Justice Court

court.jpg

I arrived first.

I’d driven by this building at least one hundred times but had somehow never noticed it. It was tucked on a side road off the freeway entrance, behind a Ramada Inn. The freeway arced up and over, crossing the skyline above the court building with rushing cars and exhaust fumes. The air was biting. It was two days before Thanksgiving, but we hadn’t had our first snow yet, and I looked forward to the clean white powder falling on the city.

I considered waiting in the car, but I saw a line forming, and I didn’t want to be here any longer than I had to be. I got out and stood in the cold. It was 7:40 am, and the building didn’t open until 8.

My eyes scanned the crowd, the people I would be spending my morning with. I have a habit of giving people names in my brain, at least when I’m focused on them. There was a tall good-looking stoner looking guy, skinny and in baggy dress clothes; I called him Quinn. A haggard-looking white girl with a stained sweatshirt and ripped jeans sagged against a concrete pillar, awake far too early for her; I called her Tina. A large man with an ample stomach stood against the wall, wearing a baggy hoody over his curly grey hair; he kept nodding to everyone who walked up to the building, saying hello with enthusiasm in a Southern accent; I called him Beau. A gorgeous African woman with coal skin and waves of black and golden hair stood looking furious, her back turned to the man who was there with her; his skin was more like cocoa and he stood in a shirt and tie, his hands in his pockets as he looked at the ground; I called them Rose and Robert.

More people gathered and the doors finally opened. I held the door for a few folks, walked in, and somehow still ended up in the front of the line. The court windows opened, and a clerk took the citation number off of my traffic ticket, checked my name, and confirmed that I’d scheduled an appearance today. The ticket had been issued a month ago now. I signed a waiver stating that I was waiving an attorney and agreeing to represent myself, I handed the form to a pair of security guards, and I passed through a metal detector. I was immediately impressed by the multi-cultural representation in the staff here; the clerks, bailiff, guard, and court reporter were white, Hispanic, Polynesian, and Asian, both men and women, and of various ages.

As I waited for everyone to pass through security, I reviewed the facts of my case in my brain. On a Sunday evening, I’d received a ticket for ‘improper left turn’ from an aggressive officer, one who’d been belligerent and sarcastic. The ticket he’d given me had had incorrect information on it, including the wrong penalty and court information. I couldn’t argue that I’d committed the improper turn infraction, but I thought that perhaps the way in which the ticket had been given might nullify it somehow. I thought I could at least try it.

After a few minutes, with everyone in the room, we were instructed to watch a video made by a judge, a Hispanic woman, that explained our rights, including the option of pleading ‘no contest’, ‘not guilty’, or ‘guilty’ to each of the charges. We were instructed to ‘all rise’ and the judge entered in her black robes. Anna Anderson was her name (no relation). Her hair hung long on her shoulders, freshly washed and not yet dry. She carried a plastic cup with something juicy inside, took a sip from her long straw, and took a seat. The prosecutor occupied one table, a friendly man in his mid-20s, handsome, with a scruffy face and glasses. They both opened up their laptops and began to process through the cases.

I was called up first, and I pleaded ‘not guilty’. The judge invited me to speak with the prosecutor after everyone else had entered their pleas, and I agreed, so I took a seat again and prepared to wait an hour.

There were about 20 people in the room, of all shapes, races, ages, and sizes. Many I recognized from outside. Just across the row from me was a skinny Asian man, likely around 50, who was aggressively plucking nose-hairs with tweezers; he did it with such speed and efficiency that I was almost more impressed than I was grossed out. Beau sat next to him, coughing enthusiastically from time to time and apologizing to others in his Southern drawl each time he did. An old man with an oxygen tank walked in, muttering about the bail he’d posted for his ‘god-damn wife’ and about being in ‘fucking court at fucking 8 in the morning’.

My ‘improper left turn’ charge had been called up first. After that, I was shocked with how the cases escalated in severity. A woman with an endangerment to child charge from 2013 made an appearance, having been avoiding court for five years apparently. Other traffic violations, though many of them much more serious, such as major speeding infractions. Judge Anderson worked through the cases efficiently, with respect to each person, explaining things clearly, offering options for counsel, working out payment plans for various fines. Overall, I was pretty impressed.

