‘A day in the life of a child is like a month to us’

Sunday Interview: Juvenile Court Judge Warner Kennon on the youth gang issues in Columbus

Juvenile Court Judge Warner Kennon on the youth gang issues in Columbus
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Juvenile Court Judge Warner Kennon on the youth gang issues in Columbus

Judge Warner Kennon presides over the Juvenile Courts of the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit.

He oversees juvenile courts in six counties and has become a local advocate for youths on the margins of society.

Kennon sat down with reporter Alva James-Johnson and talked about his background and work on the bench.

Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.

Q: I like to start by asking people a little bit about their background. So what was life like for you growing up?

A: I was born in Emory University and lived near there. We lived on what then was a dirt road. It was later paved. My father raised quail because he liked to hunt. He raised them and let them go; started me out at a young age going out in the woods and going out in the country and hiking and camping out. We did a lot of that. ... I was the oldest of four — three boys and a baby girl.

About the time I turned 13, my father passed away, after fighting cancer for three years. ... It was particularly hard on my mother. ... We were 13, 11, 9 and 7. We did fine and carried on. We had my grandparents not too far away and, of course, they were helpful. That caused me to really be sympathetic to children who lose their father or don’t have a father in their life.

Q: How did you get to Columbus?

A: I grew up and got married and wanted to get out of Atlanta and go to a smaller town. I just felt like it was something closer to where I could get out in the woods. Also, I like the feel of a smaller town. Moved to Columbus and I love Columbus. It’s not real small — certainly, not any more.

Q: When did you decide that you wanted to be a lawyer?

A: ... My grandfather Kennon was a lawyer. My father started law school, but one thing led to another and they started a family business. So, he never graduated from law school. ... I went to law school following in my grandfather’s footsteps. Now, my oldest daughter is a lawyer, and she’s licensed to practice in two states, and our middle child, a son, is a lawyer, as well. My wife’s father was a lawyer and her grandfather was a lawyer.

We have plenty of legal help in the family. We said we do need a doctor somewhere. We’ve tried to recruit one, but thus far we haven’t been able to do that. ... Law is near and dear to our hearts.

Q: What type of law did you practice when you were in private practice?

A: It was very general, really. ... I graduated from law school (in) 1979. Columbus, as I say, was pretty small. You could really and truly be a general practitioner. I did a little of everything. If you were in practice by yourself, your clients tended to dictate your specialty. Over time, I evolved, if you will, into business and guardianships. I did a lot of that — anything in probate court because... I had worked for the probate court as law clerk for Judge Propst, who went to Harvard and had written, at the time, the book on probate law in Georgia, which was about guardianships and administration of estates and things like that.

They appointed me county guardian, and so I helped children who didn’t have anyone to handle their money, or elderly, or mentally ill folks. My father-in-law, we worked together. He did most of the administration work... and I did county guardianship work. His father had also been county administrator going back to about 1932. When I retired in 2011 from law practice, that was almost a 100-year run of county administrators in the family between my father-in-law and his father.

I enjoyed that. I helped a lot of elderly folks, and mentally ill folks, and veterans, minors, with their estates. After my father-in-law retired and, sadly, later passed away, I took over as county administrator, too. They’ve now divided that up and have several county administrators. They call it guardians (and) conservators now — guardian of the person or conservator of the property.

Q: You worked many years for Judge Aaron Cohn. How did that come about?

A: Judge Cohn invited me to come over and help him. I started doing that on an infrequent basis and then later on more and more frequently. That started, maybe, in the mid to late ’80s. ... I helped as a part-time public defender but, really, later on I became the guardian in Atlanta for the juvenile courts. I would represent the interest of the children whenever they needed a guardian in Atlanta for the children in juvenile court. I did that for a number of years.

Then after a while, I think it was 1994, I was appointed at what I think was then called an associate judge and then later became a judge once we went from a county court or a city court. Really, it was Muscogee County, but the city of Columbus, which you know is consolidated. ... Later on, we got six counties and became a circuit court.

Q: What was it like working for a community icon like Judge Cohn?

A: It was great. There were a lot of stories. I just went to mandatory justice training in Athens. Just got back last night. Some of the old timers, we were talking about Judge Cohn and how he was full of spirit. He was, of course, very wise. I think he was, in a lot of ways, a father figure to me, because I lost my own father so young. My father-in-law, Billy Young, was as well. ... I was blessed to always have good mentors, including my grandfather.

... Judge Cohn wanted me to follow in his footsteps. He was president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. I’m on the board and was recently elected treasurer. ... I learned a lot going to the trainings with him, observing him in court, and he was always there when I needed advice.

Q: How did the things that he taught you impact how you operate on the bench?

A: Well, gosh, that’s hard to say. I was with him for so long. It’s a little hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, I guess. Judge Cohn, he taught me to always keep a sense of humor, for one thing. That way you don’t ever become too embroiled in the circumstances such that you lose your perspective. He liked to tell a good joke. He liked to laugh, not in an improper way, but just to keep your spirits up. I think that really is important.

