The fates of many area children and adolescents literally hinges on decisions made in Johnson City Juvenile Court.
Judge Sharon Green knows all too well how the old court’s constricted space many times led to undesirable situations and unavoidable confrontations during highly emotional times for families.
But on Jan. 17, she and her staff moved into the completely revamped Johnson City Seniors Center and held court for the first time in the new Juvenile Court facility — a decade after Green first gained her title.
Green’s job requires her to be both stern and compassionate; exacting yet reasonable. On Jan. 21, she was all smiles while guiding staff members of the Johnson City Press on a tour of her much larger workspace.
“We had a boy in here that is 16,” she said about a young man standing before her in the new court last week. “I asked, ‘How do you like our new digs?’ He said it was kind of scary. What I think he meant by that is that the place demands more respect — and you should be scared when you come to court.”
Kingsport’s Armstrong Construction has been at the 607 E. Myrtle Ave. location since March tearing out old ceilings, walls, HVAC duct work and other portions of what has been reshaped into an 11,000-square-foot structure, nearly doubling the size of the old courtroom down the road at 102 W. Myrtle Ave.
The city entered into a roughly $1.1 million contract with the company last year to renovate the former Seniors Center using a design by Thomas Weems Architects.
Green’s former court was only 13 feet wide, and she said the cramped space caused tensions to rise in a setting meant for resolution. The new courtroom is 35 feet wide.
There is plenty of seating, two large desks for juveniles, parents, attorneys and probation officers. Green has a new, wide perch at the back of the courtroom, giving her room to view and communicate with all parties.
To her right and below her, a witness stand has been constructed. To her left and right are stations for both her clerk and a court reporter, when needed.
“We didn’t even have a witness stand before,” she said while surveying the new courtroom.
Court is held five days a week. In a single year, about 1,700 children will come through and 2,775 cases will be handled, Green said.
In addition to being bigger, Green said, the new site is in a better location because of its proximity to local police zones, and it allows for the future expansion of the courtroom facilities, including attorney conference rooms and administrative and other offices.
“Everybody we’ve dealt with — city officials, the contractor, the fire marshal, the community and the neighborhood — has been very good to us, very supportive,” Green said.
Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin and Commissioner Jenny Brock toured the new court last week as Green and her staff were getting settled in. Brock said of all the projects the city has done or is currently involved in, she was most proud that, in this case, the city was able to convert one of its existing buildings for another use.
“This will give them much more room for conferences and mediation,” Brock said. “This is one of the best investments the city has made. Taking this tour and seeing what they’re going to be able to do there really opened my eyes to the necessity of the new facility and the court itself.”
Some big-ticket renovation items include a complete roof replacement and new heating and cooling systems. The new courtroom was carved out of an old gymnasium. It also includes a conference room used for child and family team meetings.
“There are nooks and alcoves where people can sit in the foyer,” she said. “We have to deal with custody cases, and this helps avoid disturbances. We may be ordering a person to pay money, and it can get very confrontational. We have security cameras that feed into the bailiff’s office. There are cameras all over the building.”
Once inside the entrance, those with pending cases are served by clerks at a large, enclosed semicircle-shaped desk. One case that had just been heard involved possible neglect and debate and consideration of removing a child from a parent’s care.
Green said she’s retained the same personnel used at the old court, and they too have benefited from the extra room and added amenities.
“There are unsecured areas that lead to offices where clerks maintain records and assist families who file for child support,” she said. “People also can sit privately in smaller conference rooms with staff and members of law enforcement. We also have a probation wing (that) includes probation officers’ offices. These are used to check on the status of a youngster’s community service, for example.”
Additional offices, storage space, conference rooms and Green’s new office run down a hallway on the opposite side of the building, including a oversize conference room.
“We made this extra large,” Green said. “This is where you’re going to have parents, attorneys, therapists and guardians gather to determine whether there is an appropriate relative with which the child can be placed. This is where the attempt is made to keep children from going to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.”