Judge Ernestine S Gray
The Honorable Ernestine S. Gray
Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, New Orleans, LA
“How are the Children?”
Ernestine S. Gray, Attorney-at-Law, was on a trip to the Bahamas with the National Bar Association in 1984. She had been aware of the efforts of the Greater New Orleans Louis A Martinet Society to recruit more African-Americans to serve as judges so when all the judges in attendance at the NBA Convocation came clad in their judicial robes, she watched as the impressive procession entered the room. She knew that, as the “Voice of The African-American Lawyer in the Greater New Orleans Metropolitan Area,” the Martinet Society would be a great support to her, so when she returned home, she looked around to see where elections were coming up and began to get herself in place to run for a term on the bench.
She had been involved in local organizations focusing on kids and families, so she took advantage of a program allowing attorneys to be temporarily appointed by the Superior Court to sit in the place of a vacationing juvenile court judge. She decided that this was where she wanted to serve, she ran, and was elected to an unexpired term, which expired in 1986. She ran again and was elected to a full eight-year term. While serving her third full term, a change in the laws extended her present term by three years. When she comes up for re-election, it will be for a six-year term and Judge Gray fully expects to run again.
Judge Gray grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina from the time she was four years until graduation from High School. She attended Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia; where she received a Bachelor’s degree and then went on to earn a Doctor of Jurisprudence Degree from Louisiana State University Law School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1976.
Her first position as an attorney was with the Baton Rouge Legal Aid Society after which she served as Attorney General for the State of Louisiana. She was informed by friends of an opportunity to practice a different kind of law with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She made the move and worked as a trial attorney on workplace discrimination suits. This gave her valuable experience as her cases were tried in Federal Court in both Arkansas and Louisiana and she developed a keen insight into the world of employer/employee relations.
During these years of service as an attorney, Judge Gray was active in her community with organizations and programs that focused on children and families, which gave her a valuable foundation of knowledge and insight for what would become her chosen vocation as a juvenile court judge in New Orleans.
In a personal interview, Judge Gray spoke openly about her work with children and families and the satisfaction it gives her to know that she sometimes actually has an effect on a young person in her courtroom…
No one has it harder than a child without a family and the court system is filled with such children, as well as those who have been abused or neglected by their families. In 2006, the Child Protective Services system investigated 3.6 million reports of child abuse or neglect. There are now at least ½ million children abused and there are at least 500,000 children in foster care. There are also many children waiting for adoption and there just aren’t enough families to go around.
How about in New Orleans, are the numbers that high?
No, our numbers are down since Katrina. Because of the widespread damage and displacement, the population of the city is lower, so with less people, there are less cases to be handled. All CPS Social Workers historically have had way more cases than they can handle but the issues following Katrina, including serious budget shortages, have meant that these agencies still struggle even harder to be able to help kids and their families as much as they need it.
How have the issues changed for children and their families since Katrina?
The issues are basically the same. There is still physical and sexual abuse and we are constantly faced with parents who suffer from mental health problems, which have a negative impact on their ability to raise their children. The economy with its fluctuating prices and lower salaries makes it tough for these families and while the Social Workers try very hard to provide good services for them, the reality is that many times they only get to see a client once a week at best. It’s a tough balancing act for CPS with so many families in need.
How did Katrina affect you and your family?
Actually, I was on a cruise when Katrina hit. Most of us on the ship were looking at news and watching the huge eye of the storm as it approached the Gulf Coast. We were supposed to come back in on Sunday to New Orleans but we were diverted to Baton Rouge. My husband’s mother lived there, so he evacuated to Baton Rouge and we met there. We ended up staying two years and commuting to work in New Orleans. Many people were doing the same thing so the traffic was horrendous. The one-hour trip took as much as three hours.
Why did you stay in Baton Rouge so long?
Well, our home was destroyed but we stayed mainly because my Mother needed treatment which we couldn’t find in New Orleans, so we connected her up with doctors in Baton Rouge and I became her caregiver. So, we just stayed and then when she died three years ago, we moved back to New Orleans.
So you must have been very close to your Mother.
Oh yes, we were very close. There’s something very special about the relationship with your mother. One thing I do not tolerate in my courtroom is being disrespectful to a mother or grandmother. You’ll go to jail faster for disrespecting your mother than if you steal something. Today, I had a mom telling me that she didn’t want to come to court anymore, that she didn’t want to regain custody of her child. I told her ‘Listen, there may well come a time when this child is the only person who can provide you with comfort and is the only person who will take care of you and hold your hand.’ I just couldn’t imagine anyone being willing to give up a child like that.
