Judges Appointed Adrienne Waters Ogle as Truancy Court Referee

Duties expand for truancy court position

JEFF FARRELL

The Mountain Press | Dec 10, 2014

General Sessions judges are set to get some help with juvenile court cases as they add duties and possibly part-time pay to a previously unpaid position in their system.

The court has relied for several years on a truancy court referee — an attorney appointed by the judges to oversee cases involving Sevier County students who miss school.

It started as a completely unpaid, volunteer position, but the school system eventually started offering health insurance for the referee, Judge Jeff Rader said. The referee hears truancy cases a few afternoons each month.

"What you're trying to do is figure out what the problem is, and to put the family in a good situation, if you can do that," Rader explained.

The judges have typically decided between themselves whom to appoint to the position. State law gives them that authority; appointments are made at their discretion, although the county commission must approve any salary.

After their last truancy court referee, Melissa Moore, took a position as child support referee in circuit court last year, the judges appointed Adrienne Waters Ogle to take over last year. Ogle, who is the daughter of County Mayor Larry Waters and has practiced law for five years, has been truancy court referee now for about a year.

In the meantime, Rader and his fellow general sessions judge, Dwight Stokes, have been looking to address the continuing increase in the number juvenile cases coming to their court.

Some counties have judges and a staff dedicated to handling juvenile cases. In Sevier County, the two general sessions court judges handle them as well as the other cases coming through their court.

The state gives local judges quite a bit of discretion in how they handle juvenile court cases.

"While all of Tennessee’s courts with juvenile jurisdiction do their best to follow the procedural guidelines established by the Tennessee Rules of Juvenile Procedure, there is little standardization in juvenile court size, case management procedures, and court administrative practices," according to the Tennessee Administrative Office for the Courts.

"This means that the systems and practices in Tennessee’s juvenile courts vary widely and tend to reflect the needs and preferences of the people living in that particular community."

Knox County, for example, has five general sessions court judges, one juvenile court judge, seven juvenile court magistrates and one child support magistrate.

Blount County has three general sessions court judges and one juvenile court magistrate.

Hamblen County has two general sessions court judges, a juvenile court judge and a juvenile court magistrate, according to the Administrative Office for the Court's website.

For some time now, Rader and Stokes have been looking to add a paid, part-time position that would be a juvenile court referee. The duties would include handling the truancy court, Rader said, and handling the initial court appearances of parents whose child support cases come to the general sessions court.

Under the current system in Sevier county, divorce cases land in circuit court, and so do any attached disputes over child support. But cases involving unwed parents come to general session court, and Rader said there has been an upswing in those as well as other juvenile cases.

Because they would be adding new duties to the position, the judges got an additional $20,000 this year from the county to pay for a part-time position.

None of that money has been paid, yet, as they try to decide how the new position will work.

Creating a new post means creating a new docket, and dividing up the cases, Rader said, as well as committing to the powers and duties for the position.

The judges have been sending some of the cases to Ogle, who has indicated she's interested in continuing with the position, but Rader said they are still seeing how it will work.

In the meantime, Ogle has been trying her hand at the new duties without being paid, he said. It's giving officials a chance to see how the new position will work, and giving Ogle a chance to see how it will mesh with her work at her existing practice.

Rader said he and Stokes typically looked for an attorney with less exposure to the juvenile court system when appointing referees. Appointing an attorney who has a lot of cases already in their court creates its own set of problems, he said, as they have to weed out cases where the attorney might have conflict of interest from earlier or ongoing cases where they represented a child or family member.

Ogle said her time so far as a truancy referee has been eye-opening.

"Often truancy is a sign of underlying problems in the home," she said. "Truancy is the first red flag something is going on."

Referees try to help the families get the assistance they need to address those problems before they get worse, she said.

Like the judges, she's still finding her footing with the proposed new system.

If she can handle the additional duties while continuing to represent her clients and meet her obligations at her practice, she hopes to continue. So far, the duties have taken the better part of three days each month.

What the final schedule will look like is unclear; that depends on how much new authority is given the referee and how many cases are sent to the new position.

There won't be any pay until at least those figures are decided on, and Ogle said she's happy to continue volunteering as long as she can meet her other obligations.

"I'm happy to help," she said.