The unpredictable life of a court services officer

By Maura Wery

It takes a special kind of person to willingly walk into a situation that involves a repeat violent offender known to have a firearm, and the only thing between them and potentially being shot is a front door. Court service officers deal with experiences of that sort every week.

The five court service officers in Riley County cover offenders in both Riley and Clay Counties. They meet with offenders to go over court orders, check on their mental health status, do drug testing, home visits and go to court dates. Even so, they say no day is ever the same.

“There is no normal,” Riley County court services officer Kathy Ryan said. A big factor in deciding what their days will be like depends on the number of offenders on each caseload. Chief court services officer Kevin Murray said that lately caseloads have been lower, but each officer can be assigned up to 120 offenders at a time. This can be a difficult juggling match when family, victims and emotions get mixed in.

“You’re dealing with 80 or 100 people on your caseload and then their victims, their family members and treatment providers,” Riley County court services officer Laura Alexander said. 

“We have deaths in the family. We have suicides, we have murders and we just have people’s crises. Sometimes people think we are their only outlet or sounding box so they call us for advice.”

Alexander’s job is even more complex because she deals with juvenile as well as adult offenders.

“When you deal with adults, you can isolate the adult,” Alexander said. “With juveniles you have to include an adult or a guardian and some of them, you have a lot of involvement and there is a lot of chaos or you have no involvement and that’s really frustrating, too. If you have a dirty UA (urinalysis) on an adult you don’t have to call their parents or set a curfew or talk to the parent or school.”

Like adult offenders, juvenile offenders have to come in for weekly meetings. With caseloads of 90-plus people, each court services officer has to decide which offenders need additional assistance. That is determined by offenses and also by each offender’s ability and desire to get out of their current situation.

“You can’t use drugs, or break the law,” Riley County court services officer Mike Clark said of the offenders. “If you get a felony drug charge or a driving while suspended, you now have jumped to the top of the list. You have got yourself a lot more involved than you thought.”

One of the biggest challenges the officers have is getting people to do things they don’t want to do. Each time an offender comes in for an appointment, the officers go through a checklist of things the offender is either ordered by the court or told by their officer to do.

“On our appointment slips we have a checklist. I’m really big on those,” Clark said. “It’s literally a bulleted list. Then you get people with multiple issues and you’re pulling out a sheet of notebook paper. It can get pretty complicated pretty fast.”

One of the most complicated and dangerous parts of the officers’ job is the home visit. Officers make home visits if they want a bigger picture idea of how their offenders are doing.

“I’m observant, I can understand anyone can have issues,” Alexander said. “They can come into your office and say everything’s fine and then you go to their home and it’s totally different.”

Officers usually go on home visits in pairs. They are unarmed, unless law enforcement is involved, and the experience can be edgy and sometimes volatile.

“That’s probably the most dangerous portion of our job … doing home visitations,” Clay County court services officer Mike McGuire said. “You’ll walk in and have no idea what you are walking into.”

Ryan and Alexander once went to a home visit in a local trailer park where a woman and several male friends were hanging out. They said the situation was tense but they made it through without a problem.

“It was kind of like crap, what did we just open up to?” Alexander said.  “The men kept saying ‘It’s the lady police!’ And Kathy, told them Hey it’s okay, you can keep drinking your beer, sorry to ruin your party, but you have to take it out of here.’ We left and were like ‘Dang, that could have been ugly.’”

A week later, Alexander said that same woman on probation and one of the men at the home visit murdered a cashier in a store in Chicago.

“If we had gone out a week later, they had the gun there.” Alexander said. “If we came in with badges on, they would have freaked out.”

Another tense situation happened with Alexander and Clark went to do a probation search on a violent offender known to have a firearm.

“So we found out he had a gun in the house and there was a child custody battle going on at the same time,” Clark said. “If you want to get people emotional, talk about removing their kids.”

For this situation, the Riley County Police Department was dispatched to assist Clark and Alexander in getting the firearm and the child safely from the home. It wasn’t an easy task.

“Law enforcement knocks on the door and he slams the door on us. That’s bad JuJu right there,’ Clark said. “A man that is desperate and was arrested the week before on drug charges isn’t already a fan of law enforcement.”

Clark said that after a few moments, the offender did open the door and let law enforcement and the court services officers into the home. He said one of the biggest reasons that home visit went so well was Alexander’s rapport with the offender and the respect he had for her.

“That was one of those, where Laura’s rapport with the helped us a lot,” Clark said. “He respected Laura a lot and she treated him pretty straight”.

Treating their offenders with respect and keeping the facts straight is one of the court service officers’ keys to getting people rehabilitated.

“You just have to be straightforward with them,” Riley County court services officer Danielle Borth said. “There is no emotion.” Ryan said the success rate of their offenders is about 60 percent.

“I have kids that have moved away and they will call me and say ‘Oh, I’m joining the military’ or ‘I got my grade card and it was A’s and B’s’,” Alexander said. “I will tell them they don’t have to call me anymore and they are like, ‘I know but you’re the only one who cared’.”

The court services officers believe that caring about the offenders may push them to succeed.

“I really enjoy the success stories,” Alexander said. “Sometimes you really help somebody and there is always hope. There may not be many successes, but you have to hang on to those ones who do.”

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