How were you involved in youth and family issues before becoming a juvenile judge?
While I was a practicing attorney I was active in the YWCA, YMCA, recreational programs, and sports leagues. I had two children who were growing up and I wanted them to be involved in community activities so I got involved with them. I have been very supportive of activities with families and children.
As a sitting judge, what are you now doing do to improve the system for families and children?
I serve on the Children’s Court Committee, which is appointed by the legislature to continually update the children’s code regarding how cases are handled. We meet several times a year and look at modifications that will improve the laws and the resources that are available to families and children. I have served at the local, state, and national levels.
Are there other ways you have had an impact on the system?
I have spoken before various Senate and House committees on the issue of health insurance to testify about the parents who feel like they are forced to give up their children because they can’t get medical insurance. I was invited to the White House once to meet with Mrs. Clinton and I met with Attorney General Janet Reno about issues for children and families.
What do you feel is your mandate from the people who elected you?
To uphold the constitution and the law; to make decisions so that at end of the day I did all the right things given the information that I had – that I did the best that I could; and to be fair to everybody.
How do you think people see you as a judge?
I think most people respect me because I am fair and I think the public trusts me because I work very hard. There’s one thing I have learned though and that is that you’re doing really well if only half of the people are mad at you.
Do you ever find out if what you said to a child or a parent in court made a real impact?
Not very often. In more than 26 years, I’ve seen a lot of children and parents and only once or twice I’ve seen a parent in a store somewhere who has told me that what I said made a difference. There have been a few kids I have seen after they have grown up who told me that they thought a lot about what I said and that it made a difference for them. So all I can do is hope that what I say will take hold somehow.
Tell me about CASA.
CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate Association. This is a nonprofit network supporting and promoting court appointed volunteer advocacy for abused and neglected children so that they can thrive in safe, permanent homes. CASA trains volunteers to advocate for children in a 30-hour training program on the court process, what child neglect is all about, how to help kids get information from their schools, therapists, coaches, etc. They are trained to actually go to those people and be a child’s advocate. They spend time with the kids, encourage them, and just “be there” for them when, many times there is no one else.
How did you get involved with CASA?
Shortly after I began serving on the bench, another judge started talking about getting a local chapter started. I liked the program so I got involved and I am now serving out the last couple of months as the Immediate Past President. It’s a very valuable program because giving your time to a child can change a life forever. There are young people who were in the CASA program and are grown up now and if you
ask them how they survived the foster care system, they’ll tell you that their “CASA person” was the one thing that didn’t change for them. We have found out that the outcomes for children are far better when CASA volunteers get involved in their lives.
They sound like something between a Guardian ad Litum and a Big Brother/Big Sister.
That’s close. They work very closely with the children and their families, interviewing key people in the child’s life to help determine the best solutions. They can testify on behalf of a child in court. CASA volunteers have been able to actually help children stay in school, graduate, get proper medical treatment, find permanent homes, or improve the home situation so that the children can stay with their parents. They have to have a judge’s approval, they’re well-trained and closely monitored so they are a huge help to CPS and the court in filling in the gaps in the system.
In all your years on the juvenile court bench, have you been able to grasp how and why people can abuse, neglect, and abandon their children?
No, I can’t figure that out. I don’t believe in the death penalty except in very limited cases. Victimizing children is one of those cases. I had a mother in front of me once who was unbelievably frustrating and I said to her, “I know instinctively that I would throw myself in front of a truck to save my child. We’re asking far less than that from you. We just want you to go to a parenting class.”
So, what’s the answer, what’s the cure to this sickness?
Well the reality is that there are a lot of people who have positive parents and that helps. Some kids can make it because of family. I was able to go to law school because my sister-in-law stood in the gap for me by helping to keep my kids while I was in classes. Many of the parents I see don’t have that kind of support.
What are your hopes for the children of New Orleans?
I hope to see fewer in court. I hope to see more children in churches, schools, and recreation centers. I hope to see all their needs served by people outside of the court – family, friends, and community organizations. I believe that children belong not just to their parents – it really does take a village to raise a child. There’s an African proverb that says it all. Instead of asking “How are you today,” the question is “How are the children?” I hope for the day when the answer can be, “The children are well.”
Judge Ernestine S. Gra y is a strong, solid rock in the foundation of the juvenile legal system in New Orleans who has made a difference in the lives of countless children and families. Her tireless advocacy for the most vulnerable members of our society is a testament to her deep concern for and commitment to their welfare. Judge Gray, Our Heritage Magazine is proud to share your story with the world.