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Judge Keller's Remarks at CBA Annual Meeting
on June 9th, 2008

Good afternoon, Chief Justice Rogers, President Prout, incoming President Barndollar, other distinguished officers of the bar association, and all the members of the bench and bar who have taken the time to be here at today’s luncheon.

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Judges' Corner

I am deeply honored and grateful to receive this award and to have my work favorably compared to the distinguished career of such an outstanding jurist as Judge Henry Naruk. Since I am still a few years away from retirement, I will endeavor to continue to serve in the manner for which you have graciously chosen to honor me. You have previously awarded this distinction to two of my mentors, Judge Frederica R. Brenneman and Judge John T. Downey, juvenile judges of long tenure who are still presiding, and I am proud to be included on the same roster as two such remarkable individuals. I want to focus my remarks today on the work of the juvenile courts, an area I knew little about before becoming a judge, but one which has come to define my sense of where judges and our courts can make a difference. 

But first, on a personal note, I often tell the kids who appear before me how fortunate they are to have a parents or other family members who are there for them. I was such a lucky child, and I owe so much to my parents, Hayden and Wanda Keller. I wish they could have been here, but I’m happy that many other family members and friends, are here to celebrate with me today. I want especially to thank my daughter, Jessica, my son, Matt, and my husband, Tom, for their love and making it easy for me to “have it all.”

As a former legal aid attorney, I am particularly pleased to be honored here today alongside Attorney Patricia Kaplan. I have the highest admiration for attorneys like her who have dedicated their entire careers to helping the most needy.

I first became the Chief Administrative Judge of the Juvenile Division in 1997, after three years on the bench because, as Judge Aaron Ment indicated, no one else wanted the job! After five busy years, I asked to be reassigned to the criminal, then civil divisions, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and subsequently served for two years as Administrative Judge for the J.D. of Hartford.

But Judge Brenneman told me when I left juvenile in 2002, “You’ll be back.” She was right. I missed it. Last year, Chief Justice Rogers called and asked me to resume the CAJ job. She said, “I want our juvenile courts to be the best in the country.” A challenge, but not an unachievable goal.

Most of you have never practiced in juvenile court. Because of the comparatively small courthouses, the staff and the members of the bar who frequently practice there become somewhat of a family. It’s hard to remain aloof. You see such human frailty and so many damaged children that you form a special bond and share a common mission–helping the kids. They are too numerous to mention individually, but I will especially thank the chief and deputy chief court administrators, judges, judge trial referees and magistrates with whom I have worked over the years, and all the staff of the various divisions in the judicial branch who work so hard to make Justice Rogers’ goal a reality. In fact, the staff deserves a great share of the credit for everything I’ve managed to accomplish.

My duties as Chief Administrative Judge prevent me from sitting on the bench as often as I would prefer, but I still manage to hear cases as I need to know what’s working, and what isn’t. Collaboration has become a big part of what I do. As you heard, I serve on a number of boards and commissions designed to address juvenile justice and child protection issues. Since this is a day when we celebrate the accomplishments of members of the Connecticut bar, I want to point out the tremendous contributions so many Connecticut lawyers make to improve policy and practice in juvenile court. There are the advocates at the Center for Children’s Advocacy, Voices for Children, the Juvenile Justice Alliance and the Office of the Child Advocate who tirelessly prod us into doing better. There are volunteer attorneys handling pro bono cases with Lawyers for Children America, mentoring kids, and serving as guardians-ad-litem for Children In Placement. There are many lawyer-legislators who have made reform in the juvenile area a focus of their work at the Capitol. Special contributions also come from the offices of the Chief Public Defender and the Chief State’s Attorney. I also greatly appreciate the willingness of the Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, Attorney Susan Hamilton, and her staff attorneys, as well as the lawyers in the child protection unit at the Office of the Attorney General to work collaboratively on improving our child welfare system. Recently, lawyers from the Branch, many of these agencies and the juvenile bar worked with me on a task force to draft proposed revisions to the juvenile section of the Practice Book to the Rules Committee. It was hard, tedious work, but someone has to do it–and it should be us.

Finally, I want to pay special tribute to the case-handling attorneys in juvenile court--–the public defenders, the juvenile prosecutors, the assistant attorney generals and last, but not least, the private lawyers, most of whom contract–for $45.00 an hour-- to represent children and parents. All of them are the unsung heroes in the trenches who handle demanding and time-consuming caseloads. Representation in juvenile court is as much social work as it is lawyering, and in many instances, the outcomes are life-altering, often heartbreaking, infrequently tragic. It’s a tremendous responsibility and the emotionally and physically exhausting work takes its toll, yet these lawyers persevere. Just one example from the first trial I handled in juvenile: How many of you would know how to answer a six-year-old client, committed to DCF, already the subject of multiple placements and being moved again, who asked you, “Will Santa Claus know where to find me?”

