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Judge discusses life on Suffolk County's juvenile court

Posted by Your Town  April 17, 2012 08:52 AM

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If you ask Judge Joseph Johnston’s teachers at CM what he was like as a kid, they’ll likely agree with him when he says, “I was trouble. My goal was to stay out of the courts at that age.”

But Johnston, who grew up in West Roxbury as the oldest of five children with a single mother, learned he was pretty good at looking out for other kids.

During his undergraduate years, Johnston started working summers for the juvenile probation department in Boston and a community agency in South Boston that helped court-referred kids make better decisions.

Thirty-five years later, Judge Johnston, who presides in Suffolk County’s Juvenile Court, is still working to shape brighter futures for Boston kids.

Whether in Boston, Dorchester or Chelsea, among whose courts he rotates, Judge Johnston bears the weight on his shoulder of the city’s many broken homes, abandoned children, and lives gone awry. But it’s not all gloom and doom.

In a typical week, he might pass judgment on shaken baby syndrome cases, teenage parent custody battles, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and protective custody cases. But Johnston sees happy endings, too, in families reunited, foster children adopted and obstacles overcome.

“So many cases just scratch the surface of a family,” says Johnston. “The child is supposed to be the subject, but the father might be enabling the kid, or the parents had problems as kids, and their parents had problems.”

Besides discretion, Judge Johnston’s talents lie in rounding out the characters in his court, patiently listening and researching all the facts behind a case.

“The judges work so hard here to make the right calls in these cases,” he says. “The stress is unbelievable. But I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. They’ll have to drag me out of here.”

“If you can get a child out of an abusive home, it’s very rewarding. All the people that work here impact the lives of children and families for generations,” says Johnston. “They’re not all success stories, and the numbers against us and some days you feel you’re pushing against the tide. But I don’t know of any other court that can do this.”

Spend an hour in Judge Johnston’s chambers and you’ll hear as many stories that rend the heart as mend it.

“We had a jury convict a juvenile, aged 16, of shooting an innocent bystander, a woman nearby who was shot in the head,” he says. “He was convicted, and we had the difficult decision of what was appropriate in that case. I read everything I could on this kid – every school record they gave me. We’re the fact finders.”

“You’ll read in the news about a student in school, stabbed in the eye with a pencil or something,” says Johnston. “And everyone is shocked. But we get that all the time. I think people would be shocked with the frequency of the cases we get.”

But on his office wall are Judge Johnston’s success stories – Polaroid photos of families who have adopted children in his courtroom. There’s a photo of a boy with special needs and the saint of a nurse who adopted him. There’s a group shot of a family with three kids they had adopted, each of which came from the same abusive mother. Without families with hearts as big as these, he says, where would we be?

With four children of his own, Judge Johnston’s work reminds him daily of how lucky he is.

“One day in court, I had a stabbing, a 13-year old prostitute, and a kid who brought a shotgun to school,” he recalls. “By the end of the day, my head was spinning. And I get home and [my wife] Kathy says ‘Ryan forgot his math book today and it was the second time this week.’ And I just wanted to hug him! This job really puts stuff in perspective.”

This article first appeared in the Catholic Memorial alumni magazine, CM Magazine.

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