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With baby's future at stake, judge makes a tough choice

Sharon McCully has been a 3rd District Juvenile Court judge for the past 26 years. She is known for going out of her way to help keep families together whenever it is possible.
Sharon McCully has been a 3rd District Juvenile Court judge for the past 26 years. She is known for going out of her way to help keep families together whenever it is possible.
Brendan Sullivan, Deseret News

The young man and woman arrive separately in the courtroom and look a little apprehensive, but not overly so. It's not as if it's the first time they've come before 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge Sharon McCully.

Lawyers for all sides — the woman, the man, their infant child and the state — will recommend that the judge "reunify" one or both of the parents with the baby, who is in foster care with the same people who have the couple's other children.

To be sure, there are a few hitches: all the children were born with drugs in their system, mom successfully went through treatment and has been clean for many months but admitted she lapsed "just once" and tested dirty for methamphetamine. Dad, meanwhile, is out of work, but is off probation and has been drug-free. They are not married and live apart, but get along.

There's another stumbling block, too.

The child's hair tested positive for meth.

The woman, a pretty young brunette in a summery casual skirt and blouse, sits opposite the man, also young, who is wearing a white T-shirt and tan pants. Lawyers sit between them.

McCully, an Emery County farm girl who aspired to a juvenile court judgeship as a teen because she thought it would be "more nurturing, more acceptable woman's work" in an era when teaching and nursing were the only respected careers for women, has been on the bench for more than 26 years.

The judge listens intently as the lawyers outline the pros and cons of giving the infant back to the parents.

It is true the dad has not done well in the past as far as sobriety, his lawyer says, but the man has cleaned up his act, lives with a relative, has routinely tested negative for drugs and wants a chance to show he can be a good father.

The mother's lawyer said her client had just one relapse in an otherwise excellent recent record of sobriety, is working full-time and makes sure to get to every court-permitted visit to see her baby.

The woman tells McCully she regrets that one mistake and, as soon as it happened, hated herself and felt ashamed. She reported it herself and agreed to a drug test.

The other lawyers join in with arguments of their own.

Ultimately, all four attorneys — who are mindful of McCully's long-standing preference for keeping families together whenever it is a possible and reasonable choice — sign off to one degree or another for the parents to regain custody.

The couple just needs to realize that one slip-up means everything's over, the lawyers say.

McCully is known for going out of her way — as long as children are safe — to get parents into counseling, parenting classes, drug treatment, anger management programs, anything to help them provide a decent home for their children.

And she admits she doesn't expect Good Housekeeping perfection. Nobody needs lots of money or ballet lessons or Gap clothing or organic apple juice.

The judge has said she is satisfied if she can help dysfunctional people create a family environment where they provide their children with food, shelter, education, love and appropriate behavior.

After a moment, she speaks.

"How is it the child's hair tested positive for meth?" McCully asks.

The answers are varied. No one knows. Other people live in the house. Maybe they did something wrong. Mom messed up just once. Both parents insist they don't use drugs in the child's presence.

McCully reminds the couple they aren't new to the drug world.

"If someone was smoking meth in the house, I think you would have figured it out."

The judge also challenges the mother's claim that she did drugs only once since the baby was born.

McCully points out the pair has been before her on and off for seven years and each of their many children, one by one, has been removed from their care and adopted by this one foster family.

But nothing happens until a lot of disruption and upheaval occurs, with promises made and broken at every step.

"The kids are born into the same situation over and over again," McCully said. "They go back and forth, parents, grandparents, foster care. What a horrible thing for kids. They have to ask, 'Who is my family?' "

The judge turns to the woman and speaks in a soft voice.

"I know how beautiful your children are," McCully says, as a look of recognition spreads over the woman's face and the woman's eyes begin to fill with tears.

"I know you love them," McCully says.

Despite all the good intentions she's heard, despite the periodic intervals of being drug-free, despite mom's steady job, McCully said she is not convinced that anything has really changed enough in seven years to risk this baby's safety.

Reunification is not possible.

"The goal will be adoption," McCully said.

The woman leans forward, both hands over her eyes, and moans out loud as she weeps.

She sobs uncontrollably as a friend helps her out of the courtroom, her cries audible even after she's out in the hallway.

"That was a surprise," one lawyer says softly to an observer. "It doesn't happen very often with her."

Court is quiet for a few moments as a few people speak in murmured tones. A somber McCully leaves the room for a quick break, then returns and sifts through paperwork.

It's time for the next case.