Putting chil­dren first

Judge Zim­mer­man aims to root out cause of prob­lem, re­duce in­car­cer­a­tion.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - LARA JO HIGHTOWER

It takes less than two hours in the court­room of Fourth Ju­di­cial Cir­cuit Judge Stacey Zim­mer­man to de­ter­mine that she may have one of the hard­est jobs in North­west Arkansas. In that amount of time, Judge Zim­mer­man con­ducts busi­ness on three dif­fer­ent cases in­volv­ing ju­ve­nile delin­quency charges. It be­comes abun­dantly clear from the first case that the is­sues on pa­rade are not as sim­ple as a teenager mak­ing a mis­take and be­ing pun­ished for it. Th­ese cases are messy, with reper­cus­sions that spread like cracks in thin ice, touch­ing every mem­ber of the fam­ily, many of whom are in the court­room with their child, grand­child, brother or sis­ter.

“He def­i­nitely does not need to go to DYS,” a fa­ther pleads from the stand when Judge Zim­mer­man asks him what he thinks needs to hap­pen now that his 16-year-old son has mul­ti­ple pro­ba­tion vi­o­la­tions in his case his­tory. Send­ing his son to DYS would mean send­ing him to one of the large cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties within the Di­vi­sion of Youth Ser­vices purview, which would mean a min­i­mum stay of six months. “He does not need to learn to be a worse per­son than he is now.”

The son, for his part, is stoic, speak­ing up only to an­swer ques­tions posed to him by the judge, ex­cept for the mo­ment when he voices sup­port for his mother, who tested pos­i­tive for il­le­gal drugs re­cently.

“She’s clean, Your Honor, she’s do­ing good,” he says qui­etly.

Judge Zim­mer­man asks the fa­ther why he thinks his son’s ef­forts to fol­low the court’s di­rec­tions have failed so many times in the past.

“He doesn’t think I will fight for him to get bet­ter,” he an­swers, voice shak­ing. “And I will. Fight for him.”

Dur­ing this, surely one of the most fraught mo­ments of this fam­ily’s life, busi­ness around the

“Judge Zim­mer­man is ef­fec­tive in what she does on so many dif­fer­ent lev­els. She takes into ac­count the en­tire fam­ily, she ed­u­cates her­self on best prac­tices and what is trend­ing in the ju­ve­nile jus­tice world. She is not afraid to take chances on youth and their fam­i­lies while lead­ing with a very firm hand. She is com­pas­sion­ate be­yond words.” — JDC Di­rec­tor Jeane Mack

small room con­tin­ues to bus­tle. Traf­fic comes in and out of three dif­fer­ent doors. A printer churns out a re­port. Small, two-per­son con­fer­ences are held qui­etly in the corners of the room. Judge Zim­mer­man never loses her laser fo­cus on the ado­les­cent in front of her or the de­tails of his case.

“I’m go­ing to give you one more chance,” Zim­mer­man says at the end of the hear­ing. The young man will serve 60 days in North­west Arkansas at the Ju­ve­nile De­ten­tion Cen­ter but will not be sent to the larger fa­cil­ity. But, she says, if he makes one more move to vi­o­late his pro­ba­tion again, “I will send you to DYS and not lose any sleep about it.

“Now go give your daddy a hug.”


The morn­ing’s events of­fer a glimpse of one of Zim­mer­man’s most defin­ing philoso­phies as a ju­ve­nile judge: Send­ing ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers to de­ten­tion cen­ters with­out mak­ing an ef­fort to erad­i­cate the root causes of the prob­lem is a mis­take for the child, for the fam­ily and for so­ci­ety as a whole.

“There might be a kid that needs to be locked up, be­cause they’re a dan­ger to them­selves or some­one else or so­ci­ety,” she says. “But a lot of times, they need drug coun­sel­ing or there was poor par­ent­ing and the par­ents needed par­ent coun­sel­ing. You can come up with a so­lu­tion for that child that you couldn’t have come up with if they ended up in adult court, and that’s what I want to pre­vent — hav­ing that child end up in prison.

“A lot of times, peo­ple think that ju­ve­nile court isn’t a real court,” she con­tin­ues. “But to me, it’s one of the most im­por­tant courts. If you can help that child, that fam­ily, then, down the road. they’re not go­ing to be in the sys­tem. That’s a win-win for ev­ery­body.”

