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Helping children in the courtroom, Judge Lisa Sullivan

By By Nancy Schertzing | Photography by Tom Gennara | December 2012

Helping children in the courtroom, Judge Lisa Sullivan

Clinton County Probate Judge Lisa Sullivan hears cases affecting children. Most require decisions on who should care for them and how their families can provide safe, healthy environments. Some cases test her faith in humanity, while others make her heart soar. Through it all, her Catholic faith shapes and guides Judge Sullivan’s efforts to find the best long-term solution for everyone.

“The system has so much anger and fear,” she explains.

“Usually I don’t see couples who are able to co-parent effectively. Instead, I see people at some of the most emotionally troubling times of their lives. Often these are parents who have ended their marriage and are trying to make new lives work, but they’re sabotaging relationships, telling untruths and name-calling in order to win custody of their children, or just to cause their former partner more pain.

“I talk with children caught between parents who are adults, but aren’t acting like it. These kids are under so much stress just trying to navigate their relationships with the people they love most.

“I hear cases where the state has removed children from their parents’ custody. These usually involve abusive or neglectful parents and even some who let their partners abuse or exploit their children.

“Yet through all of these situations, my faith calls me to be compassionate. Whatever they’ve done, I don’t need to be hateful or turn my back on them. Instead I try to understand where they are coming from and who they are – especially the young parents who make harmful, misguided judgments.

“Simple compassion can defuse a lot of negative feelings. When parties walk through the door, my staff and I treat them with dignity and respect. If people feel they’ve been treated fairly and respectfully, they often can move forward toward a solution that benefits everyone.

“Trying to punish all the time won’t resolve people’s anger and fear. We need to find win/win solutions for the children’s sake. If I can be even-tempered and respectful, I can usually set up a system for growth that parents can move through to repair relationships and care for their kids without further court intervention.

“In addition to compassion, my faith also calls me to empathy. I make mistakes. Sometimes I sin. But I never feel that God would turn his back on me. There are consequences for negative actions, of course, and sometimes to protect the children I have to be tough. But if I look to Jesus’ example, I know that he loves each of the people before me and holds us all in his arms. How could I turn my back on someone and claim to live my faith?

“Despite all these situations, court isn’t always full of anger and fear! Good things also happen in my courtroom. Thirty to 50 times a year, for example, I have the honor of presiding over adoptions.

“Each year we designate the Tuesday before Thanksgiving as Adoption Day. We hang a banner on the courthouse to celebrate. Beginning at 2 p.m., families gather in the courtroom to listen to a guest speaker, then come up one by one to share what this day means to them. They take photos and sign the adoption papers. The local Wendy’s restaurant provides treats, and we have gifts for the adopted children and their siblings.

“The joy that fills my courtroom that day carries me through the rough times. I get to see foster parents cementing the bond with children they had welcomed as temporary family; step-parents embracing children, both feeling so lucky to be a family; and men and women creating or expanding families through private adoptions. I celebrate them all.

“Still, I have the greatest empathy for the private adoption parents because I was one of them. Though our son is a teenager now, when I preside over these adoptions I can still feel the emotions of that day.

“It’s hard to express the joy and gratitude my husband and I felt to God and to the woman who gave birth to our child. Every day since, I have admired the strength and the love she showed in releasing him to the life we have made. In her hardest time, she stayed true to her faith and gave us happiness we would never have known without her love.

“Even on his worst day, our son makes my life so much better than not having him at all! Knowing the joys awaiting these families makes Adoption Day so special for me.

“In addition to empathy and compassion, my faith provides trust. Like my son’s birth parents, I have to trust that God has a plan for the little lives that pass through my chambers. Then I have to release them, knowing that once their families get their lives worked out I won’t see them again.

“I only get a brief glimpse of these families at the most emotionally disruptive time of their lives. So it can be hard to make a decision, knowing I will impact them long-term. I prepare well and follow the law. Then I take a step back and review my notes, watching that I haven’t lost my objectivity. About 95 percent of the time, this is enough to make me feel confident in my decision for the children.

“For about 5 percent of the cases I  add to that a special call on my faith, asking God to guide me. Then I trust that he is taking that child into his arms. That’s the time I can let go.”