August 8, 2022
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Choose Aurora Martinez Jones in Austin, Texas. Picture by Cindy Elizabeth.

There’s a sense of serendipity for Travis County Choose Aurora Martinez Jones, as she presides over the Texas courtroom the place a history-making lawsuit within the Forties helped carry an finish to authorized segregation. At this time, she is the primary Black lady to preside over the 126th District Court docket, and the primary choose to supervise a docket totally dedicated to the area’s struggling kids and households.

Communities battered by poverty, dependancy, poor well being care and home violence are too usually failed by Baby Protecting Companies in Texas, the place Martinez Jones is decided to search out options. 

“When you may have the chance to intervene in a household’s life, particularly a household that’s ripe to be poised because the sufferer of inequitable programs, it’s a must to do one thing totally different to stop the trail that numerous racist programs have constructed,” Martinez Jones instructed The Imprint. “My hope, particularly for the kids, is to dramatically and impactfully change the trajectory, in order that we don’t find yourself within the statistics.”

Throughout an expansive interview, Martinez Jones described her frustration with the state’s Division of Household and Protecting Companies, foster youth left to sleep in workplaces, and the challenges of serving to individuals caught up within the state’s troubled little one welfare system. To raised shield the foster kids she oversees in Travis County, she has relied on every thing from court docket orders towards the kid welfare company to trauma-informed hearings, and has strengthened connections with community-based service teams. 

The 38-year-old choose attracts on her previous, because the Texas-born daughter of immigrants, and somebody who understands the challenges confronted by most of the households who seem every weekday in her Austin courtroom.

Many individuals who come earlier than her are individuals of shade,” stated Cortney Jones, a social employee and former foster youth who based Change 1, a nonprofit that works with youth and households. “To see a choose that appears like them, they perhaps really feel like they’ve a preventing probability.”

A fickle little one welfare state

The Texas Division of Household and Protecting Companies has been beneath court docket oversight for greater than a decade for its remedy of youngsters in state care, and for 3 days in 2019 was fined $50,000 a day for violations of its mandate. This month, a federal court docket choose vowed to but once more impose “substantial fines” for the company’s failure to adjust to orders to repair the foster care system.

As reported by The Texas Tribune, court docket displays lately discovered that the state has been unable to correctly oversee residential take care of foster kids, and as many as one-fourth of youngsters recognized as victims of sexual abuse had been victimized once more after getting into foster care.

Earlier this 12 months, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a directive that CPS examine dad and mom whose transgender kids are receiving extensively accredited affirming well being care — a transfer that has drawn nationwide condemnation and a number of other lawsuits. This month, a Travis County district court docket choose briefly stopped the state from finishing up the investigations.

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Chief Justice of the Third District Court docket of Appeals of Texas, Darlene Byrne. Picture courtesy of Texas courts.

Texas judges interviewed for this story cited different, long-standing elements within the state’s dysfunctional little one welfare system, together with an absence of psychological well being sources, excessive poverty and poor funding for community-based companies for low-income residents. Moreover, Texas legislators — who are sometimes targeted extra on political expediency than sound coverage improvement — “rewrite the entire rulebook” for foster care each two years when the legislative season begins anew, stated Appellate Court docket Chief Justice Darlene Byrne.

“If any personal sector firm was being whiplashed between a brand new strategic plan each two years, no firm would survive,” Byrne stated in an interview. “It will fail. It will be in chapter. That’s what you’re seeing proper now, our entity is in chapter.”

Martinez Jones calls the present political local weather, “a foreseen brewing storm, and now it’s the right storm.” The CPS issues, she and Bryne agreed, have been notably acute beneath the management of Commissioner Jaime Masters, who was appointed to move the Division of Household and Protecting Companies in 2019.

Masters — who has carried out Abbott’s order to open abuse investigations on households with trans youth — has additionally overseen the state’s efforts to denationalise the foster care system, one thing that has not fared properly in different elements of the nation. And, they stated, morale in her division is notably low. The company has suffered a “enormous drain from long-term and educated social employees on the state,” Martinez Jones stated.

Whereas the company is required to comply with the legislation, it develops its personal inside insurance policies, and maintaining with these adjustments could be difficult.

“They internally change their coverage like individuals change their underwear,” stated Martinez Jones. “They alter their coverage at their very own whim. Typically it’s in response to a case that acquired numerous consideration. I can’t sustain with it.”

