Every once in a while, you meet people with an infectious kid-like enthusiasm for what they do. When they talk about their work, you can’t help but catch their buzz and grin as they share their stories. Judge Karen Lawson is one of those people. She loves what she does.
Lawson is the first woman to serve as juvenile court judge in Lake County. Before becoming judge, her previous 26 years of legal practice and public service were focused on children and families. When asked what inspired her interest in working with juveniles and families, her immediate answer is simple: “My mom,” she says. “She always taught us the value of public service and to help anyone any way you could.”
Her interest in going into law was not triggered by a desire to make a ton of money. She wanted to help people. Lawson got her start out of law school as a public defender, and continued as an assistant prosecutor under the late Steven C. LaTourette, who went on to become an Ohio congressman. During her time in the prosecutor’s office, Lawson handled many rape cases, specializing in cases where children were sexually assaulted. Her earliest days as a legal professional further fueled a passion to help young people any way she could. It was a calling.
That passion continues in her work as a juvenile court judge, a role she considers “a privilege.” But Lawson is not your everyday judge. Her desire to help people takes her well beyond the bench with a portfolio of programs that have a profound impact on Lake County, starting with the kids who wind up in her courtroom.
The Intensive Community Rehabilitation program is a major part of her work. Brainstorming in her living room one Friday in 2009, Lawson and her senior staff designed ICR to reduce repeat offenses by teaching responsible behavior, victim awareness, handling difficult feelings, relationships and communication. The program, which lasts a minimum of six months, provides individual therapy for each child as well as family therapy with the child’s parents three times a week. It has turned people’s lives around.
According to Lawson, the biggest culprit for crime in Lake County is drugs — particularly heroin and fentanyl — and its effect on families can be tremendous. “It’s a dangerous epidemic that has overwhelmed us all,” she reports. She sees opiate-related cases daily, and it often involves children being neglected or abused by addicted parents. Her Achievement Program works with drug offenders.
Lawson describes her preserve in Lake County as a “little city” with five courtrooms, a detention facility and two schools in the detention facility. When she arrived, there also was a wood shop. Since whittling has gone the way of the Betamax, she replaced the wood shop with a computer lab for the kids, with computers provided by the Rotary Clubs of Painesville and Mentor.
Another successful program is the Gardening Project, where kids in the detention facility learn gardening skills from master gardeners, growing their own fruits and vegetables. “If you can get a child motivated to be a part of an activity — a team, social or individual activity — it keeps them out of trouble,” she says.
Of all the programs, the one of which she is proudest is New Voices for Girls, an eight-week program designed to help young girls build self-esteem. Lawson says it can be very validating and intoxicating for a girl when a boy pays attention to her and makes her feel wanted or loved. Under that spell, a lot of the girls she sees get into trouble when boys ask them to do something criminal for them. Lawson’s New Voices program has been transformative in helping girls get a healthier sense of self.
All of this happens on a very low budget in the wake of state and local funding cuts. Fortunately, people are very eager to help. Along with individuals, the generosity and volunteerism from community partners make it all possible. She gets great support from Dworken & Bernstein, The Elks, Lake Erie College, Western Reserve Junior Service League, Great Lakes Theater Festival, Ohio State Extension Master Gardeners, Lake County YMCA and others. “It’s not costing the taxpayers any money to run most of our programs,” she says.
Though Lawson has a reputation for being tough, she has moments that are tough on her. The hardest days on the job are the permanent custody cases. When a child has been removed from a parent’s custody and parents fail to meet the goals of their two-year case plan, the state files a motion to permanently divest parents of their custody rights. “When I say at the end of a three-day trial, ‘You are permanently divested of your rights as parents and your child is placed for adoption,’ it breaks my heart,” she says.
Offsetting those experiences, though, are the happy moments when she knows kids who have appeared before her have been rehabilitated. To her, there is no joy like witnessing a success story and being approached by a parent who says, “I got my kid back.” Moments like those make everything worth it.
“We’re in the business of re-unifying families,” she says.
Despite these innovations and the important role she plays in the lives of families, Lawson doesn’t consider herself a community leader. “I don’t know if I could be classified as that,” she says. “I’m just a country lawyer who had the privilege of getting this job.”