Zim­mer­man says she was drawn to work on the ju­ve­nile side of the law al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter fin­ish­ing with her le­gal ed­u­ca­tion. She com­pleted her un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies at Texas Tech within two and a half years and started a master’s pro­gram in agri­cul­ture eco­nomics that she fin­ished, con­cur­rently, with her law de­gree. Af­ter that, she headed to the Univer­sity of Arkansas where she earned a Master of Law de­gree and went to work for a lo­cal law firm.

“My good friend Tonyia Tan­nehill was the case co­or­di­na­tor at ju­ve­nile court, and she was look­ing for vol­un­teers to rep­re­sent kids,” Zim­mer­man re­calls. “I re­ally wanted to get some court­room ex­pe­ri­ence, so I vol­un­teered.

“Peo­ple ei­ther love ju­ve­nile court or they hate it. I found that I re­ally liked it.”

A few years later, she was of­fered the po­si­tion of deputy pros­e­cut­ing at­tor­ney and ac­cepted it on the con­di­tion that she could be as­signed to ju­ve­nile court. “[Then-pros­e­cut­ing at­tor­ney] Terry Jones was taken aback. They had a lot of turnover in ju­ve­nile

court — a lot of peo­ple use it as a step­ping stone.” For Zim­mer­man, though, it was home. She would spend nearly 10 years di­vid­ing her time be­tween her po­si­tion as deputy pros­e­cut­ing at­tor­ney and run­ning her own pri­vate prac­tice that fo­cused on fam­ily law.

Then, she started think­ing big­ger.

“I re­ally had found my niche,” she says. “I thought it was im­por­tant in my life to work with kids. In ju­ve­nile court, there’s a lot of room [for] cre­ativ­ity. What works for one kid and gets his or her at­ten­tion might not work for an­other. So I prided my­self on find­ing out about the kid, even though I was the pros­e­cu­tor, and fig­ur­ing out what was best for that kid in or­der to get him help. That’s what drove me to be a judge. To be able to ac­tu­ally make a change for that child and that fam­ily.”

Zim­mer­man was 34 and preg­nant with her son when she started her cam­paign. It wasn’t easy. Run­ning for cir­cuit court judge for Wash­ing­ton and Madi­son coun­ties meant there was a lot of ground to cover, and she con­tin­ued work­ing for her own pri­vate prac­tice dur­ing the cam­paign. The tra­di­tional role of can­di­date wasn’t al­ways easy for her.

“I didn’t even like selling Girl Scout cook­ies as a Girl Scout be­cause I didn’t want to in­trude on peo­ple’s time,” says Zim­mer­man with a laugh. “I like vis­it­ing with peo­ple, but I don’t want to ask them for some­thing be­cause that makes me feel weird.”

But Zim­mer­man would soon find that the big­gest hur­dle for her to clear was the old-fash­ioned mind­sets she en­coun­tered on the cam­paign trail.

“I was big and huge and preg­nant, and I went around to the pow­ers-that-be in town and to all of the pro­gres­sive types of peo­ple I thought would be re­ally sup­port­ive of a fe­male judge,” Zim­mer­man says. At the time, no woman had yet been elected as a cir­cuit court judge. “I was amazed at the num­ber of men who told me that once I had that baby, I would want to stay home. I wouldn’t want to be a judge. Mostly the good ol’ guys, older gen­tle­men, would say, ‘You’re too young and purty to be a judge. You wouldn’t be mean enough.’”

She pauses for a mo­ment.

“I ran against a sit­ting judge, and I car­ried both coun­ties,” she says firmly.

And in the process dis­cov­ered that, in­stead of mak­ing her want to stay home, the birth of her son mo­ti­vated her even fur­ther to fight for the abused and ne­glected chil­dren whose sto­ries passed in front of her bench on a weekly ba­sis. Along with the ju­ve­nile delin­quency cases, Zim­mer­man hears cases of parental ne­glect and abuse and has to make dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions con­cern­ing ter­mi­na­tion of parental rights.

“I was al­ways proac­tive and pro-child,” she says. “But when you have your own chil­dren, the hor­rific things I was see­ing peo­ple do to their own chil­dren … it just mag­ni­fies your hor­ror and dis­be­lief.

“I re­mem­ber when I was a brand new judge, and my son was around 3. We had a lit­tle girl who came into foster care be­cause her mother had held her down in scald­ing wa­ter. She was the same age as my son, so every time I would bathe my son …”

There is a long pause as Zim­mer­man strug­gles to main­tain her com­po­sure.

“I would think about that lit­tle girl,” she fin­ishes. “I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. Those are the cases that stick with you.”


