Blind judge works to assist children

December 19, 2020

first_img October 1, 2002 Jan Pudlow Associate Editor Regular News Blind judge works to assist children Blind judge works to assist children Associate Editor Sixth Judicial Circuit Judge Joseph Donahey, Jr., rolled into surgery to correct eroding discs in his back.When he woke up, he was blind.He’ll never forget these comforting words softly spoken in his hospital room by longtime friend and colleague Judge Stanley Mills: “They’re not paying for you to see. They’re paying for your mind and experience. You are just as useful now as before.”Since that fateful day in January 1999, Judge Donahey has proven that’s true. Ten months after his botched surgery, Donahey was back to work, the only blind judge in Florida, armed with a white-tipped red cane, his 110-pound yellow lab guide dog Radar, new knowledge in how to read braille and operate a voice-activated computer — and driven by a passion to dedicate himself to helping children.Struck by the realization he had been presiding over the trials of grandchildren of defendants he had once prosecuted in the 1960s, or children of clients he had defended for 34 years as a trial lawyer, he thought: “What are we doing in our criminal justice system? What are we really contributing to the world if it just goes on and on and perpetuates itself, the convictions and punishment of people that does nothing to interfere or interrupt this process?“When I was sitting at home recuperating, I had a lot of time to think about things,” Judge Donahey recalled. “And I said to myself, ‘You know, dummy, maybe where your attention should be focused is on kids.’”So he volunteered for the job many judges run away from: delinquency, dependency, and adoption cases.As though that weren’t challenging enough, he was inspired by a speech he heard given by a Kentucky judge, Joan Byer, who started the Truancy Court Diversion Project in Louisville. This fact stuck with him: 92 percent of the prison population was chronically truant in elementary and middle school. He realized truancy is already a lifestyle for most of the kids who appear before him in delinquency court.So before showing up to tackle his daily docket, Judge Donahey reports weekly at one of 11 middle schools in Pasco County, participating in the Judges in Schools Program he started, patterned after Byer’s successful program. In 10-week sessions with eight chronic truant children and their parents, the judges team up with prosecutors, public defenders, sheriff’s deputies, volunteer family advocates, and social workers to preach the value of going to school every day.“I stand in awe of him, I really do,” said Judge Mills. “I don’t know if I could accomplish what he has with my sight intact. He’s been an inspiration to all of us. While blind, he conceived of, twisted arms, and implemented this truancy prevention program and has a majority of judges participating, showing up at the schools at 7 in the morning. We’re not there in any official capacity,” he said of the voluntary program.“But it’s awfully hard to say no to Joe. Every time I think, aw, I really don’t need to do another semester of Judges in Schools, every time I think that I say, ‘You lazy slug. If a blind guy quite a bit older can do it, how can you say you don’t have time?’” Learning a New Way to See Time froze in chilling horror when Judge Donahey opened his eyes after waking up from surgery and saw nothing but the faintest shadows against a backdrop of blackness.“I didn’t know how to react or respond. I had gone into surgery anticipating a three- or four-month recovery period, and I had books all stacked up by my bed at home. Here I was blind,” he recalled. “I was in a state of shock and disbelief, trying to sort through it all and figure it out, and sort of in denial. OK, I’m blind today, but in a month from now I will see.”His wife, Tena, jumped in to help, scheduling an appointment with a representative from the Division of Blind Services who came to visit Judge Donahey a month after his tragic surgery.“It was like the sales pitch of a used car salesman, this litany of things this lady started telling me: ‘Your life isn’t over. This is what you can do.’“The longer she talks, the more I draw into a personal shell. I’m sure a scowl came over my face and my arms were crossed over my chest. She was talking. I heard the noise, but I didn’t hear what she was saying. She was astute enough to perceive that and stopped talking.”After a long pause, the woman employed the perfect psychology when she said: “Judge, you realize, don’t you, that you are now illiterate?”“Wow! She could have hit me over the head with a bludgeon. My denial had never permitted me to think about these things. After this pause, she said, ‘You realize, you can neither read nor write.’“And that was a stunning concept. Here I am, with my doctor of laws, on the bench for five years, a practicing trial lawyer for 34 years, trying cases in state and federal court, a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers, and this lady is telling me I’m illiterate.“That was a lot to absorb. I sat there and pondered this for a minute or two. The whole realization flooded over me, and I unlocked my arms, sat up, took a deep breath and said: ‘OK, what do we do about it?’”He started the challenging process of learning all over again. He learned to type, a skill stagnated after four decades of disuse. The computer in his office that he had regarded like a rattlesnake — “I didn’t bother it, and it didn’t bother me” — became his friend, an electronic voice speaking the words he now could not see.Then came something new called “O&M training.”