As the state of child welfare in Indiana comes under heightened scrutiny, six people are seeking to preside over nearly all local court cases involving children as St. Joseph probate judge.
Five people are vying for the Democratic nomination to face Jim Fox, a Republican, in November’s general election.
The winner will replace Judge Peter Nemeth, who is retiring at the end of this year after 19 years on the bench.
"It's the first time in many years that this position is open without an incumbent," said Joe Fullenkamp, president of the St. Joseph County Bar Association. "And if our past shows what's going to happen in the future, whoever wins is going to be there for a long time."
St. Joseph County is the only county in the state with a probate court, which handles paternity cases, guardianship, adoptions, juvenile delinquencies, child welfare, and wills and estates.
"It’s a court that touches everyone, whether directly or indirectly," said Mark James, chair of the county bar association’s Family Law Committee.
“The public generally gets worked up when kids are committing crimes,” James said. “Well, this court handles all of those. So if (the public) wants to have some say in how the court deals with juvenile crime moving forward, this is their chance to have a voice.”
The Tribune conducted interviews with each of the candidates in the May 8 primary: Democrats Catherine Andres, Stephen Drendall, Andre Gammage, Mark Kopinski and Ken Sheetz, and Republican Jim Fox. They are listed below with the Democratic contenders first in alphabetical order.
Andres, a St. Joseph County deputy prosecutor, was a social worker for 10 years before going to law school. She studied law while raising her four children, graduating the same day her eldest son graduated from high school.
She said she studied law because she wanted to help people. Andres, 61, spent seven years as a part-time deputy prosecutor in Elkhart County before working for the St. Joseph County prosecutor’s office. She also maintained a private law practice in Elkhart for 11 years, where she focused on family and probate law.
Andres said she believes her experience — in social work, criminal prosecution and private practice family law — makes her well-suited for the variety of cases that come before the probate judge.
The judge’s most important responsibility, she said, is to the children.
“I’ve thought for a long time that this country doesn’t do enough to protect its children,” she said. “It’s just not part of our culture, or at least it doesn’t seem so. Children are a joy, a gift to us.”
Andres said she has been watching recent news reports on the Department of Child Services concerning child fatalities around the state, centralized funding, and a reduced number of child welfare cases in St. Joseph and Elkhart counties.
Her main concern, she said, is reports that some professionals who call the DCS child abuse hot line to report possible abuse are not getting attention they deserve.
“I believe if a professional calls — a teacher, doctor, social worker — that there should be an automatic investigation as far as I’m concerned,” Andres said. “These are not people that called because they have an ax to grind, these are people that are calling because they have a sincere concern about a child.”
Andres said she is well aware that decisions made by a probate judge — to remove a child from a home, to reunite a family, to terminate a person’s parental rights — are “life-changing” for the people involved.
She said it is the court’s greatest responsibility, and the greatest challenge.
“You have to listen to everybody’s input and make a determination based on the law, as well as the facts and circumstances,” Andres said.
“How can there be anything more important than when children that have been returned to families have ended up injured or dead? I don’t see anything more important that I can think of.”
Andres is the only female candidate seeking the probate seat.
Does she think it is something that can assist or help as a judge?
“Absolutely,” she said. “How many of the other candidates juggled three children and a husband while they were going to law school? And I never missed a game and I never missed a parent-teacher conference.”
For the last 33 years, Stephen Drendall has worked as an attorney in South Bend, with family law being the backbone of his private practice.
Drendall spends much of his time in probate court, representing parties in paternity cases, child welfare cases, adoptions, juvenile delinquencies, and guardianships. This, he said, is what sets him apart.
“I don’t think this is a position where we should be expecting on-the-job training,” he said.
Drendall, 59, is the only candidate certified as a family law specialist, a title he said only six attorneys hold in St. Joseph County, three of whom are judges or former judges. The certification requires a certain level of experience in family law and an exam. He received the certification in 2007.
For six years, Drendall worked in probate court as a public defender for juveniles accused of crimes. At several points, he was offered positions in adult court, but he stayed with the teens.
