2017-04-09 / Insight

Judge Justus Scott handles county’s abuse, neglect cases

810-452-2616 • pfoley@mihomepaper.com

Judge Justus Scott is the last stop for families involved in child abuse and neglect. 
Photo by Phil Foley Judge Justus Scott is the last stop for families involved in child abuse and neglect. Photo by Phil Foley LAPEER — For the past 17 years, Judge Justus Scott has seen the worst of the worst when it comes to child abuse and neglect cases.

As the county’s sole family court judge, he handles all the abuse and neglect cases as well as all of the county’s criminal juvenile justice cases.

Scott came to Lapeer County as a young assistant prosecutor in 1979 and over the past four decades he’s seen a shift from child abuse and neglect cases as a result of people who didn’t know what they were doing to cases as a result of people whose lives have been consumed by drugs.

And while child abuse and neglect cases consume about 60 percent of his time on the bench, the number of cases is actually fairly low.

Last year Scott handled 155 juvenile cases that ranged from truancy and youngsters who refused to obey their parents to more serious things like burglary and assault. He also handled 31 abuse and neglect cases, about half of which ended with the termination of parental rights.

Lori Curtiss, the Probate/ Family Court Administrator, noted Shiawassee County had 45 child abuse and neglect cases last year and Van Buren County has 89. Both counties are similar in population to Lapeer County.

“We are fortunate,” Scott said. “Our DHS (Lapeer County Dept. of Human Services) does a great job of intervention.” He noted that unlike some urban counties, “They’re not completely overwhelmed.”

Still, he said, the abuse and neglect cases that do come before him typically offer a mix of mental health and substance abuse issues that are difficult to deal with.

Just last week, he said, he had a mother brought in who’d been found in her car, crashed in a ditch, with her kids in the back seat and a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.3. That’s close to the fatal BAC.

Scott is shocked by how many parents faced with the loss of their children don’t show up for court-ordered rehab and don’t come back to court.

Removing a child from a home is something Scott doesn’t take lightly. He said DHS “has been working with these families, sometimes for years,” before a case comes before him.

“What people do to themselves, what they do out of lack of concern for their children,” he said, “wears you down emotionally.”

Scott said removing a child from a home is “the worst thing we do,” but he added sometimes “adopting a child is the best thing we can do.”

He said it’s a highly structured process. Each case has to be reviewed every 91 days to see if there has been progress and the state expects a resolution within 364 days from the initial ruling.

The theory behind that, he said, is that “a child has a right to a sense of permanency.”

Before a child is taken from a family, Scott has to determine if it’s contrary to the welfare of the child to remain in the home and that reasonable progress is not being made.

He said the law requires placing children who’ve been removed from homes with relatives whenever possible. “A consistent environment is the key,” Curtiss said, “but it’s not always an easy path.”

In the past eight years, Scott said he’s seen heroin play a growing role in the cases that come before him. “The saddest thing I see is a parent who chooses drugs over their child.”

He said a solution to the opioid crisis would go a “long way” to resolving the problems he sees in his court.

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