For the past six years, Rob Philyaw has seen what most of us will never see. He has heard stories we will never hear. The Hamilton County (Tennessee) Juvenile Court judge conducts hearings behind closed doors to protect the identity of children. But that does not prevent him from speaking out about the problems that plague our present and future.
“The first misconception I’d like to address,” he told me, “is that my courtroom is filled with the children of single-parent or no-parent homes. Here is the truth. I also see the children of doctors, lawyers, police officers, you name it. No family is immune from a child who makes a bad choice, or even a life-altering choice.”
This is the mission he has chosen, and although he works Monday through Friday, the job is never done. “It’s sad, it’s humbling, it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “I find myself thinking about these kids at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Like the young man who was seated across the table from him just weeks ago. “Thirteen years old, he got caught with a gun, and he was charged with shooting somebody. I look into his eyes, and I can’t believe it. He’s just a baby,” he said.
Judge Philyaw says teen crime is up in recent years despite the efforts of schools and community organizations that work hard to engage children and give them hope.
“Before I started here in 2013, my predecessor told me that kids have gone from throwing rocks in cars, to shooting up random homes,” he said. “Kids tell me if they can get their hands on $200, they can find a gun in 10 minutes. And they’re committing horrendous acts that will follow them forever. In Tennessee, a life sentence doesn’t even offer the chance for parole for 52 years. These young people would be almost 70 years old by then. They have no idea what their actions can lead to.”
Cognitive development, he points out, isn’t complete for boys until they’re in their 20s. “I was a teenage boy, and I’ve had one,” he said. “I know all about that.”
On the subject of guns, he says, “I’m a gun owner. I understand and appreciate how they can be used properly. But gun owners have got to learn, you can’t keep a gun in your car. Some people just keep them out in the open, but if you do that, some kid’s going to steal it. I see that all the time.”
“Here’s the hard reality,” he said. “Many of us grew up with a momma and a daddy. But I see children who have been mistreated since day one. I’m talking about toddlers who spend day and night buckled into a car seat inside their home. We are learning that these adverse childhood experiences set them back for good. Early brain development occurs in the first three years of life. Many of these kids had absolutely no guidance or stimulation during that time.”
The cycle seemingly never ends. “This opioid crisis, it’s the real thing,” he said. “A lot of young parents didn’t have good role models themselves, they’re just mirroring the only behavior they have seen. Their addiction is more important to them than their children.” He cited a recent case in which a troubled teen had lost both parents to opiate abuse. “Some people think it takes a month to recover from that. That is not true. It takes at least a year, and really, recovery from drug dependency is a lifelong effort. People don’t know how serious this is.”
In many cases, schools send misbehaving children home after a suspension. Judge Philyaw said, “That home often offers absolutely no guidance or discipline. Some parents mean well, but they’re working two or three jobs. They are simply not present. They may not mean to neglect their children, but that’s what is happening.”
Still, Judge Philyaw sees pockets of hope. “I know people think it’s bad now, and the crime statistics show they’re right. But believe me, it could be a lot worse.” He points to numerous community programs that aim to steer kids in the right direction. “It’s all about mentoring,” he said. “One on one.”
He mentored a teen who had never been out of his neighborhood. “We’re sitting at the foot of Lookout Mountain one day eating some ice cream, and he keeps watching the Incline carrying folks up and down the mountain. I asked him if he had ever ridden it, and he said no. We rode up to the top, and I started pointing out his house and school in the valley below. He couldn’t believe it. It was like I was showing him a different world. That’s what it’s all about. We have to show them there’s a better world out there.”