover needed costs. The proposed budget for a county court judge and staff is $490,822.41, about $50, 000 less than her current budget.

The Hancock County Bar Association has passed a resolution in support of a county court, but with two judges.

In a letter, Chancery Judge Sandy Steckler urged supervisors to hire an outside consultant to review needs and costs. There also are costs to pay jurors, and state guidelines for court setup, security and other requirements that could be costly, he wrote.

“Through the efforts of so many of us working together, we have learned why so many children are in protective custody and how to help their parents,” Steckler said.

In 2013, Deano and her staff dealt with a family of five young children who tested positive for meth because meth was being smoked in their home.

Deano said that prompted her to push for a drug-testing program that, using children’s hair follicles, has found 380 children who tested positive for meth, and smaller numbers for other illegal drugs.

Susan Brogran, president of Jacob’s Well, said Deano’s influence was instrumental in bringing a recovery center to Hancock County. A 25-bed facility will open soon, she said.

Under state law, a county with a population of 50,000 or more must have a county court judge. Hancock County’s population is about 46,000.

Deano urged supervisors to continue to learn and explore options so the county will be prepared to create the position when the population reaches 50,000.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has commended Deano for finding projects for juveniles in drug treatment. They work two or three Saturdays a month at Ruth’s Roots, a community garden where they are allowed to be kids while learning about teamwork, gardening and bee-keeping, and practicing social skills.

Youth Court has received funding from the state Legislature for a public defender.

Robin Fitzgerald: 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews