By CHARLES PULLIAMThe Williamson County Juvenile Court has been hitting its stride over the past few months under newly appointed Judge Sharon Guffee.
A probation violation sent one young man to Williamson County Juvenile Court, again. He stood in front of Judge Sharon Guffee, again.
The 17-year-old was caught drinking underage for the second time in as many months. His mom stood by his side in court.
“This is very disappointing,” Guffee said when the young man was called before her last month. “Do you just want to spend the rest of your days inside your home? Every time we release you, you do something foolish.”
He pleaded he was only with friends at a party. His mom added that he was also going to a job interview later that day.
With one hand on her head, Guffee scribbled some notes in the case work.
“We are going to go through high school together,” she said.
Judge Guffee was unanimously appointed last June and was sworn in as the county’s first Juvenile Court Judge in December in the old Williamson County Courthouse in Franklin. It was the same courtroom she had her first jury trial more than 10 years earlier.
Guffee, 57, said she can often determine whether or not a child has one, both or neither parents involved in their lives during introductions before looking at the child’s case file.
“Parents are key,” she said. “I usually say we don’t really have any bad kids, we just have a lot of bad parents.”
A busy history
Guffee grew up in South Carolina and often jokes in the courtroom about her Southeast Conference Alma mater, the Gamecocks.
“We banter in the courtroom sometimes,” Guffee said with a smile. “I sometimes ask why would you go to Knoxville and (the University of Tennessee). It’s all in fun.”
Guffee was a swimmer in college specializing in the backstroke. She was one of the first Title IX female scholarship athletes at the University of South Carolina in 1972. She graduated with Bachelor of Science in Nursing and worked part-time at the student newspaper through college.
|One new move Judge Guffee has utilized is to bring dogs into the courtroom to help ease the atmosphere of court for juveniles.|
Following her work as a registered nurse, Guffee took on real estate through the 1980s and 90s. The mother of two finally decided on law school. She raised two teenage daughters while attending Nashville School of Law and working full-time. Guffee is divorced from her first husband.
“I’ve had a lot of life experiences get me here,” she said.
Guffee has been married to Johnny Guffee, son of Dr. Harry Guffee, for 13 years.
“I went into private practice for about four years, but worked out here as an attorney for children and parents,” Guffee said. “I have kind of worked all over … I already knew everyone out here.”
She graduated from law school in 1997.
Guffee prosecuted several disturbing cases as an attorney, including one case in Williamson County Circuit Court that involved a father of three who was charged with 21 counts of incest, rape, sexual battery, child abuse and assault.
Another case involved a mother and father who were charged with five counts of abuse and neglect of their two children, ages 6 and 7. The couple admitted to beating and torturing the children.
“We’re dealing with children that are sometimes in life-threatening situations,” Guffee said. “It can be psychologically draining.”
In 2004, Guffee was appointed as a part-time Juvenile Court Magistrate. She heard some 1,500 cases a year in the position.
“It really wasn’t a focus,” Guffee said when asked if dealing with juveniles was a planned direction. “It just kind of played out that way. I guess somebody was looking out for me.”
Since 2007, when Guffee closed her private practice to become a full-time magistrate judge, she has presided over 6,000 to 7,000 hearings annually in Juvenile Court involving everything from juvenile traffic offenses to custody hearings.
Guffee follows in the footsteps of retired Judge Jane Franks, who actually presented Guffee with her robe and gavel in December.
Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson called Franks “the gold standard” in Juvenile Court.
“It’s a wonderful benchmark to shoot for how (Franks) loved and disciplined children,” Anderson said.
Franks worked as General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge for Williamson County from 1977 to 1995 before a true Juvenile Court was established in the county. She still volunteers occasionally at Juvenile Court with Guffee.
“Juvenile Court is really the same as it was when I was the judge,” Franks said. “Only there was 37,000 people, now there are 192,000 (in the county).”
Franks, 80, calls Juvenile Court “the most important court in the land.” She said a judge that deals specifically with juveniles needs to be firm, fair and possess a real love for children and teenagers.
“They are going to mistakes and you have to know you can’t just turn your head,” Franks said. “There has to be some consequences. There is a balance in making the consequences fit and not going overboard. That is exactly what Sharon Guffee is trying to accomplish and you know, I tried to do that as well.”
A complex future
Despite a smoother process with Guffee and gavel in hand, the Williamson County Juvenile Court is already pushing for future planning. The courtroom shares building space with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office and the 454-capacity county jail, the 12-bed Juvenile Detention center and the Alternative Learning Center, which is currently overflowing with more than 70 students.
The ALC is an interlocutory agreement with the Williamson County School System and the 9th Special School District of Franklin for students who have allegedly committed a school-related offense. These students are referred here in lieu of suspension or expulsion.
“We know we need a new building,” Guffee said, adding that there are 26 full-time employees within the Juvenile Court. “As we get bigger and bigger, we have to grow, too.”
Guffee is pushing to have plans for such a building saying that the preparation for a possible move will pay off in the years to come.
When asked about the county plans for an expanded Juvenile Court, Mayor Anderson said it was certainly an item that will need to be addressed.
“I think as we continue to grow, we have to visioneers and we have to be pioneers in the things that we do,” he said. “If you try to pin me down and say will that occur next year or will it occur in five years, I’m hesitant to say when that time will come.
“There will come a time when we will need that Juvenile Court area. I know Sharon and the staff will work to make those efficiencies occur until that day gets here.”
Guffee said the court has “outgrown” the current space “long ago.”
“Hopefully the discussion will start coming about in the next couple of years because we have to start planning now if we are going to do something five years down the road,” Guffee said. “We have done a great job of containing what we have and multitasking with what we have … but it’s a priority that we need to have a conversation about.”
Charles Pulliam is a reporter for Franklin Home Page. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cspulliam.