I came in one day, and I think I was just recently appointed. ... He was sitting here, and I was a little ashen. I’d had a child abuse case. It was a particularly heinous situation. Never really forget it. It was awful and sexual abuse. ... He said, “What’s wrong?” ... I said, “It was just one of the worst things I’d ever heard.” .... He said, “Let me just tell you, if you’re going to do this, you’ve got to figure out a way to handle this so that it doesn’t drive you crazy, and so that you don’t take it home.” That’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

I’ll tell you, I pray every time when I come in the morning and when I leave at night. Other times as well ... because it’s such a responsibility. He and I talked about this a lot, because we had a lot of conversations. You don’t have a jury in juvenile court — you have a judge. They’re all bench trials, as we say. It’s so important, these children. ... We have (parental) termination approval rights cases, which are maybe, in some respects, the most difficult cases of all. ... It’s just so serious, and one day in the life of a child, whether it’s detention or whether it’s in foster care, is like a month to us.

Q: Tell me about the Juvenile Drug Court.

A: ... Judge Cohn and I did start the drug court in about 2000 because I saw that a lot of our cases had a drug component. If I could get a hold of the drug situation, maybe I could get a hold of the delinquency, also. We got a grant and started the drug court. Initially, nobody would volunteer. I got a DA that would help me. I did it on a volunteer basis because ... back then I was getting paid for two days of working. I’d average three or four days, at least.

Q: What types of cases are you seeing in juvenile court these days?

A: (He pulls out docket) This docket happens to be today’s docket. We had a simple battery, another simple battery, a disorderly conduct, obstruction/hindering of a police officer, another battery. We had a child molestation case that was a very serious child molestation case. Those are tough. They’re all tough. ... Simple battery on a public school employee — I believe it was a principal that was stricken. Disrupting public school. Violation to probation. Burglary. Another burglary. Another violation of probation. Another burglary. Another violation of probation. Another burglary. A criminal trespass. ... We have a lot more car thefts. We have a lot more home burglaries. We have a lot more street gang activity cases.

The way it was explained to me by the district attorney’s office ... is that the reason we’re having so many gang cases now is because they have cracked down and their research has shown ... that there was a lot of gang activity going up I-95, going up Brunswick, Savannah, up through there. I guess that would involve drugs and whatever else, perhaps human trafficking and other things. They cracked down there. Heavily cracked down. ... So they moved over to I-75, and they said they started coming up 75 — I guess that would be coming up through Valdosta to Macon and on up that way, if my memory serves me.

In any event, they cracked down over there going up 75, and now they’ve moved over to this area coming up through Columbus and 185 and 85 and going up that way. ... They suggested cracking down here and asked me if I would be willing to set aside certain days to try nothing but gang cases so they would have their expert available all day. Also, they generally have at least two district attorneys involved in those gang cases and it was a better use of manpower if they could just do it all at the same time.

Q: Why do you think we have so many youths getting into trouble?

A: I think children that are not supervised and are neglected get into more trouble, and most delinquent cases occur between 3 and 6 in the afternoon before the parents get home and after the children get out of school. Last week, I had half the docket that were 11 and 12 years old. So they’re getting younger and the cases are getting more serious and it greatly concerns me.

... The district attorney’s office has told me that a lot of these gangs are coming down, even from Atlanta, and recruiting in Columbus — particularly children that have a mental handicap because they’re more amenable, which is even sadder. ... When your foster care numbers shoot up from 150 to 200 traditionally to (about) 538 — we’re down from that some, thank the Lord — but that denotes that these children are in crisis. As somebody said the other day, “It’s just not Mayberry anymore.”

Q: What’s being done to address the problem?

A: Judge Cohn said his head was spinning because I started so many new programs and we write grants as fast as we can possibly write because money is tight everywhere. We got the largest grant in the state for delinquency detention alternatives. We got $750,000 from the governor’s office for that — that was an initiative Governor Deal started. We’ve had that now for two, three years. FFT is a program where the child gets individual and family counseling in the home. They continue to work with family until they feel like sufficient progress has been made. I usually give them a suspended sentence if they complete the program.

That’s worked pretty well to keep kids, both I think in reducing for those kids recidivism, but also for keeping (down) our numbers in the detention homes. (The number) has been so high that the sheriff is having to drive to Cordele today. ... They’re going wherever they can find a bed, Cordele to Marietta to Fulton County, wherever they can find an open detention bed because Columbus stays full, pretty much. Columbus ... really is intended to hold children while they’re waiting to go to court. But a lot of the children are serving their sentence there because they don’t have beds in other places. We’re a catchment area. It’s not just for Columbus. LaGrange and other cities feed into the Columbus catchment area. It’s a real problem.

