Juvenile judge, attorney, caseworker admit system failed child

Monday, August 6, 2007 at 11:13pm

From the time he was 5 years old, Ronkeivius Williamson was having brushes with the law.

They began shortly after his stepfather was murdered, as he began to act out violently toward his peers and toward animals, and it was not long before his outbursts crossed the line into dangerous and criminal behavior.

When Williamson was 8 he was charged with his first major offense — an aggravated assault, in which he was accused of using a pair of bolt cutters as a weapon. By that time, though, the Davidson County Juvenile Court had already become acquainted with the young boy.

His early offenses, while not as serious, resulted in arrests that brought him before multiple Juvenile Court Referees.

However, as the Chief Juvenile Court Judge Betty Adams Green admitted last week, what happened to Ronkeivius Williamson after his entry into the juvenile system was nothing short of a total bureaucratic meltdown.

His lawyers said it was the complete breakdown of that system — a system designed not to punish, but to protect children from dangerous home environments and give them another path to walk down — that failed Williamson.

Ultimately, the latest incident to bring Williamson, now 15, back into juvenile court was the shooting death of 22-year-old Detroit native Chauncey Shelton, a star basketball player at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tenn., who on May 11 was gunned down during a street brawl in East Nashville

Metro Police soon fingered Williamson as the gunman, charging him with first-degree murder and charging Vivian Armstrong, 35, with facilitating Shelton’s murder by handing Williamson the weapon and allegedly telling him to “Get at ‘em.”

The tragic death of Shelton and the ruination of other lives involved might have been avoided, said Williamson’s attorney, Holly Ruskin, if the juvenile court system had not let Williamson repeatedly fall through its many cracks.

“People kept dropping the ball in this case,” Ruskin said last week at a hearing to determine if Williamson should be tried as an adult or treated by the juvenile justice system. “This is not a kid that can’t succeed and can’t be rehabilitated, but we have got to give him that chance.”

Flawed plans, flawed executions

At the root of Williamson’s problems, all parties agreed, was a 14-year-old mother who was unable to emotionally and even logistically care for her child.

In fact, as early as 2000, when he was 8 and starting down the path of criminal activity, the state Department of Children’s Services began to receive referrals from the court and some of his teachers that he was being neglected by his mother.

The Juvenile Court quickly realized that the child was being neglected at home, appointed him a legal guardian — guardian ad litem — and placed him in foster care through DCS, according to Becky Barnett, a private investigator hired to collect nine year’s worth of juvenile records for Williamson and present them to the court.

The administration of that plan was fatally flawed.

“The juvenile records seem to indicate, too, in some of the DCS evaluations of his permanency plan summaries, that Williamson was placed with his grandmother, but he wasn’t there at her house all the time. He was with his mom a lot,” Barnett testified last week.

And, according to Barnett’s review of those records, there was a direct chronological link between Williamson’s criminal behavior and his exposure to his mother.

“This first incident kind of sets the stage for a pattern that comes out,” Barnett said referring to Williamson’s major criminal activity, “where he was safely placed with the grandmother but he didn’t really stay with the grandmother.”

The fact that the boy’s grandmother was just sending him to stay with his mother did not go unnoticed by the juvenile court. That is, until his case was brought before a different Juvenile Referee.

“At first the court recognized that the mom had placed him at risk,” Barnett explained. “But in the court action [two months later in March 2002], the facts of the family situation are discussed [before a new Referee] and the same statement was repeated that the mother neglected to protect Ronkeivius, but then they returned Ronkeivius to the sole custody of the mother.”

“And then three months later he had another aggravated assault,” she added.

A major turn for the better

According to Ruskin, Barnett and the psychologist who worked with Williamson — who also testified that he was not beyond rehabilitation — once he was in the structured environment provided by foster care, his behavior took a major turn for the better.

“The [University of Tennessee] Center for Excellence [in Developmental Disabilities] report really speaks to how he was doing in foster care in the structured environment, that he had improved greatly and that he would probably continue to improve in a nurturing environment,” Barnett told the court.

But Williamson’s foster care record is mixed.

A year after he was found to be flourishing in foster care, DCS “inexplicably,” according to Barnett, asked to be relieved of custody and for Williamson to be returned to his mother.

Such a scenario is not in and of itself unusual, since the general goal of foster care in Tennessee is to reunite a child with his or her biological parents so long as that is a viable option, explained a source with an intimate knowledge of the juvenile court and the foster care system in Davidson County but who did not want to speak publicly.

“But if mom is still problematic,” the source said, “DCS should recognize that and petition to terminate parental rights and seek adoption.”

