Since his election as Caddo Parish District Attorney four years ago, retired Judge James E. Stewart Sr. has begun or expanded programs and services that greatly impact youth and families.
“District Attorney Stewart made focusing on juvenile court his top priority when beginning his administration,” says Wilbert Pryor, Chief Deputy District Attorney. “While juvenile court was once seen as a graveyard for attorneys, he named former longtime DCFS head regional attorney Audie Jones as the Juvenile Section Chief. He moved two of his top young district court Section Chiefs to the juvenile DA’s office, Sarah Hood and Janet Silvie. He brought in the former juvenile section chief of Rapides Parish Daphne Robinson. He rounded out his staff by bringing in experienced juvenile prosecutors David Newell from Bienville Parish and Jerry Deason from Rapides and Bossier parishes.”
Veteran, seasoned managers in the parish’s juvenile justice program agree.
“District Attorney James Stewart reorganized the Juvenile Court’s Prosecution Section with a strong interest to ensure public safety, but having a common-sense approach to allow juvenile defendants who have committed misdemeanors and non-violent felonies to be placed in diversion programs that correct the misbehavior of these juveniles,” says Ted Cox, administrator of the Caddo Parish Juvenile Justice Complex. “DA Stewart has allowed his assistants to cooperate with the Juvenile Court to allow juveniles who are accepted to attend the Louisiana National Guard’s Youth Challenge Program. DA Stewart has provided the leadership for a strong partnership with the Caddo Parish School Board, the Caddo Juvenile Court, and the District Attorney’s Office to aggressively address the high truancy rate in Caddo Parish Schools. His emphasis in partnering with these agencies as well as bringing in community support and Volunteers for Youth Justice has substantially reduced the overall truancy rate. Additionally, DA Stewart has taken a strong stance against domestic violence by teaming with the Bossier Parish DA’s Office to ensure the Family Justice Center is an effective organization to address domestic violence and assist victims with protective orders and wrap-around services.”
Soon upon becoming District Attorney, Stewart discovered the Caddo Parish Juvenile Court judges were not abiding by Louisiana’s Victim’s Rights Law. DA Stewart immediately demanded compliance and hired a full time Victims assistance coordinator for juvenile court. ADA Audie Jones, Juvenile Section chief, noted “we researched the Children’s Code and found the article that allowed victims to be present in the courtroom… now victims are allowed in the courtrooms at Juvenile court.”
Leone Fitzgerald, director of the DA’s Victim Assistance Division, says there have been several exciting and major changes in the field of victim assistance during the Stewart era.
“When he was elected we were a department of four,” she says. “We have now grown to a department of nine. Besides just providing better services to victims whose cases are pending in the office, we can now devote more time to assisting victims who wish to participate in the post-conviction process, such as parole and clemency hearings. We also now have in place a much needed victim assistance program at the Juvenile Court with a full time coordinator housed at the Juvenile DA’s Office providing services to victims of juvenile crimes.” That VAC, Beverly Paxon, recently retired as a supervisor from the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services with 22 years of service under her belt, which Fitzgerald said made her “the perfect person to step into that role with the experience she had with the juvenile system.”
Also, four coordinators with the DA’s office have become credentialed advocates through the National Organization of Victim Assistance (NOVA) credentialing program.
“These designations reflect DA Stewart’s dedication to providing the most professional and up-to-date services to the citizens of Caddo Parish,” Fitzgerald said.
ADA Jones noted other major advances in the juvenile services.
“Since Judge Stewart has been the District Attorney, we have established the TASC Truancy Program to work directly with the school staff and the families of K-5 children who are truant, before he necessity of any court process, which has significantly reduced the truancy petitions filed in those grades,” he said. Through the help of Willis-Knighton Health System CEO James Elrod, this program has decreased the number of elementary school-aged children that have to go to court for truancy from thousands per year before DA Stewart took over, to 20 in 2019.
Under District Attorney Stewart, a local tradition of hiding all juvenile court criminal cases from the public has ceased, and has made the goings on at juvenile court transparent to the full extent of the law.
“We researched the Children’s Code and found that violent crimes were not confidential,” said ADA Jones, noting the importance in allowing transparency to the public of the outcomes of violent juvenile crime prosecutions, explaining to the public Louisiana laws that dictate the parameters of which juveniles can be sentenced as juveniles or tried as adults, and making accountable the rulings of the juvenile judges they have elected.
Under Judge Stewart, the Juvenile Division has focused on parental responsibility. The DA staff has improved the ways to coordinate execution of bench warrants on parents who fail to show up at Truancy Court after being properly served.
