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Gift of “The Giver” Inspires Judge and Community

June 10th, 2006 by Paul Martin

Sloan said the book idea evolved earlier this year when a teenage boy frustrated her. In an effort to get through to him, she told him to go to the library, check out a book called The Giver and be ready to talk about it with her the next time he was in court.

When he returned, he obviously had not checked out the book. So Sloan gave him a personal copy. She’s still expecting to talk about it with him next time he’s in.

The encounter got her thinking.

By DIANE CARROLL

The Kansas City Star

Almost every day, a child sits on a bench outside Johnson County District Courtroom 10, waiting to go before the judge.

In this courtroom, the boys and girls have done nothing wrong. But there’s a good chance they are scared anyway. Something has happened at home, and now no one is around to take care of them. What will happen to them next they do not know.

Judge Kathleen Sloan has dealt with hundreds of these children since she took charge of the “child-in-need-of-care” docket in November 2004. During that time, besides overseeing where the children should live and what kind of help they need, she’s added a few extras to brighten their day.

Like bins full of teddy bears and other stuffed toys. And a bookcase lined with books organized according to age groups. Each child who enters gets to leave with a toy or a book.

The extras were the judge’s ideas. But they came to fruition through the donations of many, including the judge’s friends and relatives, foster parents, social workers and attorneys who represent the children, called guardians ad litem.

Judge Tom Foster’s son Bill helped install the bookcase in the courtroom as part of his Eagle Scout project. The Johnson County Library provided a list of age-appropriate books. And in May, the library’s foundation gave the project a boost with $1,000 to buy books.

“The response has been wonderful,” Sloan said.

The children like the results, said attorney Amy Mitchell, who represents children in the courtroom.

And “they need those strong role models” they read about in the books, Mitchell said.

Last year, 594 new child-in-need-of-care cases were filed in Johnson County District Court. Often, the cases come to the court’s attention through police or other authorities.

Sometimes the child has been removed from home because he or she was being physically or sexually abused or neglected. Other times, the child’s parents or guardians have been arrested or are otherwise unavailable and authorities cannot find any relatives to step in.

The court works with police and state social workers to find a temporary home for the child, such as a shelter or foster home. Then it focuses on finding a permanent home. Some return to their parents and remain under court supervision for a period of time. But if the parental rights are terminated, a child might find a new family through adoption.

Sloan said the book idea evolved earlier this year when a teenage boy frustrated her. In an effort to get through to him, she told him to go to the library, check out a book called The Giver and be ready to talk about it with her the next time he was in court.

When he returned, he obviously had not checked out the book. So Sloan gave him a personal copy. She’s still expecting to talk about it with him next time he’s in.

The encounter got her thinking. The stuffed animals that already were available were great for the young children. Why not give older ones the option of a book?

“We loved the idea,” said Kathy McLellan, who works with the Johnson County Library’s youth outreach program.

Most young people who visit the library already are readers, McLellan said. The judge’s suggestion gave them a way to reach some who may not be.

“Some of the books are issue-oriented,” McLellan said. “Others are just for fun.”

Sloan said The Giver is a personal favorite. It points out “the importance of the differences among us,” she said, and lets children know they do not have to be perfect.

The idea for the stuffed animal project also came about through contact with a child. After several months on the job, Sloan said, she encountered a young girl with the saddest face yet.

“I so much wanted to get off the bench and just hug her,” the judge recalled. Instead, she took the girl to her office afterward, showed the girl her collection of teddy bears and offered her one to take home.

“Her face just lit up,” Sloan said.

She said she immediately sent out e-mails to “everyone she knew,” asking for donations of stuffed animals. A cousin in Ohio organized a drive at her workplace and sent a box of teddy bears. Others around the courthouse made their own donations.

At 49, Sloan said she feels fortunate to be doing something she truly enjoys.

And it’s rewarding to see a child perk up getting a gift.

“I want them to have something to hold on to that is theirs,” she said.

[Kansas City Star]