“We’re obligated to do our best to try and keep children and families together,” said Calista Doll, a spokeswoman for DCS. “But we can’t discuss the specifics of any cases because of confidentiality issues.”

Barnett said the records are clear that DCS did not petition to have Williamson’s mother’s parental rights terminated. Instead, Barnett said, DCS petitioned the juvenile court to take the child out of foster care and return him to the custody of his mother, even though his guardian ad litem, Thomas Miller, objected, filing an expedited petition for custody and in doing so writing “the Department of Children’s Services seems not to be concerned for Ronkeivius.”

After he was returned to his mother, the child services case workers withdrew altogether because his mother consistently missed appointments, his attendance at school began to suffer, many of his behavioral problems re-emerged and in May of that year he telephoned a suicide hot line threatening to kill himself with a gun “as a solution to his problems,” Barnett testified.

“And he’s not in DCS custody at this time?” asked Judge Green.

“No ma’am,” Barnett replied. “He’s in the custody of his mother.”

Following the commission of yet another crime, the juvenile court recommended that Williamson be put back into DCS custody. But at the last minute his mother agreed to take him back, and during a family team meeting where his guardian ad litem was not present, the juvenile court consented to sending him home with his mother.

‘Everybody involved in this case should be ashamed’

At the conclusion of Williamson’s transfer hearing, Ruskin angrily derided the multiple fissures in the system that her client seemed to continue to fall through.

“From age 5 this court became aware of this child and did absolutely nothing,” she said. “Even when we see things are going well, when he’s in this foster home for a year, we send him back home. All of the charges he’s ever had in his lifetime have been when he’s been at home.”

“I don’t know what else anybody expects,” she implored to Judge Green. “Everybody involved in this case should be ashamed.”

Green admitted that the juvenile court failed. “I’m not even going to try and defend the court on this,” she said. “I think they’ve done the wrong thing.”

But she also cast blame on what she described as a “public policy problem.”

“I have said for years that there is a basic public policy problem in this state. And that is that our policy is that the biological family is always the best place for a child. I don’t believe that. I never have,” Green said.

Assistant District Attorney Jeff Burks, who petitioned to have the 15-year-old tried as an adult for the first-degree murder of Chauncey Shelton, said that while the efforts to rehabilitate Williamson may have failed, that was not reason enough to continue to try at this juncture.

“There are two sides to these efforts,” Burks told Green. “Our side is, look at all the efforts that were made for him and he still has all these issues, not just the shooting of Chauncy Shelton.”

Ruskin responded by calling that argument “laughable.”

Far from an isolated case

Far from laughable, though, is the undocumented but well-observed notion that Williamson’s case is far from an isolated incident.

“This happens a lot,” said former Assistant Public Defender Wendy Tucker, who has defended hundreds of juvenile cases in Davidson County.

“As far as the more serious transfer-eligible cases, I would say that the majority of the ones I have dealt with, both as an Assistant Public Defender and in private practice, have had very sad and sometimes very similar back-stories.”

“In a lot of the cases the first line of defense, which is the family, has failed and the second line of defense, which is the system in place to catch kids that fall through the cracks, fails too,” Tucker said.

In issuing her ruling late last week, Green noted that while she “examined the prior record of the defendant and the prior treatment received by the defendant,” she ultimately found “reasonable grounds to believe that the interest of the community require that the respondent be put under legal restraint and discipline.”

Green ordered Williamson to be transferred to the adult jail facility, where he will await a trial for first-degree murder. She set his bond at $105,000.

“This entire case is a tragedy for the community and all involved,” Ruskin said upon learning of Green’s order to have Williamson transferred to adult court. “We need to start taking care of our kids.”

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By: serr8d on 12/31/69 at 6:00

‘Everybody involved in this case should be ashamed’No one more so than the family members: the mother, the (?) father (I saw mention of the stepfather, but where's the BioDad?), the grandparents, the entire broken familial structure that allowed a 14-year old child to give birth and be allowed expected to raise another child. We can't oversee or influence something that's this broken.

By: porzitsku on 12/31/69 at 6:00

At what point is the DCS system responsible for the failures of the culture in which this young man has been raised? At what point should we hang our heads in shame that his grandmother had no interest in raising him in what a rational person would consider a positive and productive manner, instead of turning him back over to his teenage mother? Come on, "escalating brushes with the law since he was five years old"!?! That is unbelievable, or would be if the facts were not before us today. I am sorry that he murdered Chauncey Shelton. However, I am not sorry that the (even flawed) efforts of the best and most caring organization for children in the State could not reach down far enough into the abyss that was and is his life to rescue him from his own people. No one in his family or community showed any sign of having the least concern about Ronkeivius, in fact his criminal behavior was encouraged and abetted by those closest to him. An outsider (DCS) can only do so much, and will fail when all around him are working diligently to cancel out those efforts. I side with Bill Cosby, who pointed out that it is up to the community to identify and remediate situations and conditions that might otherwise lead up to this tragic episode (mark my words, this is not the end of Ronkeivius' saga), and as much as DCS and the State tries to be the overarching positive influence in this young man's life, they will fail because the family and community DO NOT CARE, being quick to blame the system while refusing to look at their own responsibility. I hope Judge Adams chokes on her apology and we as a nation learn to call it as we see it, not as we would like it to be. Think about this: "Numerous, escalating brushes with the law since he was five years old." Five year olds do not figure out ways to "brush with the law." Eight year olds do not. There is more to this story than the alleged failure of the system, there had to be an atmosphere of encouragement or coercion by those closest to him to put him so squarely on this crooked path.

By: porzitsku on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Sorry. Judge Green. Mea Culpa.

By: greenwoodd on 12/31/69 at 6:00

This case is very sad and the system has failed this kid. But, he has lived in that environment all his life and knows nothing else. If he is not tried as an adult, he will just end up being pushed through the system allowing him back out on the streets eventually to continue the only life he knows. At this point, he obviously is a career criminal/thug and I doubt that even a flawless system would be capable of reforming him given his family influence. At his age, given the lengthy record dating back to when he was 5 (5 unbelievably!!) this child was destined to be a gang member or worse. If he is to be rehabilitated, it will take several years of confinement to have any hope of achieving this goal. This is one of the cases where the parents should be held accountable in some way for the actions of their child. If parents were held accountable, that may help force them to instill accountability in their children who in most cases were unwanted and are usually, as in this case, left to fend for themselves. A child can not learn responsibility in this scenario as seen in this tragic case.

By: theplantsman on 12/31/69 at 6:00

God, our creator, would not deliver all humankind from evil. Therefore, how is it that we expect our fellow humans that we hire to perform the dirty jobs that we will not or cannot do such as supervising us to do any better? Though it appears to have failed in this singular case, we should not blame the system because our state and local government by design is reactionary. Do we really want state and local government at any level to take a more intrusive role in managing our personal lives? Simply because a statistical minority answer to the call of evil? It is one thing to have a good “Neighborhood Watch” program, it all together different to have a posse of Gladys Kravitz and Barney Fifes running around. No. The person to blame is no one but the criminal himself - Ronkeivius Williamson. As for his accomplice - Vivian Armstrong should receive the greater of the punishment. As an adult, Vivian Armstrong should have known better than to listen to evil, much less to endanger a child and society by encouraging and enabling Ronkeivius Williamson to commit murder. Could this behavior been caused because of warehousing indigent citizens? It is my experience that the primary product one renders from incarceration is criminals more educated in crime. More so, the only thing that results from government warehousing of indigent people is more misery and despair. Simply giving a indigent person shelter is not enough.

By: 37205Democrat on 12/31/69 at 6:00

If DCS was aware of these sorry parents, they should have kept him far, far away AND held them accountable for his behavior. Parents must be held responsible, no matter what the case, if we ever want to see an end to these kinds of stories.

By: greenwoodd on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I firmly agree Mr. Democrat. Accountability is the key. Start holding the parents accountable for the actions of the child. This may not alleviate the problem entirely, but I bet it will cut it by at least 50%.Plants, I concur with what you are saying but how do you eliminate the vicious circle?

By: kdog on 12/31/69 at 6:00

why is the city paper reporting on juvenile records that are supposed to remain confidential?

By: porzitsku on 12/31/69 at 6:00

So how do you "hold the parents responsible?" Incarcerate them also? Reactionary. Provide counseling and training? Knee-jerk liberalism. Require training and permits before having children? Too much like the Peoples Republic of China.We (that is, our government, which when you think about it, is us) created the mini-apartheid system of public housing and welfare that depletes hope and fosters the sort of community nonchalance or ignorance that apparently (clearly!) rules this kid's life. One off-topic rant: God WOULD deliver all from evil, if they would but pay attention to him. Our attention is the only real cost of salvation.

By: idgaf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Isn't she the same one that played games with the March kids?

By: 37205Democrat on 12/31/69 at 6:00

You could hold them responsible by cutting by taking the kids away and cutting off the AFDC checks they are getting because of them.

By: theplantsman on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Greenwoodd I concur with 37205Democrat inasmuch as personal accountability is part of the answer, however, no man or woman is an island. As in songwriting, collaboration is the beginning, as long as we do not worry about who or which political party claims ownership or recognition. Though it is clearly Conservative philosophy to take care of ones own, there are times when ones own best interest are better served by helping those less fortunate, especially, due to no fault of their own. Clearly, Ronkeivius Williamson is a case in point. Not only did we let Ronkeivius Williamson down, we collectively hurt ourselves. Moral leadership is the solution. The obstacles are fear, greed, pride, political power and apathy. Creating more misery and despair inherent in the warehousing of indigent people and just allowing them to languish is as despicable as poverty itself.

By: theplantsman on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Before someone blows a fuse. I realize that song writers would kill for recognition of their work. My point is that as citizens we should not be so arrogant as to who or which political party receives the glory.

By: theplantsman on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Greenwood, when first relocated to Nashville many years ago; I took a part time job at the Tennessean in distribution. My route was Bordeaux Apartments in the North Nashville area. (BTW, that area is more commonly known as “Dodge City”.) As I delivered the “Complimentary” papers to the subscribers, I noticed there were several streetlights and breezeway ceiling lights that were in operable. Not broken, just inoperable.I wrote down the location of each utility pole and building that had an inoperable light and reported it to NES. To my surprise, NES is only responsible for the lights on the utility poles. I was instructed to call the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency. Deciding not to be a victim of the City Hall runaround, I placed my initial call to Mayor Bill Purcell’s office. I stated the situation and was promptly transferred to another office, which in turn transferred me to Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency. The man that I spoke with told me that I had made a mistake BECAUSE HE HAD NOT RECIEVED ANY COMPLAINTS OF ANY LIGHT BING OUT. Politely, I explained that several lights were out and I had the correct location of each, and he should write a work order and investigate. His reply was that Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency could not afford to replace lights that had been vandalized (say what?) These lights clearly had not been vandalized or I would have seen broken glass, etc. but probably just needed a new light bulb installed. His reply was that he could not send anyone out to investigate because the lights only came on in the dark and he did not have employees that work night. (Again, say what?) It became obvious that this City Hall Slacker was going to expend more energy attempting not to do his job providing a reasonably safe environment than he would had if he got off his lazy City Hall Slacker ass and perform the duties of his job description that we taxpayers were paying him.My point is – if this City Hall Slacker would do his best to thwart me, how do we expect those who are already beat down to react? The issues in Nashville/Davidson County are bigger than the Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians. It is bigger than the Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslim, Atheist and Agnostic. The problems have escalated to the point that it is going to take ALL of us to collaborate, reach a decision and empowers every person in each home, street, block, subdivision, and zone. It is not only our children that we cannot afford to leave behind.

By: greenwoodd on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Plant, I see the point of your MDHA story about the lighting. But, we all know that the primary "responsibility" of reporting the need for new bulbs would ultimately lie on the residence of that particular housing unit. I would wager that most of those residence do not want the lighting replaced as it serves to enhance their ability to conduct their illicit activity undetected given the lack of adequate lighting. By your pushing for these lights being replaced, you obviously disrupted the thought process of the MDHA "slacker" as he was never approached before with someone requesting that he do his job, or more so anyone who actually tried to call them with a common sense question. My point is simply that the issue is much bigger than MDHA and their lackadaisical attitude with respect to anything related to these housing problems. It is probable that that "slacker" had never dealt with a tax payer asking him to actually perform the job he was being paid for. Imagine that? The whole process is wrong and the inadequacies are solely, in my opinion, due to "Government Entitlements".

By: George52 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

The "system" failed Chauncy Shelton - it tried to help Ronkeivius, but couldn't. That doesn't mean the system failed Ronkeivius. Ronkeivius was failed by his family and by his community, but mostly by his family. And now he's at the mercy of the "system," which isn't perfect, but at least struggles to treat him fairly, considering he took a life.

By: msslau on 12/31/69 at 6:00

If my parents named me ronkeivius,I would kill some body, maybe myself.where do they come up with these names?

By: gbrown on 12/31/69 at 6:00

"After he was returned to his mother, the child services case workers withdrew altogether because his mother consistently missed appointments, his attendance at school began to suffer, many of his behavioral problems re-emerged and in May of that year he telephoned a suicide hot line threatening to kill himself with a gun “as a solution to his problems,” Barnett testified."Excuse me, but shouldn't these behaviors have sent up a "red flag" to the caseworkers? Seems like this would have been the time to investigate his living environment, not back off. Makes no sense to me.