By Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
Derrick Willis, candidate for family court judge, started focusing on family law after working as an assistant county attorney.
“In 2010 I came to Grayson to work as an assistant county attorney, and started working with Bob Miller,” Willis explained. “He had me prosecute child dependency neglect abuse cases. It was one of my job duties as assistant county attorney, and I really enjoyed helping children, and helping families. Helping children find a stable environment. When Patrick Flannery took over as county attorney I continued in that capacity, as well as in district court, but I built my divorce practice also. So practicing… and prosecuting those cases, and starting my own family court practice I became interested in it.”
Willis said most attorneys end up finding a niche to practice in, and family law just seemed to fit his interests and personality. He had previously worked in criminal defense and personal injury, and thought that was where he wanted to focus, but found that family law really spoke to him.
“When I came to Grayson my family court practice picked up, and I’m glad it did,” he said. “I’ve wanted to be family court judge for about ten years.”
Family court judges cover “anything dealing with family,” he explained. “Divorce, child custody, domestic violence and dependency neglect abuse, child truancy, basically anything dealing with the family unit.”
He said it’s hard to compare himself to the other candidates, because it’s an open seat, but he thinks he has the background and temperament to fill the role.
“Being an attorney or an advocate is different than being a judge,” he elaborated. “But as a father, and a lawyer, and someone who is active in the community, I see the problems that face our community, and I believe I’m well qualified and well suited to help these families, to keep kids safe, and help families find stability.”
He said divorce cases can be “very contentious” but people with children have to learn to deal with each other, and a judge can help them do that.
“A judge can play a role… to help keep that from flaring up,” Willis said. “If you can’t mediate, you have to adjudicate.”
Outside of divorce, a number of the cases that come before family court judges will have to do with other problems in the home, such as drug abuse, and “the dissolution of the nuclear family.”
“You have a lot of children who aren’t raised in your 1950s… ideal of the nuclear family, so you have to find a way to help families that are broken by divorce or children that are raised by grandparents. You have to help them find some sort of stability,” he said.
In extreme cases, children may have to be removed from the home. But, he said, anytime a child is removed from the home the ultimate goal is reunification with the parent.
“That is the ultimate goal and the court is supposed to promote reunification. But there comes a time when that is not reasonable. Basically having a parent’s parental rights terminated is the most serious thing you can do civilly. It’s like the civil court equivalent of the death penalty (in criminal court). So you have to, legally, do everything you can to keep the parents involved.”
But, he said, “it takes a village” and children also need care from their grandparents and can benefit from other extended family members.
He said it can also be helpful for families simply to know they aren’t the only ones going through these issues. While he couldn’t, as a judge, discuss those other cases with them, what he could do is help them find resources to assist them such as parenting classes. His role as a family court lawyer makes him familiar with those resources.
“Also, as an assistant Commonwealth attorney, I’ve seen children have to go to Hope’s Place and children have to obtain counseling. I think those are helpful things.”
Willis also discussed the role of judges in foster care and family placement, and said while the job requires compassion, “you can’t let the emotions take over.”
“Our area has a unique set of values, especially when it comes to extended family,” he said. Adding that those extended family connections can often be helpful when reunification with the parents is not the best course of action for the children.
That’s one reason he also supports grandparents’ rights to be involved in the lives of their grandchildren. He explained that he’s seen children kept away from grandparents over “petty disagreements,” and “that’s not what’s best for the child necessarily.”
“So, in a situation where it’s seriously detrimental to the child not to have contact with that grandparent, that grandparent should have the right to visit with the child, spend time with the child, if the child will benefit. It’s all what’s best for the child.”
Parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit, he continued. The Supreme Court has upheld that right as, “more precious than silver and gold,” and, he said, the courts should not infringe on that right.
“However, there are situations where, it is so extreme, the court can intervene.”
As he stated before, the judge must ultimately make their decision based on, “what’s best for the child,” whether that’s granting grandparents visitation, removing a child from the home, reunifying that child with parents, or working with other extended family to give children the support and stability they need to thrive.
Willis said he believes he has the experience, knowledge, and temperament to work with families to make those decisions.
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