Zim­mer­man, who calls her son her “big­gest ac­com­plish­ment,” was a sin­gle mother from the time he was 2 un­til his teenage years.

“There was a lot of jug­gling, be­ing a judge and a mother,” she says. “I have a heavy docket — 1,000 cases a year — and some days I would hear 80 cases a day to get it cleared. And not hav­ing fam­ily in North­west Arkansas, it was kind of rough.” Still, she says, son Colton played four or five sports as he was grow­ing up, and she man­aged to get him to and from prac­tices and watched as many games as she could. She saw the ben­e­fit that Colton re­ceived from or­ga­nized sports and that re­al­iza­tion would later in­spire some of the di­ver­sion pro­grams she cham­pi­oned as a judge.

“I was amazed at how sports taught so many life les­sons to Colton — be­ing re­spect­ful, self-dis­ci­pline,” she says. “I could see how the whole ‘team ap­proach’ and re­ly­ing on oth­ers in sports … I got to see that in ac­tion with my son, and some of the pro­grams that we started later have that team ap­proach with pos­i­tive male and fe­male role mod­els, which I think sports gives to kids.”

De­vel­op­ing and in­sti­tut­ing th­ese pro­grams is where Zim­mer­man shines, say those that work with her closely. In her nearly 19 years on the bench, her par­tic­u­lar tal­ent has proven to be her cre­ativ­ity in tak­ing into ac­count the needs of the ju­ve­nile pop­u­la­tion she serves. She has been at the fore­front of in­no­va­tive ini­tia­tives that help re­duce ju­ve­nile in­car­cer­a­tion.

“With Judge Zim­mer­man al­low­ing us to be cre­ative in our ef­forts to keep the com­mu­nity safe while ac­tively en­gag­ing in pro­gram­ming with our higher risk youth, we are hav­ing suc­cesses in youth not re­turn­ing to the Ju­ve­nile De­ten­tion Cen­ter,” says JDC Di­rec­tor Jeane Mack, who has worked with Zim­mer­man for over 25 years. “[We are] teach­ing them that th­ese are their com­mu­ni­ties [and em­pha­siz­ing] the im­por­tance of re-es­tab­lish­ing the trust from their com­mu­ni­ties by par­tic­i­pat­ing in com­mu­nity ser­vice projects and con­nect­ing with suc­cess­ful adults who, at one time, were in­ter­twined with the ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem but suc­cess­fully ma­neu­vered through that part of their lives.” Zim­mer­man grows an­i­mated as she de­tails the pro­grams she’s helped in­tro­duce to the youth in the sys­tem.

“We ex­panded di­ver­sion pro­grams,” says Zim­mer­man. “Di­ver­sion means your case is di­verted out of court. You never come and see me.” Zim­mer­man worked with the Quo­rum Court to hire a di­ver­sion of­fi­cer, who con­nects kids and fam­i­lies with ser­vices that would at­tempt to solve the prob­lem with­out the child hav­ing to en­ter the ju­ve­nile court sys­tem.

“When I started in 1999, one of the things I saw was that there wasn’t a lot of com­mu­nity in­volve­ment with the kids that are in pro­ba­tion, our at-risk kids,” she says. “We needed real com­mu­nity ser­vice, where it meant some­thing. So we part­nered with dif­fer­ent agen­cies in the late 1990s, and or­ga­ni­za­tions like TASC [Teen Ac­tion and Sup­port Cen­ter] re­ally helped us find com­mu­nity projects for th­ese kids to do that are mean­ing­ful. We’re get­ting kids tied in with the com­mu­nity, be­cause the more they feel like they be­long in the com­mu­nity, the bet­ter they’re go­ing to do. We would much rather they feel like they be­long than feel like they have to join a gang or do some kind of delin­quent be­hav­ior.”

She also spear­headed ef­forts to ex­pand pro­grams for youth on pro­ba­tion: ath­letic pro­grams, in which teens learned that ex­er­cise and healthy eat­ing can have a pro­found ef­fect on their men­tal and phys­i­cal health; an out­door ad­ven­ture pro­gram, which helped to fa­cil­i­tate a sense of be­long­ing; and Cre­at­ing Fam­ily Con­nec­tions classes, a 12-week course that teaches par­ents and kids the ben­e­fits of pro­duc­tive, healthy com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

The most re­cent ini­tia­tive she’s worked on is the Evening Re­port­ing Cen­ter, a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort with The Jones Trust. Zim­mer­man learned of the idea through the North­west Arkansas Ju­ve­nile De­ten­tion

Al­ter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive that she and Benton County Judge Tom Smith started.

