Many people have split minds: their Everyday Brain and Work Brain. Some find it difficult to divide the two, even with a job where they leave their work at the office and go home.
I have Courthouse Brain.
I started working for the judicial system in late 2008. In the beginning, they set me at the courthouse's front counter full-time, waiting on the public and teaching me a little bit of everything. For six months I learned about filing evictions, civil suits, and divorces; I bonded people out of jail, helped people pay restitution and traffic fines, handing out wage garnishment forms, forms for a public defender, or an expungement form of one's past sins. I listened to people crying as I certified and sealed their dead husbands' orders probating wills and granting them as administrators of estates. Men with teardrop tattoos would call me a bitch under their breath for "stealing" their daughters' Christmas-present money to pay their burglary fine. I helped attorneys, sex offenders, nervous old ladies, your cousin, and anyone in between. Laws and courthouses transcend race, gender, and age. We're all one beer away from jail, as a friend of mine would say.
Then the paternity and child-support clerk got knocked up by an attorney. She was first put on bed-rest and then she left, never to return. She's now happily married to the attorney. And I got her job.
Eventually, I was given many family courts--adoptions, termination of parental rights, and child dependency/neglect/abuse (DNA) court. But child support is my first love, as I call it, and my most significant court.
I delved into the world of child support and paternity with enthusiasm. My own husband battled child-support issues against his former wife, so this way I could better understand the process. I learned about how paternity is established (usually by a DNA test, but it's not nearly as exciting as the Maury Povich show makes it out to be) and how support is set to provide for a child. I learned about the consequences of violating your child-support order. One could have their taxes intercepted if they have an arrearage (support that is past-due). One cannot have a passport when in arrears (which is smart--it stops the deadbeats from running off to other countries). One can face jail time, and, in extreme cases, become criminally indicted for flagrant non-support. I didn't know that child support was such a Big Deal and that even failing to appear for a court date could result in a bench warrant for their arrest.
When I have Courthouse Brain, I rattle off terms that leave people confused, even co-workers who do other courts outside of family court. "Erin, what happened to Mr. Watts in court today?" one might call across the room. "His wife is asking on the phone." I click a few keys, check my docket sheets, and reply, "Pled guilty, 30 days suspended on condition that he pay! C.S. office will do a wage assignment at Pizza Hut!" or "Dude wasn't lucky. Found guilty, serving 5 and 29, can purge paying $5000. No opposition to work release, run concurrent with other charges, credit for time served." Sometimes we sound like cooks in a Waffle House yelling about hash browns and using code words concerning our food. It really is another language, a branch of legalese understood by all the deputy clerks. We might throw out terms like "in forma pauperis" or "nunc pro tunc" but we tend to not speak as much Latin as the attorneys. We don't get paid enough to speak so fancy, even though sometimes we know more than the attorneys do. We're not allowed to give legal advice, but some of us have written our own orders and tell the attorneys the correct procedures. Clerks are the true heroes of the court world. The judge may sign orders, but we direct the orders to him or her. We're the ones who send the orders to where they need to go--a jail to release a prisoner, a sheriff to recall an arrest warrant. I felt like my job wasn't all that important until I accidentally forgot to fax an order releasing a man from a jail. Because of my carelessness, he remained in jail the entire weekend. I am much more careful now! We input everything we receive. We open cases. We appoint counsel. We set things in motion.
Child support court has become a game for me--one game, the less exciting, is "Close Out the Cases." I cannot close a paternity case until that paternity is established or, in a basic child support case, a support or medical order. Sometimes cases sit forever because the child-support office is trying to serve the non-custodial parent and they can't locate them. I created a huge Excel file with multiple sheets and color-coding to track the progress of all my open cases. I feel very triumphant when I can delete a case. It's a quest, exciting to no one but me.
My other game is the Bench Warrant Game. I crafted a Bench Warrant Chart of Awesomeness to track every active warrant in my county under my care. The child-support office was impressed with this chart and offered to let me work for them, but I turned them down, not wanting to deal with bitchy baby mamas and angry single dads (deadbeat moms are common, too!). I handed my chart to their office and to the sheriffs and they've been able to help me get people arrested. Catch the Bad Guys. I send warrants to sheriffs in every Kentucky county. Sometimes I groan when one gets sent to certain backwoods counties because I know they'll just feed the warrant to their pet raccoon and I will never see the warrant again. I feel like I've hit the jackpot when a person with 5 or 6 different cases (all different baby mamas) gets caught. And I roll my eyes when another might live out of state because I cannot send a warrant outside of Kentucky. They might still get arrested on my warrant if they get pulled over while driving in Kentucky, but it's unlikely: family court warrants do not show up on most police systems here because they aren't part of the modernized "e warrants" system. I have to work harder than most to get "my people" arrested. I check my county's inmate list every night at home to see if I see any of them there. I scan traffic and criminal dockets to see if these people have court in other rooms so I can have them arrested there by the bailiffs.
I admit that I let Court Brain rule my life sometimes. I become a sufficient, cool, finger of the hand of the arm of the law. I think about my cases when I am at home and sometimes congratulate myself on being so hard-working and aggressive.
But then I go grocery-shopping with my housemate and somewhere between the frozen foods and the produce aisle at Kroger, I see her.
She's a largely pregnant, plain-faced, big-sad-eyes girl with long, stringy, mousy hair. She wears the same black puffy jacket and shapeless clothing that I saw her wearing earlier that day, in the courtroom. We had talked on the phone the day before. Her child's father had gotten arrested in traffic court on my child-support warrant. "He had just paid off some fines," she had told me, her voice breaking. "We had no idea. What will happen? Will they let him go?" I explained to her that he would spend the night in jail and would be heard in the morning arraignments. Then he would be passed to my court that afternoon. "I'm pregnant right now," she explained. "I'm a mess. I can't do this without him." And she started to sob. "I'm sorry," I tried to say, "Maybe they will let him out if they know the situation. You never know." She kept crying. "He doesn't even owe me money! It's all owed to the state!" I had told her to come to court the next day.
The judge sentenced him to 5 months and 29 days in jail. I wrote this on his docket sheet as the judge sentenced him. I could see the girl from my place next to the judge. She probably had no idea that I was the same person who talked to her that morning.
And she definitely didn't know that I was the one responsible for getting him arrested. I didnt have to give the bailiffs that warrant, saying, "This guy is in traffic court today. Can you nab him?" I could have let the police try to catch him, but they hadn't had any luck. I could have let the warrant sit in its file, impotent and un-served. But I let it loose. It was part of the game.
Now I'm standing in Kroger and everything's in slow motion because I see the defeated girl, the one who the bailiffs had to pull into the galley because she had tried running after him when the jailers took him away. And when she turns, I see the young child at her side, clutching a candy bar. She's got huge coffee-colored eyes and a ponytail on top of her head like a pom-pom. Her child. His child. Their child. I put her daddy in jail, I thought guiltily. Courthouse Brain dissipated and Empathy Brain took over. I grew a little light-headed. They're all alone in this world. She doesn't know what she will do without him. She can't do this. How will she explain to her daughter where Daddy is? Will the baby be born while he is still in jail?
I imagine myself embracing them both, telling them, "I'm sorry. I was just doing my job. I really do apologize. How can I help?"
But they will never know. I continue walking, and I pass mother and daughter with a brief glance. We push our shopping cart laden with food and it all feels sort of pointless.
We do our jobs, and we do them well, we with the Courthouse Brains. And Law Enforcement Brains. And Judge Brains. But I think deep down, we've got hearts and brains like anyone else, hearts that feel sorry. And, after all, we're all just one beer, one missed child-support payment, and one bad decision from jail.