In the aftermath of the most catastrophic tornado recorded in decades, Missouri native and 51st District Court Judge Jodi Debbrecht is taking up the mantle to help the tornado ravaged victims of Joplin, Mo. by starting Jodi Helps Joplin, a relief fund. She will be leading a convoy stocked with necessities on Thursday, June 16 to the devastated area. Debbrecht’s resume spans such advocacy roles as a caseworker in juvenile detention facility; a victim’s advocate for a women’s shelter; and lobbying for domestic violence and sexual assault legislation. Debbrecht graduated from the University of Missouri with degrees in psychology, human development and family studies, public policy and mediation, and law. Debbrecht was appointed to the 51st District Court in November of 2010, where she serves and lives in the Waterford community. Monetary donations for Joplin victims can be made to the relief fund “Jodi Helps Joplin” at Oakland County Credit Union, 1375 N. Oakland, Waterford, Mich., 48327. Donations are not tax deductible.
SCN: Tell us why heading down to Joplin, Mo. is a personal mission for you and how you conceived the Jodi Helps Joplin campaign.
JD: It’s personal to me because I’m a native of Missouri. My family still lives in central Missouri. I have many friends and a sort of extended kinship of family members that live in the Springfield and Joplin area who have been certainly affected or first-hand witnesses to the horrors going on down there as a result of this tornado. So quite honestly, I am friend with a number of individuals who work for Oakland County and I was discussing it with them and they said, “Why don’t we do this?” The next thing, we were off and running. Bob Donohue with the Main Street organization and (Oakland County Executive) L. Brooks Patterson really picked up the reigns to this and are running with it. I am surely the spokesperson for this and intend to go down with a convoy and lend some aid. It’s nothing I haven’t done before in responding to relief needs like this.
SCN: Who is assisting in the relief effort? What is the role of the Oakland County Main Street program?
JD: Main Street Oakland County — they’re the program coordinators. Bob Donohue, the actual program director for Main Street Oakland County, is really the top dog in this, but we all fall under the leadership of L. Brooks Patterson whose boundless energy has just been tremendous in this effort. They are handling all of the support aspects of the program.
SCN: What supplies are needed and where and when can people drop them off?
JD: There is a significant list of supplies needed. The list grows a little bit every day. We’ve been in contact with the mayor from down in Joplin. Predominantly what is needed are dust masks, masks, gloves, shovels, rakes, wheel barrows. Newly added to the list are children’s books and pet food supplies, anything like building supplies, carps, electrical supplies, portable generators, etc.
They can drop all these supplies off at their local Department of Public Works. If they have an issue with transportation, they can contact the Main Street Oakland County organization and we’ll get it figured out. There are 11 different Main Street communities within Oakland County and all of those DPWs are on board to receive and hold the supplies before the big truck comes to pick them all up.
SCN: What about monetary donations — where can those be sent?
JD: I’m not handling that portion, but all this information can be seen on the Jodi Helps Joplin website at jodihelpsjoplin.com. All of that goes to Jodi Helps Joplin through the Main Street Oakland County organization. As a judge, I am precluded from producing any fund-raising. “Once a judge always a judge,” is certainly the argument, but in this capacity I am much more a native of Missouri. I am so touched every day by the stories that I am hearing from that area. As a Michigander, I have been the recipient of such altruism and beneficence, and the vim and vigor we possess here has been really amazing to me. I’m much more the spokesperson and I definitely will be a work horse when I get down to Joplin. The rest I need to refer everyone to the website for further information.
SCN: You were appointed to the bench last November. As a relatively new judge, what are some of the pitfalls of presiding from the bench compared to serving as a former Macomb County prosecutor?
JD: Well I think the biggest thing about coming into a position like this is — especially when you’ve had such a longstanding and excellent former judge in Phyllis McMillen here — it’s just a difference in style. People have to adjust to change and I have to do things differently than perhaps she did. Receiving the community and having the community receive you, getting people to understand how down to earth I am and how I’m no different from anyone else. As a district court judge, this is the people’s court. It’s always been my goal — I’ve always been very active in the community that I live. I absolutely call Waterford my home. I’ve been tremendously well-received. There’s been some growing pains there but overall it’s going extremely well. I have no complaints.
SCN: Likewise, what gives you the greatest satisfaction on the job?
JD: Watching an individual become empowered. We have programmatically here in Waterford in our district court — and many district courts have this — but we were sort of a pilot project and have our 10 years in sobriety court, our domestic violence court, and we have a mental health initiative that we’re doing some things with. I’ve been on for six months now and even in that short of time you see the changes, and when see an individual really start to own the fact they can be sober and can give up drugs, the difference in their persona, their confidence is so moving to me. My goal is to have individuals empower themselves and when I see that, it truly brings me to tears. It’s a powerful dynamic and it’s been fantastic.
SCN: You have earned the reputation of being tough on drunk driving and teen drinking cases — is that reputation justified, and how so?
JD: I think that driving is a privilege. There are plenty of opportunities and resources available to everyone to stay out from behind the wheel of a vehicle. If you’re getting caught drunk driving, there’s probably a pattern of behavior. I’m not naive enough, having been a prosecuting attorney and working in the court system for 20 some odd years, to believe this is a first-time problem. It’s very seldom, “Oh, it’s the first time I drank and got behind the wheel.” Quite honestly, I don’t want to read about my neighbor’s name, nor my clerk’s name in the paper. I don’t want to fear driving my own children on the streets in Waterford because someone is not responsible enough to pick up the phone and call one of these various transportation agencies or just simply have a designated driver. So with the fact that it’s a privilege to drive in this state or any state in our country, along with privileges come significant responsibilities, and when you abuse those responsibilities, there needs to be tough sanctions.