“I’d heard of S&M, but I didn’t know what O&M is,” Judge Donahey said with a chuckle. “It is orientation and mobilization. Or, in other words, how to get around without killing yourself.”He overcame his prejudice of the pitiful sight of someone tapping a white-tipped red cane, and learned how to maneuver his way around with the newer version cane that has a roller on the bottom.The first time he crossed a busy four-way intersection in downtown Clearwater, listening to the timing of the traffic lights as he’d been trained, he leapt forward too quickly, poked out his cane, and caught it in the spokes of a bike whizzing by, crashing a dazed kid to the ground. At the Countryside Mall in Clearwater, he impaled a woman in her 80s hobbling by in a walker.He laughs heartily at the telling.“Here’s the choice. I could sit around and cry. I could mope. I could get angry. I could curl up in the fetal position and moan and groan. Gosh, I think that would be very unpleasant. The alternative was to try to do something.”So, he enrolled in computer and braille classes at the Watson Center in Pinellas County. And he received an encouraging phone call from a New York federal judge, who went slowly blind while practicing law and was appointed to the bench, who put him in touch with a computer expert who knew about the JAWS program — Job Access with Speech — computer software that talks.“When other judges open files, I sit and review my days’ activities — calendars, motions, case law — on the computer,” Judge Donahey explains.The courts approved hiring a computer-savvy staff attorney to learn JAWS and help him go through his files and pleadings, along with his longtime judicial assistant Lucy Butcher, who has worked for him for 40 years.Together, they get the job done.“I’m really impressed,” says Butcher. “Even though he’s blind, he’s not signing these orders blindly. He really thinks about what I’m reading to him.” Keeping Kids in School Unless people watch him walk through the public hallways of the courthouse with Radar, it would be difficult to tell Judge Donahey is blind. He wears glasses in the courtroom and directs his blank gaze in the direction of the person speaking.The judge has noticed something interesting. All the excuses he hears from parents for not providing for their children — sore back, diabetes, whatever, “I think they are uncomfortable saying all the woe-are-me things to the blind man. Maybe there are not fewer excuses, but they are spoken less passionately.”At the Judges in Schools Program, Judge Donahey hears all the excuses for skipping school and knocks them down, one by one. He has even given out alarm clocks, with the instruction to set it across the bedroom.“By the time you get to the last parent and child, they’ve run out of excuses,” Judge Donahey said.And he’s perfected the carrot-and-stick approach to making showing up at school attractive.He asks each child what they are really interested in, realizing most chronic truants have few extracurricular activities.To the little girl who said she likes horses, the volunteer family advocate located a farm not far from school where wealthy parents buy their children riding lessons, and talked the owner into giving the girl a free ride. But she also learned how to clean stables and groom the horses.“By the end of the semester she was up on horseback and she was going to school,” Judge Donahey said of the after-school incentives that come with the deal that the child will attend school.When Judge Donahey was frustrated that the children who appear before him in delinquency court had no clue how serious their felony crimes were, he went to the superintendent of schools with an offer. Judge Donahey agreed to provide an educational 15-minute video, and the superintendent agreed to use them in classes in Pasco County, as part of the curriculum, to spark classroom discussions. With help from video production pros at St. Petersburg College, the video begins with a pep talk from Tampa Bay Buccaneers All-Pro defensive back John Lynch, scenes at the jail and detention center, a dialog of kids’ excuses, and crime-and-punishment reality checks from the state attorney and public defender, as well as a message from Judge Donahey that ignorance of the law is no excuse.“He has some very strong opinions about what should happen with children in getting them on the right track. Sometimes, coming from a judge, people are fearful of those opinions. We hold our breath and see what will come down next,” admitted Saybra Chapman, supervisor of student services for the distict school board of Pasco County.“But the one thing different about Judge Donahey is he’ll vent about his frustrations and then his next statement is: ‘Who do we get to do something about it?’”And Judge Donahey invests his time and energy to bring the right people together to get something done together.This year, Judge Donahey turns 68, just 15 months shy of the mandatory retirement age of 70, so he is not seeking reelection.But that doesn’t mean he will retire from a career in the law.“I don’t think there’s a chance in the world that he is going to be out rocking on his front porch,” said his good friend Judge Mills. “He’s already committed to another year of Judges in Schools. I can’t think of anyone I admire in this world more than Joe.”last_img

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