Keyara has known Judge Sandy Martinez most of her life.
The 19-year-old calls the judge by her first name. Her “kids” can get by with that.
Every time she sees the judge, she greets her with a hug.
“She’s been like a mother to me,” Keyara said. “She was there when no one else was. She always gives me good insight on how to handle problems.”
She said the judge was there at the hospital when she found out her mother died and she tried to kill herself.
Keyara is one of the 570 kids in the 24th Judicial Court who are in the foster system or relative placement. Of those, 96 are in group homes like Keyara.
Keyara, who graduates from high school at the end of the year, said she has been in and out of foster families and group homes her entire life.
“I’ve been in partial (foster) care my whole life,” she said, adding that she has been in “full-blown” state custody since 2007.
“She’s very nice, kind-hearted, very energetic, and actually cares … like most judges don’t,” Keyara said.
If you have ever set foot in Martinez’s chambers, it is clear what her favorite part of her job was over the past 18 years. It’s her “kids.”
With a month left of her term as judge, the walls of her office and her desk remain covered in photos and artwork from foster kids or children who have been adopted.
Martinez was defeated by her Republican candidate, Jerel Poor, in the Nov. 6 election. After losing the election, Martinez said the hardest thing is “leaving her kids.”
The tears were flowing when eight of the outgoing judge’s kids came to the courthouse Wednesday to say good-bye to her. It was most likely her last juvenile docket although she said she still has adoptions scheduled and continues to wrap up paperwork and review probation revocations.
“I got you a Pokémon (card),” one elementary-age boy said.
Some brought her flowers. Most made drawings or cards for her.
A five-year-old missing a few front teeth gave her a hug and handed her a drawing of a rainbow.
A teenage boy wore his ROTC uniform, knowing it would make her proud.
An older teen hugged her tight, voicing his sadness and concern that she wasn’t “his judge” anymore. He and Keyara both hoped to somehow keep in touch with her.
Martinez took a few aside to calm their concerns. She told each one of them that they are special and their case workers really care about them.
Tammy Steward, attorney for the juvenile officer in the 24th Circuit, said children in foster care can come to court at least yearly for permanency hearings to determine what the goals are for the case. Steward said those goals can change. The initial goal is usually family reunification.
Steward said all children over the age of 12 have a right to come to court but Martinez says “any kid who wants to come to court, will come to court.” Not every child wants to come.
A Family Support or Care Team, consisting of the juvenile officer, children’s division workers, and guardian ad litem, make recommendations. They try to make sure the child’s needs are being met. Steward said orphans with no family support, like Keyara, do normally get more attention, making sure they have basic necessities like soap and clothing.
At these hearings, Martinez will conduct kid interviews asking the children things like how things are going, if people are treating them OK and if they are getting enough food.
Coming to court has always been a good thing for Keyara. When she comes to court, she said she gives Martinez a hug, sings to her or gives her something she has drawn or written.
“She’s always supported me, never let me down and never lied to me,” she said.
Martinez said these kids who are in the foster system with no family around just want someone to care. They want someone to ask how they are. She said being in the foster system is hard and lot of kids think no one wants them.
She said one person in their life, whether it is a caseworker or the judge, could change things in their life. Children can be in the system until 21. Martinez said they work hard to make sure something in put in place for them after they age out. Some have great outcomes. Some don’t.
She said foster children like Keyara don’t have anyone else so they can become attached to their guardian ad litem, their caseworker or their judge. They are, after all, a constant in their lives.
Keyara, who was a victim of abuse, said her Care Team was there for her when she decided to legally change her first name to something that wasn’t a “trigger” for her. Her Care Team was also with her over the last year when she was able to make contact with two brothers and a sister, all of whom she hadn’t seen or spoken to in 14 years. Only one remains in contact right now, she said.
Steward hopes future judges will continue to conduct “kid interviews” to show they are interested. She said even with the other workers in the courtroom, kids would tell Judge Martinez things they wouldn't tell anyone else.
Steward said Martinez has that charisma and “kid connection.” She said not everyone has that amazing touch with people.
Lynn Ruess is a guardian ad litem for the circuit. A guardian ad litem is an attorney appointed by the court to determine what solutions are in the best interest of a child.
“It’s just really sad (Martinez) is leaving because the kids just love her and will talk to her about things they won’t talk with their caseworkers or me,” she said.
She said it is amazing how children open up to Judge Martinez.
“I don’t know how many times kids have come out that they are being spanked even though others have asked …” she said.
She believes it is important for the judge to know what goes on with the kids. For the kids it is important to know the judge and that they are interested in their life. She said it helps them trust the process a bit more.
Steward said children’s division is always seeking foster parents who are willing to put time and commitment to children within the circuit. There are 27 hours of training to become a foster parent and about a six-month process overall.
If you would like to contact the children’s division about becoming a foster parent, call Stacy Holcomb at 573-518-2592.