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Aranda Award for Yolo family court judge

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Consider the following scenario from a not atypical broken family in California. A father wants to win visitation rights with his son, who has been in the custody of child protective services. The grandparents are seeking probate guardianship of the boy's two sisters. The children's cases land them in three different courts: juvenile dependency, probate and family law, requiring the services of three judges and a raft of social workers, probate investigators and mediators trying to work out an agreement among the parties.

Judge Donna M. Petre

If this situation arose in Yolo County, the cases would be consolidated in one of two therapeutic unified family courts. The brainchild of co-presiding Judge Donna M. Petre, the courts provide a full-service operation that includes an array of services, ranging from a full-time psychologist to a guardianship outreach program to domestic violence protection.

The therapeutic court is only one of a long list of achievements on Judge Petre's resume. She also created one of the first domestic violence courts in the state, a program for supervised visitation for low income families, guardianship outreach efforts, a fund that offers small amounts of money to a child in need and a program to help delinquent juveniles get a GED. She has testified before the legislature, partnered with local social service agencies and churches, and obtained grants or won awards that underwrite programs to help divorcing families.

In recognition of her unwavering dedication to helping families in need, Petre last month received the 2006 Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award, given to a trial judge or an appellate justice who demonstrates a long-term commitment to improving access to justice.

"For more than a decade, Judge Petre has been a leader in creating and implementing innovative programs that have directly and significantly improved access, representation and services for low and moderate income families and children," said Chief Justice Ronald George.

The award is co-sponsored by the Judicial Council, California Judges Association and the State Bar in association with the California Commission on Access to Justice.

Petre came to the family court with some trepidation, admitting that after 10 years spent mostly in criminal court, she was the only one of the eight judges in her county who, when asked for their assignment preference, listed family court as her second choice. She stayed for the next 10 years because, she said, "I think this is a terribly important department. You really have a hard time making any impact unless you stay and make change."

After 20 years on the bench, the 59-year-old Petre still has a hard time believing she's a judge. Growing up the daughter of parents who never finished grammar school, she was expected to be a secretary at the Kenkakee (Illinois) Spring Co., a local manufacturer that made springs, for a dollar apiece, for stock cars. But painfully shy and very studious, Petre pursued education with a passion, earning bachelor's and master's degrees before getting a law degree at Hastings in 1976.

Fast forward 20 years, when she stepped up to the bench in family law and created its first unified court, consolidating dependency, delinquency, family law, domestic abuse and probate. There's enough work for two judges to share.

"If you think about what we're doing in the courts, it's important to see how difficult it is for people who have to appear on multiple cases," Petre explained. "Domestic violence, family law, guardianship, Child Protective Services — they're here every single day. We try to coordinate a unified, therapeutic response once we have all the people and all the cases in one spot."

Among its services, the court provides litigants with child abduction prevention services; offers a court clinician program that assists more than a hundred children a year; and offers help in obtaining guardianship, a component that permits about 110 children to remain in the care of their extended families each year. This year, the unified family court initiated a trial setting conference program that works to resolve cases as quickly as possible. It also holds pro per days for those who don't have a lawyer.

In 1997, with her colleague, Judge Stephen L. Mock, Petre also co-created the Yolo Domestic Violence Court, one of the first in the state. Mock presided over the criminal court, focusing on batterers, while Petre focused on protecting the victims and their children in civil domestic violence cases. She enlisted the help of a local domestic violence victim advocate program as well as the UC Davis law school, which with a grant from the Department of Justice established the Family Assistance and Legal Protection Clinic, through which law students represent domestic violence petitioners under the supervision of a professor.

Petre also established two supervised visitation programs for low-income families, opening the Family Resource Center in 1997. The center had no government funding, but was the product of a collaboration with the Yolo County Bar Association and a Woodland church. The judge's testimony at legislative hearings was instrumental in winning $900,000 to fund supervised visitation programs throughout the state.

In 1999, Petre received a $10,000 award from the Atlanta-based Foundation for the Improvement of Justice and used the money to establish the Yolo Children's Fund, which provides small amounts of money (a maximum of $250) to children who either have a specific need or may simply deserve an unexpected gift. Three years ago, she created Gaining Education through Determination, a program that permits referral of delinquent juveniles to a classroom where they can study for a general education diploma (GED). A local lawyer donates $100 to each graduate.

Petre and her husband, a pediatric endocrinologist, have four children, ranging in age from 12 to 28. She spent a recent weekend at her son's soccer games and still takes piano lessons. A music major in college, she believes music should play an important role in children's lives.

Currently, she's promoting a program to create statewide protocols to protect the children of incarcerated parents and has appealed to the legislature twice. "I haven't found the right team to put it together in my court," she said, explaining that new programs get off the ground when the time is right. "The pieces have to come together, the court has to want to do it and people in the community have to feel the need to come together."

Petre has won plenty of awards, including a national award, six Kleps awards from the California Judicial Council and a Woman of the Year honor in 1999 for the state's Fourth Senatorial District. But she said the Aranda Award is the one she really wanted.

"It's the culmination of my judicial career because it recognizes all the projects I've been working on. This is the award that means you have a heart," she said. "It means you care about the least fortunate and not the most powerful who come in to our courts."

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