A contrasting little one welfare imaginative and prescient

Martinez Jones turned an affiliate choose for the 126th District Court docket Court docket in 2015, and received her election to the bench in 2020. In her public displays, the mom of two promotes court docket hearings which might be “equitable and anti-racist” and “deliberately empower, affirm and honor the gender id and sexual orientation of youth.” 

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On the bench, she has continued the Household Drug Remedy Court docket first established in Travis County by Justice Byrne, who served there as presiding choose for 20 years earlier than being elected chief justice of the Texas’ Third District Court docket of Attraction. The remedy court docket mannequin depends on multidisciplinary groups and a extra frequent set of hearings that ensures dad and mom are supplied with substance abuse remedy, counseling and the parenting abilities wanted to reunify with their kids. 

Martinez Jones is the board secretary of the Nationwide Council of Juvenile and Household Court docket Judges. She runs a “trauma-informed” courtroom, one which acknowledges court docket purchasers could have skilled traumatic life occasions that may be triggered in court docket, compounding their stress. 

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A stuffed animal in Choose Aurora Martinez Jones’ courtroom. Picture by Sandy West.

To make children really feel snug in court docket, there are massive plastic bins stuffed with stuffed animals. Kids’s artwork is stamped with rainbow-colored handprints, and a T-shirt on a smiling toy bear asks: “Hello, how are you?”

Martinez Jones clearly explains all proceedings, and what court docket orders imply. The kids in court docket are additionally supplied a measure of management over their expertise. They will meet with Choose Martinez Jones in her workplace, or within the courtroom. Previous to the pandemic, they had been supplied the choice of sitting with one of many courthouse remedy canine. And when she presides over an adoption, Martinez Jones lets children bang the gavel.

Austin resident Iris Younger first met Martinez Jones when she was preventing for custody of her grandsons. It was an extended, emotional battle with Baby Protecting Companies, she stated. However she got here to view the choose as the one authority concerned who appeared to be actually engaged along with her case and who confirmed any actual concern in regards to the welfare of the kids.

“She’s by the legislation,” Younger stated. “However she’s keen about what she does, so far as households and kids. She runs her court docket accordingly.”

Younger was in the end capable of undertake her three grandsons, ages 7, 6 and 4 in 2020. She requested Martinez Jones to preside over the ultimate court docket listening to. 

“Certainly, if I used to be not in her courtroom it most likely would have gone a complete totally different method and I wouldn’t have my grandchildren,” she stated.

To make certain, there are individuals who have appeared earlier than Martinez Jones who don’t share equally constructive emotions. By the very nature of the dockets she handles, Martinez Jones is partaking individuals in nerve-racking and unstable conditions, together with the elimination of youngsters into foster care and the termination of parental rights. Criticism can come from all sides, the choose stated — from dad and mom and family who don’t get the result they’d hoped for to these saying she positioned kids again residence with their households too quickly. 

However she added that she hopes even when somebody is upset along with her rulings, they no less than really feel somebody cared sufficient to pay attention. 

“One of the vital essential issues all through this course of is rarely forgetting that we’re coping with actual individuals, and actual lives, and ensuring everybody has the chance to be seen and heard because the distinctive human beings that they’re,” she stated.

The significance of illustration in court docket 

There have been near 16,000 removals of youngsters in Texas in fiscal 12 months 2021, based on state information, a quantity that’s down from virtually 20,700 three years prior.

African American kids in Texas are almost twice as seemingly as white kids to be faraway from their houses, final 12 months’s figures present. That disparity is extra pronounced in Travis County, which incorporates Austin. Black kids comprise about 8% of youngsters in Travis County, however they make up 22% of these faraway from their dad and mom’ houses following abuse or neglect allegations. White kids make up 35% of the inhabitants however account for less than 15% of removals.

Latino kids in foster care largely match their statewide inhabitants for Texas as a complete. However in Travis County, once more, they’re overrepresented in distinction with their numbers amongst all kids. Latino children in Travis County make up virtually half of the kid inhabitants, and they’re greater than thrice extra more likely to be taken from residence than their white counterparts, state information present.

However there’s one other noteworthy pattern within the area that features Travis County, the place Choose Martinez Jones presides over CPS instances. Final 12 months, county residents spent much less time in foster care than the statewide common size of keep — no matter whether or not the result was a reunification with dad and mom, adoption or emancipation. 