“This cen­ter is for medium- to high-risk kids that were get­ting into the gang life,” Zim­mer­man says. “We have a gang prob­lem in North­west Arkansas — no one likes to say it, but we do — so how do we have th­ese kids redi­rected, so that we don’t have drive-by shoot­ings, we don’t have killings, and th­ese kids don’t end up in prison?

“So Mike Gil­bert and The Jones Trust said we could have a build­ing down on Emma Street in Spring­dale, and the Wash­ing­ton County Quo­rum Court funded two new pro­ba­tion of­fi­cers and a coun­selor to work with th­ese kids.” Ad­di­tional fund­ing came from En­deavor Foun­da­tion, while TASC helps an­chor the build­ing by hous­ing its Wash­ing­ton County of­fice there.

“Most of the fam­i­lies I see are re­ally good fam­i­lies, re­gard­less of their in­come, po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sion, the color of their skin, their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion — they are re­ally good fam­i­lies,” Zim­mer­man says. “They might be in cri­sis: Th­ese kids may have an ad­dic­tion, the par­ents may have an ad­dic­tion. So hav­ing a pro­gram where the kids can walk right across the street from the Archer Cen­ter and sit there for an evening gets them off of the street, it gets them tu­tor­ing and coun­sel­ing, they get speak­ers that teach them life skills.”


Suc­cess­ful pro­grams like th­ese are the sun­nier side of a job that also has some dark­ness. Every four years, a cam­paign re­quires part of her fo­cus and is, some­times, hard fought.

“I have my pro­po­nents and my de­trac­tors,” she says. “I don’t re­ally mince words. I will never talk about how I would rule on a par­tic­u­lar case, be­cause as a ju­di­cial can­di­date, you can’t talk about your per­sonal opin­ions on this or that. You just have to fol­low the law. And the law is very clear in Arkansas: Ju­ve­nile vic­tims are pro­tected. It doesn’t mat­ter what color their skin is, what re­li­gion their par­ents par­take in, whether they’re gay, straight or what­ever. In the past, I have ruled very strongly about ju­ve­nile vic­tims’ rights and what can­not be dis­sem­i­nated. And when you’re in fam­ily court,

there’s a side that wins and a side that loses. That’s part of be­ing a judge. You’re not go­ing to please ev­ery­one, and you shouldn’t. It’s about the facts of the law.”

Zim­mer­man says the staff she works with within the sys­tem is key for keep­ing her feel­ing pos­i­tive and pro­duc­tive in a job that has the po­ten­tial to take such an emo­tional toll.

“I’m re­ally proud about our ju­ve­nile court staff,” she says. “It’s a call­ing. I can’t say enough good about the peo­ple that work in ju­ve­nile court in Wash­ing­ton and Madi­son coun­ties.”

Zim­mer­man also praises the Court Ap­pointed Spe­cial Ad­vo­cates of North­west Arkansas, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that as­signs a vol­un­teer to fol­low foster care chil­dren through the sys­tem and make pe­ri­odic re­ports to the court.

“They make a huge dif­fer­ence to judges,” she says. “The CASA vol­un­teer meets with the child and lets the court know what’s im­por­tant for that child. It just means the world to some of th­ese kids.”

And on par­tic­u­larly bad days, Zim­mer­man can turn and look at the wall be­hind her bench, where chil­dren’s il­lus­tra­tions and notes line the walls. “You are as sweet as a flower,” reads one, in the hand­writ­ing of a 6-yearold. The largest is framed, with a hand­made quilt pat­tern as the back­ground. It was given to Zim­mer­man by a fam­ily whose adop­tions she has presided over. It reads, “Our fam­ily is like a big beau­ti­ful patch­work quilt, each of us dif­fer­ent yet stitched to­gether by love and the Honor­able Stacey Zim­mer­man.”

“Most of the kids I see are re­ally good kids, just mak­ing re­ally bad choices,” she says. “I was at a restau­rant, and a lady said, ‘Do you re­mem­ber me? You were my judge. I was do­ing meth, and they locked me up. I went to re­hab, and now I’m the man­ager of this restau­rant. I have a child, and I’m clean and sober.’

”That’s why I do my job.”



“I think she’s the hard­est work­ing judge in the state. She has a willing­ness to work such long hours — and I mean re­ally long hours. They go way into the night. Other judges have to do that some­times, but that’s not the ex­cep­tion for her, it’s the rule.” — Judge John Lineberger

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