Saturday, August 20, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

The closed case


Come and sit next to me in the back of the room. Don’t worry; you won’t have to say anything. Yes, I know it’s after work hours, and we should be at home with our families. Oh, I’m sorry; you were actually going to the bar to hang with your buddies? It’s OK. Just sit and listen for a bit.

joes1Look at that guy up there. He’s way too young and hipster-looking to be a judge. My goodness, he can’t be much older than the kids in the room. And look over there at her. She’s way too young to be a juvenile delinquent. Lord, it’s uncomfortably easy to see her as your own daughter of many years ago. And the probation officer near the front? Now he’s the right age. He radiates an implacable force.

It’s Juvenile Drug Court on Wednesday night. Chairs scrape, adolescents squirm, and parents sit with stolid faces. A low murmur drifts around the room as they wait for the start. Judge Witt begins by requesting an accounting.

Young men and women stand up and catalog their drugs of choice and their dates of sobriety.

“Marijuana last smoked on May 3.”

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“K2 last used June 10.”

“Benzos taken two weeks ago.”

Illegal drugs and legal drugs taken illegally. Not exactly something to write home about.

“Nobody wants to be in Drug Court. When I first got here, I hated it. I can’t tell you how much,” Riana Johnson somberly reflects. “But they got my head straightened. It was crooked you know.”

Johnson is infectiously joyful. Her large smile and brown eyes, with just a touch of sadness at the corners, dominate her face.

joes2She is on fire with enthusiasm on Wednesday night. She is radiant. She shouts out to the group: “Look where I am right now. I’m here. I’m alive.”

Her story isn’t so radiant. Eight foster homes, abuse, kidnappings and addictions. The horror of homelessness along the Des Moines River, the dangers on the street, the failed treatment programs, the running away, the violence, the anger. A lifetime of suffering crammed into 18 years.

“Every time I got high I was happy,” she says. “I needed to do it to hide all the pain… to hide all the hurt… Eventually I ended up in the hospital almost dead from alcohol poisoning. It’s a miracle I’m even alive.”

Johnson made it into Juvenile Drug Court here in Des Moines almost two years ago.

“The first time I went to court, I was really scared,” she says. “All these rules. Get your school work done. Get your work done. Listen, I stopped working a long time ago. But once I started doing school, I started feeling a lot better.

“John Hawkins (the Juvenile Court Officer assigned to Johnson) talked to me. I hated him. I hated the judge. I didn’t want anything to do with them. I get that I almost died. Being so close to death is scary. John Hawkins changed my life. He said to me that one day I’m going to thank him. ‘No, I’m not. I’m not going to thank you.’ Well, I’m here, and I’m thanking him.”

Hawkins is no-nonsense, buttoned-down and serious. Although, if you watch closely, a smile is constantly leaking from his military demeanor.

Hanging in his office, next to two paintings of color and light, are leg and arm restraints — the dichotomy of his trade.

“Juvenile Drug Court, in a nutshell, is probation on steroids,” he says. “It is an intensive, community-based supervision program for kids who have significant substance-abuse problems or addictions. We try to keep the kids at home as long as possible. But some kids don’t let us.”

And Hawkins’ role?

“I’m dad, probation officer, in some cases big brother,” he says. “In a lot of ways, I’m the realist in their lives. Sometimes I’m the mediator between the kid and the parent. I’m the advocate and at the same time the adversary. I’m the first one to give the kid props… but if the kid won’t comply, I’m the first one to say here’s where we are.”

Back at the Wednesday Drug Court, Hawkins is clear in his message to the juveniles: “If you hate me, then so be it.”

Of course, those audience members don’t know that earlier that same day, Riana Johnson was again without a home. She made a call for help. Hawkins and another juvenile court officer drove 30 miles, helped her move her belongings to storage (on the hottest day of the year) and made sure she was safe — just another day for a juvenile court officer.

Tonight, Judge Witt wants more for the juveniles in his charge: “You have to figure out something more than stopping using. You’ve got to figure out something more than making it through this program. You’ve got to figure out your dreams and how you’re going to accomplish them. You have to choose.”

Johnson has chosen, she tells me.

“I want to be a speaker. A motivational speaker. I want to help others,” she says as she smiled broadly, leaving little doubt that she has the charisma to achieve her dream.

“Riana has graduated the program,” Judge Witt tells the audience. “Her case has been dismissed. She’s moving towards helping others. Case closed.”

Riana Johnson radiates with the sudden applause. And she twirls around at the front of the room beaming with delight.

“Thank you,” she says. “Thank you, thank you.” CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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