Those that’ve noticed Choose Martinez Jones agree that her expertise as a Spanish-speaking Black lady helps join her with the kids and households who come into her courtroom — and attend to their wants.

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Justice Byrne praised Martinez Jones for constantly discovering methods to plug gaps left unfilled by the state, utilizing her courtroom to assist kids and households elevate themselves out of the system.

“Choose Martinez Jones is main it in distinctive and even higher and extra visionary methods now,” she stated.

As of Sept. 1, 2021, 50 of 467 Texas district court docket judges had been Black, based on the Texas Judicial Department. Whereas some Texas counties celebrated substantial will increase in Black ladies elected to the bench lately, in Travis County there are presently solely three Black ladies, together with Martinez Jones, serving as district court docket judges. Two of the three are set to retire this 12 months.

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District Court docket Choose Lora Livingston. Picture by way of Travis County Courts.

Two outstanding judges who know her work properly, advocates for kids and households, and the grandmother who has appeared earlier than Choose Martinez Jones, described her as decided to search out options to issues each systemic and particular person. They stated she not often settles for accepting inequities that seem too embedded to aim to repair. In addition they famous her mind, compassion and optimism.

“Nicely, she’s good, for one factor,” Choose Lora Livingston, the primary Black lady elected to preside over a district court docket in Travis County, stated in an interview. “You need anyone who’s compassionate. You need anyone who cares. You need anyone who understands. You need anyone who is ready to admire the various experiences of these which might be going to be coming to her courtroom. And she or he is succesful, in a big method, of doing all of these issues.”

Charting a distinct course

For Martinez Jones, there has all the time been some battle between the deep and abiding love of Texas she was raised with, and the fact of persistent and systemic racism. As a younger woman, she was one of many solely Black kids in her La Porte elementary faculty and, later, she was considered one of a small variety of Black ladies on the prestigious College of Texas Faculty of Legislation. 

Her mom had come from Jamaica and her father from Mexico after they first met as youngsters, each having fled impoverished lives of their residence nations. From a younger age, she helped them navigate the general public faculty system — amongst her earliest experiences problem-solving advanced and sometimes entrenched bureaucracies.

She moved to Austin when she was 17 to attend the College of Texas, finishing her undergraduate diploma in three years. Intent on attending legislation faculty, she labored as a receptionist at a legislation agency so she might work together with legal professionals and be taught extra in regards to the justice system.

A planner and self-described “nerdy overachiever,” Martinez Jones sought out mentors and studying alternatives that may enhance her probabilities to succeed as soon as in legislation faculty. As an undergraduate, after noticing that there have been few ladies of shade in pre-law fraternities, she and two classmates based the coed group Minority Girls Pursuing Legislation in 2003. The group continues to attach members with legislation faculties, mentors and companies.

As a first-year legislation faculty pupil, Martinez Jones had Professor Lino Graglia for her U.S. constitutional legislation class. Graglia turned infamous for saying at a 1997 information convention that Black and Mexican-American college students at high universities had been “not academically aggressive” with white college students as a result of they “have a tradition that appears to not encourage achievement.” He additionally served as school adviser for a pupil group against race-based admissions standards. Graglia was recognized for utilizing racial slurs in his classroom and urging Austin residents to defy a court-ordered busing plan.

“He talked about how he was there protesting the desegregation,” Martinez Jones recalled.

After graduating from legislation faculty and discovering few ladies of shade in management positions at established legislation companies, Martinez Jones once more created her personal path: In 2007, she opened her personal observe. On the time, she took instances, equivalent to shopper safety, private harm, and probate, that helped pay her payments, however she targeted as a lot time as she might on representing kids and households within the little one welfare courts. 

At this time, contained in the Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse, Martinez Jones presides over the historic courtroom the place the constructing’s namesake launched a combat towards Jim Crow segregation that may without end change America. Sweatt was a professional applicant who was denied admission to the College of Texas Faculty of Legislation in 1946 as a result of he was Black. 

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Choose Aurora Martinez Jones, proper, takes within the portrait Ella Nilsson, left, throughout an occasion in Austin earlier this 12 months. Picture by Cindy Elizabeth.

