Judge Michael Key Targets Zero Tolerance, Legal Orphans, Crossover Cases and More on National Stage

LaGrange—Judge Michael Key is a hometown boy, a son of  the cotton mill village where he played rhythm guitar in a rock-and-roll band on Saturday nights and went to a Southern Baptist Church on Sundays. He was headed off to Emory University’s law school before he ever met a lawyer.

“Back then people just didn’t go from the mill village to being a lawyer,” he says.

For 31 years, Key (LaGrange High School, class of ’68) has been back home practicing law. For 21 of those years, he’s also been a part-time juvenile court judge.

Now the hometown boy has a national platform. As president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Key, 61, is a leader and spokesman for colleagues all over the country. He was sworn in on July 20.

Key—like other juvenile court judges—sees children at some of the worst times of their lives. Some are before him accused of crimes; others are victims of abuse or neglect, known in Georgia as deprivation.

Dealing with children is different than with adults, he says. In Superior Court, when a verdict is rendered, “the case is over and it’s on to the next case. That’s not the way it works in juvenile court.”

Federal law requires continued oversight of deprivation cases; as far as Key is concerned, moral law requires ongoing involvement in delinquency cases. Key reviews every child on probation every four months just to see how their lives are going.

“It’s not our job—and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way—just to call balls and strikes as we see them,” he says. “It’s our job to solve the problem. We see cases not just at one point in time but over a period of time. Hopefully we can resolve the issues.”

Often lines are blurred between delinquency and deprivation. “In deprivation, the parents are presented as the problem, but you can’t ignore the children in the process,” he says. “In delinquency, the child is presented to the court as the problem, but in most cases you can’t solve the problems without involving parents. In both cases you should have total family engagement.”

Many children are “crossover,” or “dual jacket” cases, so-called because they have file folders as both victims and delinquents. Unfortunately, the cases are usually dealt with separately, Key says. “The fact that we call them crossover youth suggests one of the problems we have,” he says. “You shouldn’t be crossing over within the same system.”

The National Council has a committee studying how to handle crossover cases more holistically.

The point, Key often tells audiences at workshops, is that “we want to be sure that every child is in care who needs to be in care—and not one child more.” It’s a philosophy he applies to foster care, probation and incarceration. The results in Troup County are evident in the statistics.

“I was talking with the chief probation officer and a couple of other staff members yesterday,” Key said earlier this month, “and our numbers are really low of kids under supervision. That’s deliberate. We’ve worked hard to get it that way. We’ve got the kids on probation that we need on probation, and we can spend time with those kids and give them services. . . .On the deprivation side, we have reduced, over 5 1/2 years, the number of kids in foster care in Troup County from 223 to 46. We got the numbers down because we worked the cases.”

Key has been a model to other judges, says Sharon Hill, a former juvenile judge who is now executive director of the advocacy group Georgia Appleseed. “He’s always cared deeply for the families and children before him. He’s in the forefront of best practices. I always looked to Judge Key for the right way to do things.”

Judge F. Bryant Henry, Jr., of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges, calls Key “a tireless advocate for improving the way we do our work to improve the lives of families and children.”
“He’s very generous in sharing his experience and expertise,” Henry says, and, “he’s very innovative in trying new things that would improve the processes we use, and the outcomes.”

Michelle Barclay, assistant director of the Office of Children, Families and Courts under Georgia’s Administrative Office of the Courts, has known him for about 15 years. “He’s got a lot of compassion,” she says. “One reason people are so attracted to him is there’s this part of him that’s so empathetic.”

Key expressed his empathy for children in thoughts he jotted down after a national conference:

“Their belongings in a bag, their hearts on a sleeve or tucked securely away,

Their futures not their own but held in the hands of those who do not know them.

Their worlds asunder; insecurity and mistrust their constant companions.

They come to us looking for answers, for understanding, for hope, for resolution.

What we give them will determine who they are and who they will forever be.

Equally as important, what they become because of their having passed our way will define our lives and our place in history.”

Because Key is always trying to improve, he’s willing to listen to other people’s points of view and even to change his mind, Barclay says. “He’s not wishy-washy but will moderate the way he’s thinking.”

Key says one opinion he’s changed is about incarcerating all kids convicted of drug and weapons charges. “We were putting some of our kids too deep into the system and doing more harm than good,” he says. The county was operating a diversion program for juveniles with misdemeanors. A friend convinced Key to extend it to some more serious offenses.

“A lot of kids caught in their first drug offense do not belong in the juvenile court system,” he says. As for weapons in schools, “zero tolerance is a mistake. It’s a mistake from the school’s perspective. It’s a mistake from the court’s perspective.”

Extending the opportunity for diversion fits with another Key belief—that courts should be the least intrusive and the least restrictive possible. That means, he says, that courts should try to “support families, not supplant families” and “to the greatest extent possible, let children be children and let families be families.”

As president of the National Council, Key, already a popular speaker, can have greater influence on national attitudes. It’s not the kind of office “where we have a platform we want to conclude in a year,” he says. Nevertheless, he is focusing on some areas of concern.

One is internal. Key, who has an M.B.A., is looking at the operations of the council. He’s also appointed committees to study military families in the justice system, and legal orphans.

“There are so many soldiers coming back from war,” he says.  “At one time all soldiers lived in concentrated areas. Now that the National Guard is being deployed so much, when those people come back they’re not at Ft. Benning . They’re living in Troup County, Carroll County, Meriwether County and all these other counties where our judges are not as used to dealing with military law issues, military pay issues, military retirement issues.”

Military families bring “unique issues of family violence, deprivation, delinquency,” he says. “Particularly when they go to war, it makes those issues even more difficult to serve.”

“Legal orphans” are children whose parents’ rights have been terminated but who have not been adopted. Some have grown up with no permanent placement.

“Each of the last three or four years, we in Georgia have had over 100 children age out of foster care without a permanent family,” Key says. “We’ve cut off all legal connections to any family on this earth, and now they’re adults.”

Six to eight states, including Georgia, will be involved in a pilot program to address the problem, Key said.

The National Council, under Key’s leadership, will also continue efforts to ensure that community-based services are in place for status offenders—juveniles whose crimes, such as truancy or running away would not be illegal for adults.

“The judges don’t like to lock children up just for sake of locking them up, whether status offenders or otherwise,” he says, “but we have been denied services to meet the needs of our children.”

Key still practices law at Key & Gordy, a general interest law firm in downtown LaGrange. “Being a lawyer makes me a better judge,” he says, “and being a judge makes me better lawyer.”

Although he still “loves” both roles, he says he would like—someday—to be a full-time judge.

In juvenile court, of course.