“As a result, there has been a drastic decrease in parents who do not show up for Truancy Court after having proper service,” Jones said.
The Juvenile Division has also prosecuted several parents for failure to supervise their children, and continues to implore local law enforcement to investigate and, if necessary, arrest parents for failure to supervise their children when crimes are being committed by those children or curfew laws are being violated.
In addition, Stewart also has initiated monthly meetings of the parties involved in juvenile law enforcement, with representatives from Shreveport Police, the Caddo Sheriff’s Office, Caddo Parish Schools, the Juvenile Probation office, juvenile jail and agencies such as the Volunteers for Youth Justice.
VYJ Executive Director Kelli Todd notes advances under Judge Stewart.
“Through the urging of the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office and the Caddo Parish Juvenile Court, Volunteers for Youth Justice took over the Misdemeanor Referral Center on March 1, 2019,” she said. “This program was established to assist law enforcement officers in dealing with juveniles charged for delinquent offenses. The law enforcement officers can bring these offenders to the referral center where they receive a comprehensive assessment and are referred to community based resources for needed services. This process reduces the population in the Juvenile Detention Center and allows juveniles who commit misdemeanor crimes the opportunity to be referred to diversion.”
In just under a year, she noted, this has diverted 180 children from the Caddo Parish Juvenile Detention Center.
DA Stewart has also implemented a District Attorney diversion program at juvenile court for non-violent first time offenders who are good students. He has also increased use of the juvenile court’s preexisting diversion programs, all to divert children out of the criminal justice system.
Some of the changes are more subtle but significant. DA Stewart moved all new child support cases to juvenile court, from district court, to reduce the burden of parking fees for child support workers, witnesses, defendants and others involved in these often-lengthy proceedings and shifting administrative fees in child-support payments from the district court to juvenile court, where the money actually helps the payees to secure work and free themselves from dependency.
Assistant District Attorney Sarah Hood was moved to the Children in Need of Care section of the Juvenile Division four years ago and credits DA Stewart with a wide range of improvements she and other staffers there have been allowed to implement.
“He has given me full rein to do whatever I feel needs to be done,” she said. “As tough as Judge Stewart is on crime, he also is tough on protecting children from abuse or neglect. So we are very aggressive in our prosecution of child-in-need-of-care cases.”
This has involved the District Attorney office for the first time in Caddo Parish history taking the lead in the filing of termination of parental rights cases against abusive parents when the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has failed to do so, which in a recent case hastened the adoption of a special-needs child with significant medical issues to a loving foster family. Under DA Stewart, the District Attorney office has promulgated out to all foster families that it will take the lead in providing a permanent home for their foster child when DCFS has failed to do so.
The District Attorney was also involved in the creation of a Human Trafficking Court, which meets monthly, where sexually trafficked children are given intensive counseling and intensive supervision to provide them a path out of this scourge of our community.
Other changes include implementation of an activity bag program, to provide children with snacks, toys and activities to help with the tedium in often-protracted court events, and development of a yet-to-be-implemented “Handle with Care” program to help schools better deal with the needs of children traumatized by domestic violence or criminal acts.
“This program is being developed as we speak and will soon be introduced to the appropriate parties in Caddo Parish for adoption,” said ADA Hood. “This is a cooperative program between law enforcement and the school system to help identify and address trauma in school children. If law enforcement responds to an event which has exposed a child to trauma, the officer can send an email to the school stating ‘Child’s name, Handle with Care.’ No other information is given. This will notify the school that the child has been involved in a traumatic event, thus allowing them to respond appropriately to any concerning behaviors or needs of the child.”
VYJ’s Kelli Todd summarized DA Stewart’s effect on juvenile services.
“DA Stewart has an unwavering commitment towards the well-being of the children and families in our community,” she said. In four years, “he wasted no time in making changes that have positively affected our community. He advocates strongly and understands the importance of providing resources and services to ensure and promote a healthy and thriving community for our children and families. DA Stewart has been very responsive to issues brought to his attention regarding schools, child protection agencies, and other community organizations. He is able to readily decipher the problems and work with the agencies to create solutions to better our system. He does not hesitate to step in and offer assistance whenever he is needed. His ability to connect community partners is key to the success of our organization. He understands the importance of everyone working together in order for our community to be successful. DA Stewart initiates resiliency programs for our youth such as his annual football camp and his first-ever volleyball camp. He also heads up an annual bike-giveaway to ensure that the children at area local elementary schools receive bicycles for Christmas.
“DA Stewart is always looking for ways to improve our community and does not back down from a problem or issue. Instead he faces the issues and provides viable solutions that help our children and families better succeed.”