With the assistance of the NAACP and the late attorney-turned Supreme Court docket Justice Thurgood Marshall, Sweatt filed a lawsuit and first argued the case within the courtroom the place Martinez Jones now presides. The U.S. Supreme Court docket in the end dominated in 1950 that, beneath the Equal Safety Clause, the legislation faculty was required to confess Sweatt as a pupil. The case paved the way in which for the Supreme Court docket’s determination only a few years later in Brown v. Topeka Board of Training, overturning segregation in any respect ranges of public training.

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“I’m very humbled to be on this place and to be the primary Black choose sitting on this bench, given its legacy,” Martinez Jones stated. “There’s numerous gravity with that. I take into consideration my place in that historical past, and doing what I do know they wished me to do, which is stand on their shoulders.

I simply really feel an obligation and a duty to make use of this chance on this historic bench with a legacy for a goal.” 

Taking management of Travis County

Baby welfare instances are advanced, Martinez Jones stated, at instances involving not solely civil litigation, however state, federal and typically immigration legislation. The Constitutional rights of each dad and mom and kids additionally should be balanced in figuring out the outcomes in little one welfare instances. 

Balancing the rights of youngsters to be free from hurt with a mother or father’s proper to mother or father is troublesome, she stated. However, when judges take the time to be taught and perceive a household — together with its historical past and complexities — and might herald sources to assist with challenges associated to substances, home violence or psychological well being, the probabilities for a constructive end result are enormously improved.

Martinez Jones desires such assist supplied to households properly earlier than social employees are contemplating eradicating a baby from residence. She calls the strategy “mandated supporting,” a riff on the “mandated reporters” who’re required by legislation to report allegations of suspected abuse and neglect. 

If there have been a separate and distinct technique for reporting conditions that don’t rise to the extent of abuse or neglect — a household fighting entry to meals or shelter for example — the variety of hotline calls that lead to unwarranted maltreatment investigations could possibly be lowered, she stated. It’s an idea presently being regarded into by the Baby Welfare Race Fairness Collaborative she co-founded. 

Her foster care prevention plans in Travis County additionally depend on better-funded, nearer partnerships with neighborhood primarily based teams together with Any Child Can, Latinitas, the African American Youth Harvest Basis, Black Mamas ATX, the Ladies Empowerment Community and Con Mi MADRE.

To successfully join households with these teams, she states in her public displays, the county must “normalize help-seeking,” eradicating its stigma and disgrace; promote a “sense of obligation to assist” inside neighborhoods and “take away ethical judgements about households.”

In the end, failing these kids and households has far-reaching implications for the bigger society. 

“Each individual in society shall be impacted by the way in which kids locally are handled,” Martinez Jones stated. “Kids are an infinite risk of potential. If we don’t do job within the foster care system, within the little one welfare system, within the system that’s meant to guard and help kids and households, everybody goes to really feel the impression.”

However making actual change has been painstaking, and incremental.

For instance: Regardless of a 2007 standing court docket order in Travis County to cease housing kids with out placement in workplace buildings and different unlicensed services, the company continued to take action. Leaders claimed they may not discover different housing for the kids, a inhabitants who usually have increased therapeutic wants, and will have been trafficked, or kicked out of houses hostile to LGBTQ youth.

Final fall, Martinez Jones issued a contempt discovering and levied a positive towards the company after a number of native teenagers being housed in an workplace constructing had been injured. She requested cash from the positive be used to kind a activity pressure to handle the disaster. 

The company responded that it had “completed every thing doable” to adjust to the order, and stated Martinez Jones had overstepped her authority, reported KXAN in Austin. Quickly after, the company misplaced entry to the constructing and started transferring the kids outdoors of Travis County.

Rejecting the concept secure, licensed placements couldn’t be discovered, Martinez Jones labored with a corporation she had created, the Travis County Baby Welfare Re-Imagined pilot, to discover a answer. By means of court docket orders, licensing revisions and different agreements, the kids had been introduced again to Travis County and housed in cottages on the campus of Austin’s SAFE Alliance shelter, till everlasting placements could possibly be discovered. 

Social employee Jones, of the group Change 1, stated the choose’s willingness to make use of her authority to right long-standing issues is deeply significant, particularly to individuals who have been personally uncovered to the kid welfare system. 

“Being on the desk, and valuing my voice and valuing the voice of individuals with lived expertise means a lot,” Jones stated. “I’ve seen how the imaginative and prescient was in her head, the way it acquired on paper, and the way these individuals have come collectively, how they respect her, how we’re getting issues completed in Travis County. That’s inspiring.”

Farrah Mina contributed to this report.