SCN: You formerly worked as an advocate for a juvenile detention center. What did that experience teach you and how did that impact your role as a judge?
JD: No. 1, it taught me really how to read people. When I went into the facility, I was young, 19 or 21 years old, then I graduated and took on a more professional role there as a case worker. I was actually working with kids and families. Not only did it teach me a lot about human behavior, but it taught me that above all, life is a huge system, and people are placed in an environment or situation where various forces act upon them and influence them. It’s a matter of taking a whole lifetime of human behavior and alter that and have some effect upon that as a judge. That’s a tough thing to do. We often see people who have been drinkers or using drugs since they were 10 or 12 years old and now I’ve got them at 18, 25, 35 depending on the span. It’s hard to undo a lifetime of behavior and all those influences from their system and correct it, give them the resources to battle it when they go back into that same environment. That’s where the empowerment and the education really comes critical. I had to learn that very early on. I had some tremendous mentors. I took some cuts in my learning curve in learning with these families, but there are no bad individuals, there’s only poor situations. I like to treat everyone respectfully.
SCN: Are there any initiatives under way to make reforms to how juveniles are handled in the justice system, if so, what are they?
JD: I’ve been away from the juvenile system now for about three years. There’s always current legislation on how to reform, and what to do, when do we retain, talking about abuse/neglect issues. Certainly Maura Corrigan, who used to be a justice of the (Michigan) Supreme Court and is now in charge of the Department of Human Services, is very proactive in her approach and holding people accountable on how to deal with these kids in various systems. As a district court judge, we don’t see a lot of cases below the age of 17; they’re handled in Family Court. It’s stifled by finances, I can tell you that, but everyone’s trying to do more with less and I’m sure the juvenile system is no different.
SCN: You were a lobbyist in Missouri championing domestic violence and sexual assault legislation. Please cite some of the legislation you spearheaded and why are these particular issues are priorities for you.
JD: In my career, I wasn’t one of those individuals who said that from time I was young, I want to be a judge. I sort of refined my identity as I went along and experienced things. In working at the youth home, there was so much family and interpersonal violence, I became very interested in that. As a prosecuting attorney, that there was certainly my focus as well. In registering as a lobbyist, I was in law school and did a lot of work for a law enforcement group called the DOVE, an acronym for the Domestic Violence Enforcement Unit. It consisted of several detectives, a prosecuting attorney and myself, a victim’s advocate. We were all housed in the actual police department in Columbia, Miss., and it still exists today. We were immediately responding to the needs of the victims of violence in so many ways. I felt like I needed to do more. There is a federal mandate that says when you’ve been charged with a crime of domestic violence that you have to surrender any and all weapons. We were having a difficult time getting that enforced on the local level. So with the assistance of the legislative research department, a bill was drafted and then I registered as an independent lobbyist and off I went knocking doors in the (state) House and (state) Senate. We testified before various committees and on the floor to get the bill passed. Eventually we got it passed. I certainly got the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault involved to get some muscle. We eventually convinced enough people to roll this into another bill and (it was) signed into law. I did a number of different things advocating for victims of violence and against violence as my career evolved.
SCN: Are you involved in working towards change here in Michigan when it comes to these specific issues?
JD: I am. I did some work with Turning Point as a prosecuting attorney. I’ve been into the schools and had some speaking opportunities specific to domestic violence. Now I work closely with HAVEN and some of the people that wrote the PPO (personal protection order) legislation. I have spoken with them, including the president of HAVEN, Beth (Morrison). I’ve attended their functions, and been invited to participate on a board which will address local issues from various perspectives, including the court, prosecutors, shelter perspectives, in addition to therapists in trying to evoke change. We also have team meetings here that we do at the District Court in Waterford that we got up and running. We meet with treatment providers, probation officers, domestic violence court. In that I’ve been very active. They’re sponsoring legislation to do some legality assessment. I have volunteered to move progressively with that. I’ve also written letters on behalf of HAVEN for grant funding. This train in Michigan, so to speak. I am high-energy and I’ve always been involved and I’m really starting to build some steam.
SCN: As a judge overseeing a myriad of cases, what reforms would you like to see undertaken in Oakland County or at the state level?
JD: I don’t know if there are any statutory or legislative reforms. I am working on some concurrent jurisdiction planning. So myself and (52nd District Court, 2nd Division) Judge Kelley Kostin have met with our chief judge in the Circuit Court, Nanci Grant and we are proposing a pilot project where we can independently allocate judicial resources by working together. The state judicial resource report indicates that Oakland County Circuit Court is under-judged, meaning they need more judges — that their case load is high. Alternatively, at the district court level we have a number of one-judge courts where they may not need a whole judge. So the district courts are over-judged, the circuit courts are under-judged, so we are starting a pilot project. We hope to get started implementing some of these things this month whereby some of the district court judges will be taking cases from the Circuit Court and trying them here in our District Court building — just as a way of independently resolving those distribution issues. We are here as judges — it’s a privilege and one that I take very seriously. I’m a worker. While we are very busy in our Waterford court. I want to be helpful and the need is there and Judges Kostin and Grant formed this partnership and it’s fantastic.