We’re trying to get a mediation program going so that we can see if we can mediate some of these cases. We have started the drug courts, as we’ve talked about. We’ve served hundreds and hundreds of kids in the drug court, and when I started the drug court in 2000 the recidivism rate for those kids on drugs was probably about 75 percent. That means, of course, they recommit another offense. Now I’ve sustained over 16 years — we’ve kept all the stats and it’s only 15 percent. So that’s a blessing. Judge Cohn said it was the best program he’d ever seen in his 47 years on the bench.

Q: That’s an accountability court, right?

A: Yes.

Q: Can you explain to me what are accountability courts? Because that’s something that’s becoming more prevalent across the country.

A: Well, I was the moderator for a panel Tuesday in Athens on accountability courts. In Columbus, the Superior Court has an adult drug court. It has a mental health court and also has a veterans court. Those are accountability courts. And we have a juvenile drug court here that, as I say, I started in 2000. Accountability courts have really, really come into vogue. They were the cutting edge when we got started a number of years ago. It’s a very hands-on, intensive, court-supervised probation.

In our case, if a child comes in and is screened and comes into the juvenile drug court, it normally lasts about 12 to 18 months, on average. We’ve had one young man graduate in as few as 6 months. We develop a program for him or (her) and if they comply you can go up levels 1, 2, 3, 4 until you graduate. We have incentives and sanctions. ... I see them every two weeks at least. Before I go in there, we panel our team. We have somebody from the district attorney’s office. We have the public defender. We have a psychologist. We have somebody from the school system. We have two, three people from the court, including case manager, drug court director and court director. We have somebody from law enforcement, usually the sheriff’s department.

We have about 12 of us that sit around the table, and we go over each child before we go in the courtroom. I have the progress reports from the school that the case manager gets and it’s very intensive. When I go in there and ask them a question, I already know the answer. I say, “What are your grades?” “Well, I can’t remember.” I say, “I happen to know.” Or if they tell me they’re pretty good, I’ll say, “Well, no, they’re really not.” Then I’ll assign a tutor for them or whatever we need to hone in on the plan. If they need an incentive, sometimes in the past we’ve had movie tickets from Carmike or other things that we give them as incentives to encourage them. Of course, they move up through the different levels as well.

Q: How big is your jurisdiction?

A: Well, I’m presiding judge of the juvenile courts of the six counties. I have two part-time judges that are absolutely wonderful and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say so. They’ve been a real blessing. It’s Judge Andrew Dodgen, whose law office is almost across the street, and Judge Joey Loudermilk, who lives out of the counties. They are just a tremendous help. I’m presiding judge and over all the courts.

Q: Let’s talk more about the foster care situation. I know that’s something that you’ve been really passionate about. The last time we reported on it, there was a big shortage, only like 67 beds in the county. We have 500-and-something children that need a foster home. What is the current situation with the foster care?

A: We have a core group that has gotten together and we’ve now, thankfully, increased to about 15 local churches that are pretty actively involved. ... We’ve started or are in the process of forming a 501(c)(3). We have recruited up until this point, including my own church, about 15 churches. We have also gotten somebody lined up to help with the training.

Q: When you say a church taking a child, is it a family in the church? What does that mean exactly?

A: I have a couple in my church that has already volunteered to be a foster parent home. They have to go through the training at DFACS and then be certified, and then they would in turn be able to take a child. Some of the other things that my own church and some of the other churches are also looking at is respite care because foster parents need a break, too. When the parents want to go on a little second honeymoon or something like that, they’ll have a family they can depend on where the child could stay for the weekend or whatever. Diapers, formula, have a closet where we could fulfill other needs, clothes, whatever may come up. We’re looking at a universal approach to this thing.

Q: How do you decide if a parent is not fit to care for a child? That must be a very hard decision.

A: Well, first of all, a determination case is a last resort. Reunification with the parents is always the priority. Secondly, reunification with a fit and willing relative. They’ve expanded the definition now to what we call “fictive kin,” which is somebody that is so close to the family that they often call them uncle or aunt. ... There’s a balance, really. As I said, a day in the life of a child is like a month to us, and they need permanency. ... You’re right. They’re all hard cases.

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter

Judge Warner L. Kennon

Age: 63

Hometown: Emory University, Ga.

Current Residence: Columbus

Job: Presiding Judge of the Juvenile Courts of the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit

Previous Jobs: Law clerk for Judge Floyd E. Propst, Probate Court of Fulton County, Ga., 1979-1980; Warner L. Kennon, P.C., Attorney at Law, 1981-2011; County Guardian or Administrator, Muscogee County, 1989-2011; Child Advocate Attorney, Juvenile Court of Columbus, 1989-1994; Associate Judge, Juvenile Court of Columbus, 1994-2002; Judge, Juvenile Drug Court of Columbus, 2000-Present; Judge, Juvenile Courts of the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, 2002-2011.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business, Oglethorpe University, Atlanta; juris doctorate degree, Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School; also has a real estate license.

Family: Married with three children.