“I thought the work I was doing was, frankly, more important and had more of an impact than representing people in criminal court, many of whom had been around the block several times,” Drendall said.
He said he recognizes the tension between wanting to provide services and programs for troubled families, while also trying to be responsible with taxpayer dollars.
“But there are few things that I see that are more important for what governmental resources we have than seeing that our kids are safe, and that our kids are nurtured, that our kids are in an environment where they are not threatening others, and all of those are central to what probate court does, more than any other court.”
He added: “The court has the legal duty to provide for children’s safety, to serve their best interests, and sometimes that costs money. I don’t know of anyone who has the legal duty or obligation to shortchange children, so that’s going to be an ongoing area of concern. It’s going to involve ongoing discussion with state
administrators, and with our legislators.”
Drendall said he also intends to strengthen the relationship between probate court and local governments, school systems, and law enforcement. He noted that he also has built relationships with JJC director Pete Morgan, probation officers, DCS workers and attorneys, and Court-Appointed Special Advocates for Children.
“Those partnerships are essential and I think having worked with them is an important advantage.”
Gammage, 49, was the first candidate to file for the Democratic nomination, and he said he believes it sets him apart from the rest of the field. He filed before Nemeth announced his pending retirement, but Gammage said he had spoken with Nemeth and made him aware of his intentions.
With his children grown, Gammage decided it was the right time to seek the position.
“I believe this is the right thing for me to do to serve the community,” he said.
Gammage has operated a private practice in South Bend since 1994, practicing criminal law as well as family law. He also is an administrative law judge for the South Bend Department of Code Enforcement, and worked as a deputy prosecutor for about four years earlier in his career.
He said he has a unique ability to understand where young people are coming from, and has a keen awareness for the role of environment in a child’s development. He said he would use that point of view on the bench, when children come before him needing services.
Gammage emphasized the need to be proactive, and to “take the court outside the four walls.” He discussed the need for seminars to educate people about wills and estates, programs to teach children to recognize abuse or inappropriate touching, and providing good parenting programs for parents of children born out of wedlock.
“It’s really the parents’ responsibility to raise the kids, not the court’s,” he said.
For any duties that he is less familiar with in probate court, Gammage said he would have other people with better knowledge carry out those tasks.
Gammage said he appreciates the control the local probate judge or magistrates have in juvenile cases, but expressed concern about the Department of Child Services’ centralized call center in Indianapolis, saying local people are better suited to handle local calls.
With regard to cases of abuse and neglect, he mentioned proactivity and prevention.
“I think it’s important for us to continue to educate parents on the proper discipline of children and educate them on abuse so we can prevent kids from (needing court intervention),” he said.
Mark Kopinski spent the first 13 years of his legal career as a St. Joseph County deputy prosecutor, and the last 13 years managing his own private practice.
The dual experience of prosecuting, and then defending, makes him well-suited to take the bench, he said.
Kopinski, 53, said his private practice often leads him to probate court. But he also pointed to his extensive experience coaching his children’s sports teams — as a sign of his community involvement and how children have long been a part of his life.
Asked about challenges faced by the probate judge, Kopinski pointed to the recent centralization of the Department of Child Services, which stripped some decision-making power from judges and other local officials.
Now, a decision a judge makes regarding where to place a child in need of services must be approved at the state level, he said.
“Anything that costs money, DCS has to approve,” Kopinski said.
He predicts funding will become an increasingly bigger issue in the coming year, as will questions about the Juvenile Justice Center operating at full capacity.
“What’s going to happen next? Is it going to be expanded physically?”
He said he would like to see improved communication between the probation department and the Department of Child Services. He said he would like to see a “groundwork” set between the two groups so they can work together when a child might be a ward of the state, and also accused of a crime.
Kopinski said his experience as both a deputy prosecutor and a private attorney, as well as an experienced children’s sports coach, makes him especially sensitive to the many interests involved in a probate court case.
