Math tutoring, root canals and summer jobs are hot topics in Judge John Hickman’s juvenile courtroom.
“Oh, boy,” Hickman said when a 20-year-old from Guatemala walked into Pierce County Superior Court on a recent day. “I know this guy.”
That’s because once a month Hickman handles dependency proceedings for immigrant and refugee youths living with foster families, extended families or family friends in or near Pierce County.
That means regular checks on how the kids are doing in school, their plans for the future and how other parts of their lives are going until they turn 21. Most of the time, it’s good news.
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“It really is a shot in the arm for judges, who don’t get to see too many success stories sometimes in the work we do,” Hickman, 64, said outside his courtroom at the Remann Hall juvenile detention center.
Most cases on Hickman’s docket, including that of the 20-year-old, come from Catholic Community Service’s International Foster Care program. In a few cases, minors have relatives or family friends in the country and go into their custody instead.
The private agency receives federal funding for the special foster program (as do others across the country), which mirrors the state’s foster system.
It’s a complicated set-up.
The youths come from abroad, the foster homes are licensed by the state, the federal government pays for their operation and a judge oversees how the kids are doing.
They technically are in the custody of Catholic Community Services — which during the dependency proceedings is represented by attorney Tom Quinlan — and are dependents of the state, though the state isn’t financially responsible for them.
Begun in 1979, the program — to which kids are referred by the federal government — currently has about 30 refugee kids and roughly 10 immigrant children in Pierce, Thurston, Lewis and Clark counties.
Being on Hickman’s docket can help with a youth’s visa application and with maintaining refugee benefits, said Dorothy McCabe, a supervisor of the foster program.
As in regular state dependency cases, he determines whether a youth has been abused or neglected.
A youth can choose to leave the program at age 18, but many decide to stay until they’re 21. Likewise, Hickman can choose not to let them extend their time in the program, if they’re not complying with the rules.
“It can be very daunting for a lot of our youth to walk into a courtroom,” McCabe said. “They do understand that it is a necessary process to keep them in their foster homes. They take it very seriously.”
Many times Hickman praises a youth for his or her hard work. Sometimes he gives harsh encouragement to bring up grades or improve behavior.
“They’ll really take to heart what the judge says,” McCabe said. “That can be a huge turning point.”
On another recent day in court, Hickman learned a 20-year-old senior at Spanaway Lake High School had been suspended for having marijuana. He’d also gotten into some minor car accidents and his grade point average had slipped to 2.0.
“You don’t have that luxury,” Hickman said about the pot. “You just have to stop getting into that jar of stupid pills and start studying.”
The same day a 17-year-old from Nepal asked Hickman for permission to travel out of state.
“You promise to return?” the judge asked.
“Of course,” the boy said. “I’m just going there for (my sister’s) wedding. ... I would love to be there.”
The teen came to the United States as a refugee after his father sold him into servitude, Hickman learned. Now the boy had good grades, a part-time job and scholarships lined up to continue his education.
Would he go to the University of Washington? the judge wanted to know.
“I think one step at a time right now,” the boy said.
With that, Hickman approved the travel: “Motion granted. That was an easy one.”
Later the judge saw a Liberian girl with a high GPA and plans to graduate high school soon.
She’d also just gotten her driver’s license.
“So watch out,” joked Quinlan, the Catholic Community Services attorney.
She thought she might like to be a veterinarian, the girl told Hickman, and had lined up an internship in that field.
It was the day before her senior prom, the judge learned, and she planned to go with a boy who was in the foster program.
The court would need to see a prom photo at her next review hearing, Hickman told her.
“I just am very proud of you,” he said.
Outside court, Hickman said many kids on the docket have lost parents or suffered other trauma, and many manage to be highly successful in school.
“They’re going to be the best citizens we could ever hope for,” he said. “Because they want it.”
During the hearing for the 20-year-old from Guatemala, Quinlan told Hickman the young man had learned fluent English, had a 3.85 GPA and hoped to transfer to the UW to finish a four-year degree.
“The court can be exceptionally proud of him,” the lawyer said.
Hickman went up to the young Guatemalan and gave him the tie off his neck. It was purple and gold striped, UW colors.
“I’m a die-hard Husky,” the judge said. “You need a tie. Wear it proudly.”
With a smile that seemed to cover his face, he did.