The extent and variety of lawyer contributions to the functioning of our juvenile courts shows how valuable committed attorneys are to the preservation of our system of justice. Too often, lawyers are the subject of stereotypical jokes, wrongly perceived as selfish and dismissive of their clients’ needs. Not enough is said about the efforts so many of you make contributing to your communities and your profession. Witness the attorneys being honored for their pro bono efforts today. Most of you generously devote considerable hours to volunteering the skills we were all fortunate to acquire in law school. I recently read in the CT Law Tribune that incoming President Barndollar intends to localize a Youth At Risk program developed by the American Bar Association. The goal is to find more ways that we in the legal community can support at-risk young people. Undoubtedly, many of us will want to participate.

I have spent most of my legal career working in the courts that serve the less privileged–criminal, juvenile and family, notably the family support magistrate docket–the hardest job I ever had. I agree that public confidence in the courts is maintained by opening our administrative meetings to the public, discouraging the unnecessary sealing of documents and courtrooms, and even the introduction of cameras.

However, there should always be an equivalent emphasis on another goal–service to the public. We should strive to be less intimidating and remember that coming to court, while routine for us, is a very daunting experience for most lay persons. We need to explain things fully, and offer help, or at least appropriate referrals for help.

In terms of offering help to those who must frequent our courts, I think the juvenile division is setting some standards. There is no division providing or facilitating the delivery of more services than juvenile, and probably no division where the demand for services is greater, or more important. I was going to give you a laundry list to illustrate the breadth of our programming, but you would drown in the alphabet soup and it made my speech too long. Suffice it to say that from the inception of every case, whether it involves an errant child or a neglectful or abusive parent, we are assessing the needs of the child and family, setting goals and implementing services to achieve them. The progress of each case is specifically mapped out for the providers and the recipients. Our probation officers, court service officers, detention center employees, clinical care coordinators, victim and educational advocates, and DCF liaisons assist the parties in this process. When we can, we try to divert cases out of the courtroom entirely. Probation officers divert cases to services, and DCF and the Judicial Branch have funded local juvenile review boards to allow our communities to address minor first time transgressions. Parents who are willing to cooperate and sign voluntary service agreements see their cases withdrawn. While we hold people accountable, the key to a satisfactory outcome is never denunciation, but encouragement from people who care and programs that work

This past year, our state has been the site of tragedies causing many to question how to avoid rampant lawlessness and inhumanity. As a Hartford Courant editorial stated yesterday, the “underlying issues . . . . are well-known–poverty, fatherless children, teen pregnancies, high school drops-outs, lack of hope for a better life, a feeling of powerlessness and yes, apathy.” And I must add two more ingredient to this toxic mix: easy access to drugs and guns. In juvenile, we wrestle with these issues and their discouraging consequences every day.

I had the privilege of speaking at the Melanie Rieger Conference Against Violence in April. This conference was founded by the father of a young lady who was murdered, and a number of persons victimized by criminal violence attend. This year the conference had a special focus on the prevention of youth violence and how to instill kindness in children. It was uplifting to see people who had experienced terrible tragedy concentrating on the future–such a positive way to honor the relatives they had lost.

We can learn a lesson from that group. Let’s do something constructive. Here are some questions to think about:

It is now mandated that high schoolers study American history and young drivers have to attend many more hours of instruction. But why don’t we require all school children to receive instruction in civic responsibility, social skills, child development and parenting? Why are many fragile babies still being born to the very young, the unprepared or worse, the very addicted? Why do judges see, time after time, a high school-aged child referred for truancy who has actually, if you go back, missed many days of school every year since the 1st grade and nothing was done? Why are we suspending or expelling children as young as 5 for behavioral issues, rather than helping them with cognitive therapies? Why are we suspending children for skipping school? Why don’t we have a more coordinated effort to combat bullying, another cause of truancy? How relevant is a more rigorous academic high school curriculum if a ninth grader still can’t read at a 3rd grade level? Why is contributing to you child’s truancy a minor offense, when it has more far reaching implications for a child’s future? Why are children with acute need for psychiatric hospitals waiting in emergency rooms and detention centers for days? Why are there so few substance abuse programs for teens? Why is there no residential program for serious girl offenders or juvenile sex offenders in this state? You can call our cities inhumane, but why are most of the group homes, shelters, affordable housing, and halfway houses located in them? Why are young teenagers hanging out in the wee hours of the morning–some missing from home--without recourse? Why are young teenagers locked up in adult jails? 

In so many of the presentence investigations I read presiding in criminal court, lack of education beyond the 8th grade was commonplace. Neglect, abuse and traumatic experiences affecting the defendant during childhood–left unaddressed--were ubiquitous. Substance abuse as self-medication for want of adequate mental health diagnosis and treatment was routine. An ounce of prevention is supposed to be worth a pound of cure. We need to examine our own callousness and worse, indifference. We have to temper holding people accountable with true rehabilitation, and show forgiveness and mercy. We must look to our systems of care and our community-based organizations to identify children who are not thriving, or at risk for not thriving, and require more coordinated intervention. The earlier the better.

We can build more prisons, filled with men or women with little to lose, or we can direct more resources to salvaging Connecticut’s children–while there is still time.

And salvaging them means we have to help their parents, now.

Thank you again for this great honor, and for hearing what I had to say.


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