Quinn got called up after a few minutes, his blonde hair slicked back against his scalp. I noticed his shoes were scuffed. The judge reviewed his charges, which included a DUI, and he pleaded not guilty, but then changed to guilty after realizing he didn’t qualify for court-appointed counsel. The judge explained that he made far too much money for that. He looked at the ground, clearly distressed, and stated that she could go ahead and sentence him because he wasn’t going to ‘pay no attorney’. The judge counseled him to think things through, asking him if he realized that if he pleaded guilty that he could go to jail immediately and for up to six months, right there from the courthouse. At her suggestion, he agreed to at least talk to the prosecutor before he made a decision, and resumed his seat in the back row of the courtroom. My heart went out to him. I had no idea what his life was like, but facing charges like that couldn’t be easy. Anyone could get a DUI in the wrong circumstances.

Rose was called up next. She had a thick accent, but her English was impeccable. The judge explained that she was facing charges of domestic violence in the presence of a minor, and Rose pleaded not guilty, then asked for a court-appointed attorney. Robert, Rose’s boyfriend?/husband? spoke up and stated that he was financially supporting Rose and her child since she had recently lost a job, and Rose shot him a look that let me know that he had been the victim of the violence. Rose muttered something about this being ‘such a joke’ under her breath, and the judge invited her to fill out the application for court-appointed counsel. Rose stormed past Robert on her way out to the lobby.

Tina couldn’t get out of there fast enough. She looked down, muttered lowly into the microphone as she spoke to the judge about multiple traffic infractions. She pleaded guilty, apologized for having missed court before, agreed to pay the fine in full, didn’t want to come back again, and rushed out after hearing that her license could be reinstated. The was a beat of silence, during which I could only hear the intakes of the oxygen machine and the clink of the Tweezers.

Beau went last. As he name was called (his real name wasn’t Beau), he strolled up to the microphone, speaking before he got there. “Well, your honor,” he said in his drawl, “let me just say thank you for all your hard work and service, and can I just say, ‘Go Utes!'” The judge wasn’t amused. She reviewed his assault charges and Beau pleaded not guilty, laughing as he spoke. He asked for a public defender, explaining, “I’m a veteran, and I’m mentally ill! I get disability. $900 per month, and $450 goes to my new truck and the rest goes to my rent and I use public help for the rest, so I’ll need your help. Go Utes!” He was given the proper forms to fill out and he thanked the judge with one final “Go Utes!” before walking away.

All twenty plus cases were processed by the time an hour was up. Then the prosecutor pulled me into a side room to discuss my case. He was shockingly charming, laughing about how I surely wanted to be spending my day somewhere else. He listened patiently as I expressed my concerns, then he listed my options, careful not to give me advice. I quickly realized fighting the charge wasn’t worth it, though I did have some valid concerns. I ended up pleading no contest, getting quickly processed by the judge, and then paying a $120 fine. I’d already filed a professional complaint against the aggressive officer. The rest would be fine as it was.

I left the building with an overwhelming feeling of ‘meh’. A traffic ticket was ultimately inconsequential. But, upon reflection, being there was kind of a cool feeling, sitting next to people from all walks of life, people whose paths I likely wouldn’t cross even though we lived in the same city. Sitting there, we were all equal. The intricacies of the court existed. Those who worked there interacted with each other daily, with a new crowd of people crossing their paths every day. Different judges, different prosecutors, same security guards, bailiffs, and clerks.

“Hey, Janet, hope your dog is feeling better. Guess we better unlock the doors, we got forty cases on the docket this morning.”

“Hey, Georgette, did you see we have four battery charges, three assaults, and two domestic violence cases today? Better not display your last name! You have terrible taste in men.”

“Hey, Charlie, remember when that drunk guy came in last week? I’ve been drinking more lately since my son went to college. I better not ever get a DUI!”

“Hey, Joe, wanna grab a drink after work? Oh, hang on, that crying lady is walking back through.”

Numbers on a docket. Each person had some interaction with the police that led them here. Each would plead innocent, no contest, or guilty. Each would pay a fine, or hire an attorney. Each could face consequences with their jobs and families, but each represented a series of charges and penalties with the court. Did they show up? Check. Did they plead? Check. Did they accept the consequences? Check. Next! Fill up your coffee and finish your doughnut, the next forty people are headed in.

Ninety minutes in the court. My ticket was paid, my charge was over. I couldn’t help but wonder what this meant for the rest.

Seattle Part 6: the HMO

October, 2014

On my first day, it took me nearly an hour to get to my new job, though it was only about 8 miles distance from my residence. I had to drive down a long, narrow, busy Seattle street through traffic and stoplights, then get on a congested freeway. Traffic moved very slowly across the lake, and there was no other way to get there.