“Really, everyone just wants fairness,” Kopinski said. “I mean, it really comes down to it. They’re just hoping it’s fair, and I think that my major attribute is my experience looking at all that. It really gives me some insight in making those tough decisions.”
The million dollar budgets of the Juvenile Justice Center and probate court do not faze Kopinski, he said. For him, the busier the better.
“I have the eagerness to jump in, and I want the challenge,” Kopinski
said. “I want court to start at 8 o’clock, I want to be involved in as much as I possibly can.”
He added: “You’re elected by the folks to basically work for them. If I get the job, I’m there to make sure I do my best to make sure when they come to me, I am making the right decisions.”
Thirty-five years of working in probate court has allowed Ken Sheetz to see the changing landscape of child welfare, and he said it has reached a low point in certain areas.
“My campaign is basically running for a cause, not a job,” he said. “This is something I feel I need to do simply because of all the many years I’ve been dealing with families and children. ... Whatever we’re going now doesn’t work. It’s not working.”
Sheetz, 65, said all too often the court process involving child welfare takes too long, even when the state is working to reunite a family.
“I’m not sure why we can’t do a better concentration of providing the services in a shorter period of time and get families reunited,” Sheetz said. “Distance and time doesn’t make anything better. I think it exacerbates the problem.”
He said he is “totally opposed” to the Department of Child Services centralizing its abuse hot line to a single call center in Indianapolis, rather than having each county handle its own calls.
“It needs to be brought back here,” he said. “So that we can monitor. We are the best qualified to take care of the citizens of our county, not somebody in Indianapolis.”
Sheetz spent some time as an assistant city attorney and as a St. Joseph County deputy prosecutor, but for most of his career, he has been in private practice — with 90 percent of his cases involving probate court matters, he said.
“I’ve got more cases (in probate court) than any of the other individuals that are on the slate,” Sheetz said. “And there’s no substitute for experience and the learning that comes with it.”
Sheetz said the greatest responsibility of the probate court judge is managing cases that touch a wide swath of people in the county.
“It cuts across our whole community, and that is a great responsibility in itself,” he said.
The probate judge also has a responsibility to help guide delinquent children toward better behavior. In its emphasis to keep families intact when possible, the Department of Child Services has pulled back from placing children in residential treatment centers, especially those out-of-state.
Sheetz sees this as a problem. First, he said, boot camps in other states have a higher success rate. Second, he said, it is less expensive than Indiana facilities.
“If it works, it works,” he said. “The numbers speak for themselves.”
But before he can take on state issues involving DCS, Sheetz wants to focus on local issues and local problems, and try to “build an alliance” with the legislature.
“Everything seems to be all about money,” he said. “Centralized government. Cheaper this, cheaper that. It doesn’t work that way. If you’re shortchanging your youth, then you’re shortchanging all of us.”
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will face 50-year-old Jim Fox, a Republican, in the general election.
A deputy prosecutor in Elkhart County, and a former police officer, paramedic and firefighter, he said he would bring diverse experience to the bench.
“I think I have the most varied past and the broadest background of anybody in the group,” Fox said. “I’ve worked at large companies, worked part time for UPS, worked on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, handling large amounts of money on a tight deadline.”
But his recent work as a deputy prosecutor has given him exposure to juveniles in the courtroom, and he said has seen things he believes need to change in probate court matters.
Though he noted that St. Joseph Probate Court runs at a “high efficiency” he said there has been an increase in the number of pending cases that last for years.
“Juvenile and guardianship (cases) don’t quickly resolve themselves,” he said. “But all courts want to see their disposal rates of cases improve.”
Fox said he also would like to utilize programs for juveniles that have proven results. He said 12-step programs have not been shown to be successful for juveniles.
Fox described the qualities a probate judge needs:
“You need to have a long-term memory on law and case law, and a short-term memory when it comes to individuals and parties that appear in front of you,” he said. “You frequently see people at their worst moments, and you set the expectation for behavior for attorneys and the people standing in front of you.”
Staff writer Mary Kate Malone: