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.”