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Juvenile judge takes experiences national

Monday, September 14, 2015
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Lauraann Wood

He has taken his knowledge learned in the country’s oldest juvenile court and used it to guide judges nationwide in the best way to run a juvenile family court.

And that will continue as Cook County Associate Judge Maxwell Griffin Jr. enters another term on the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ board of directors.

Griffin became the council’s next secretary — his third term on the group’s board of directors — when he was elected in July.

The council, based in Reno, Nev., exists to support judges — nationally and internationally — through conferences on different topics such as child development and the best ways to service parents in juvenile and family court cases.

Aside from the group’s general mission, Griffin said, his role also places him among its top leadership, which focuses on matters that will help it grow in the future.

Sometimes that means answering insurance questions or getting involved in minor details, he said, and other times it means brainstorming alternate funding methods other than government grants.

And while those responsibilities might pale in comparison to helping judges and promoting the council, he said, he assumes them because they’re important for the group’s core function.

“Sure, I’d love to just do the things that make me happy, but you ultimately do have a responsibility that if you believe in the organization and what it’s trying to do, then you have to do your best in trying to represent it and help it survive and thrive,” he said.

Griffin was appointed to the Law Division bench in April 2003 and transferred to the Child Protection Division that October. Despite knowing little about juvenile court before coming into the position, he said, he took the job because of his educational background and general interest in adolescent development.

Griffin received a degree in sociology at the University of Notre Dame in 1976 and his J.D. from the university in 1980.

He said the time he spent studying the dynamics of family structures and group interaction in society led him to juvenile court.

“I said, ‘Let’s try it,’ and have turned down other assignments because I really believe in what we’re doing over there, and that we are making a difference,” he said.

Griffin said he also enjoys working in juvenile court because he believes a child protection judge has “more power than anywhere else in our system to fashion justice, to fashion a solution and to solve problems.”

“If I’m sitting in the Law Division, I’m just ruling on evidence and the parties go at it,” he said. “If we can help a child or a family at this stage of the proceedings, maybe that kid doesn’t get into the pipeline to jail or maybe that kid doesn’t have unresolved, untreated and undiagnosed mental problems that might cause them to do something that will cause them to end up in the delinquency system.”

Griffin equates the job to that of a gatekeeper because a child protection judge is typically a juvenile’s “last stand” before potentially entering the criminal justice system.

That means staying up to date on new medicine and changing law so the court can remain on the forefront of best practices in juvenile justice, he said.

“There are a lot of issues that come up that judges are faced with,” he said. “It’s very complex.”

Patricia M. Martin, presiding judge of the Child Protection Division and past president of the national council, said Griffin’s dedication to understanding the law makes him not only a good judge but also a good mentor with the council.

She said he always comes to monthly meetings with questions, and he is always interested in helping colleagues mull through issues they might have in their respective jurisdictions.

“I would say that out of all of the work and all of the strong judges I have, Max is one of the leaders in the division and nation when he’s with his fellow colleagues,” she said. “What I think makes him a good judge is that he’s not only interested in what the law is and how it develops, but also how it affects children long-term.”

Darlene Byrne, presiding judge of the 126th Civil District Court in Texas and current national council president, said Griffin’s input is important to the juvenile and family court judges group because it offers an urban perspective that deals with more complex cases than what a rural jurisdiction might encounter.

“When you’re dealing with a small community, your service base for what you can provide to your families is very limited and you have to be incredibly creative to build on the strengths of your community,” she said. “Whereas, when you’re dealing with an urban community, the problem is not having the services, it’s how to connect families to them and how you navigate wait lines.”

Griffin has been instrumental in providing not only judicial but also federal and state policy education for the council, Byrne said, but one niche that makes him a good fit is probing questions.

“It makes us better at what we do when we have people asking the hard questions,” she said.

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