I worked on the top floor of a medical clinic, the local face of a busy HMO (Health Maintenance Organization). The mental health clinic employed around ten therapists, and we were all kept significantly busy. Clients who held a particular insurance were given good rates to see a doctor or a counselor at the HMO, and they were charged a lot of out-of-pocket expenses to see anyone else, thus we always had a long list of people waiting to be seen by a provider. Someone might call in in some sort of crisis and then not be able to see a counselor for six weeks afterward, based on current openings.

I had worked at community health centers before, so I understood the medical model of therapy. I was a clinical social worker, or LCSW, meaning I could get higher than standard reimbursement rates through various insurances, including Medicare and Medicaid, and the company seemed happy to have me there. But this place worked at a much higher pace than anything I had ever experienced before.

First of all, consider therapy itself. A counseling session requires the therapist’s all. There can be no distractions, no phones or music or computers. It’s just the therapist and the patient. There can’t be errant thoughts, or outside stressors, or headaches, or upset stomachs, or sleepiness. The therapist can’t yawn, or stretch, or eat a snack. The client requires one hundred per cent of the therapist’s focus, as well as their clear memories of past therapy sessions, like names of loved ones and therapeutic goals. On top of that, therapists are often dealing with clients who have extreme trauma issues. They hear stories about combat, suicide, rape, abuse, grief, and pain. And when one client leaves, the next is generally waiting, and the therapist can’t still be thinking about the first or she won’t be able to focus on the second.

Doing three or four therapy sessions in a row requires a tremendous effort; doing seven or eight becomes downright exhausting if not impossible. The HMO required more. And doing that day after day, well, it’s not for the faint-hearted. In standard clinics, even busy ones, I became accustomed to doing four therapy sessions, having an hour lunch, then doing three more, with the last hour of the day being reserved for case and progress notes, treatment plans, and correspondence. It was already at a taxing schedule.

But at the HMO, the expectations were much higher. They had competitive wages (about 45 dollars per hour, consistently, on salary) and a great benefits package. But they had their therapists on a very rigid schedule, seeing a patient basically every forty minutes with no time for case notes built in.

A standard schedule might go like this, for one day:

8 am: ten minute staff check-in

8:15: first patient (let’s say an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s whose husband just died)

9: second patient (a teenage girl who recently attempted suicide)

9:45 third patient (a refugee worried about her loved ones in her home country)

10:30: fourth patient (a couple going through extreme marital issues)

11:15: fifth patient (a veteran struggling with PTSD issues)

12: thirty minutes for lunch

12:30: sixth patient (a single mother of four processing stress)

1:15: seventh patient (a woman with a new baby, struggling with postpartum)

2: eighth patient (a mother processing stress over her son coming out of the closet)

2:45: ninth patient (a man referred by his boss for losing his temper at work)

3:30: tenth patient (a ten-year old boy whose parents recently divorced)

4:15: eleventh patient (a woman with borderline personality disorder, recently out of the state hospital following a suicide attempt).

Then, after that, once your notes were finished, you could go home for the day. Every other week or so, there would be a staff meeting of some kind. And every second or third day, a client might cancel or not show up, giving a chance to catch up. But that many patients per day, every day, four days per week, generally meant between 36 and 45 people seen per week. Sessions had to be shorter and more goal-directed, and a failure to adhere to the schedule meant knocking multiple clients back. If a client came in in crisis, very little could be done to manage it without having to cancel another session afterwards completely, and openings after that became hard to find.

I came into the job with boundless enthusiasm. The team of people I worked with were amazing, funny, friendly, and supportive. The agency had great diversity representation, several gay therapists, and a good camaraderie. But as I finished my first week of work, beaten down, grey, and bitter, I began to realize how tired everyone was. It was like working in an emergency room, without breaks, day after day, every day. With an hour’s drive each way.

In Utah, my therapy work had almost exclusively been with LGBT people who were struggling to align their sexuality with their Mormonism. Here, I was seeing people from every walk of life, all struggling with their own sets of problems. The word Mormon wasn’t being brought up anymore, but there was constant depression, anxiety, trauma, grief, and emotional pain. And within two weeks, I found myself unable to offer my client’s my all any longer. Instead of being an incredible therapist, I was becoming a mediocre one, simply to survive the rigorous page.

And with the reality of the new job settling in, Seattle didn’t feel quite so magical. It felt wearying, and expensive. Some cracks in the foundation of my dream life began to show.

And every night, there was the phone call to my sons, who remained far away, and who I missed very, very much.