Carlyn M. Hicks of Jackson is a Hinds County judge, who presides over Youth Court. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Jackson State University in 2006 and a law degree from Mississippi College School of Law in 2010. She was admitted to the Mississippi Bar in September 2010. She earned a Master of Business Administration from Mississippi College in 2012. At the time of her appointment, she was pursuing a doctorate.
Five years before joining the bench, she created the Jackson Foodies social media group, which encourages support of local restaurants. Carlyn Hicks and her husband, Derrick Hicks, are the parents of a daughter, Leigh. They are members of Mount Helm Baptist Church.
How long have you been a Hinds County judge?
“I was appointed to the bench on July 9, 2020 by Chief Justice Mike Randolph of the Mississippi Supreme Court and that was extended by the governor in October. I was appointed to assume the seat of retired Judge Melvin Priester. I represent Subdistrict One, Hinds County. I was assigned the Youth Court docket by Judge Larita Cooper- Stokes.”
What was your career like before you became a judge?
“Prior to joining the judiciary, I worked in public interests in Youth Court law. I represented families in Youth Court before becoming the director of an area legal aid organization. I am a certified child welfare law specialist, which is accredited by the National Association of Counsel for Children and the American Bar Association. Currently, there are three people in Mississippi, who hold that designation. I’m the only judge in the state with that certification.
“I have also served as a resource counsel for the state where I provided training, technical assistance and support to enhance court improvement. In that role, I have provided training to judges, guardians ad litem, prosecutors and other court stakeholders. This experience equipped me with the unique ability to hit the ground running when I joined the bench.”
What does Youth Court handle?
“Youth Court handles matters involving abuse and neglect of children as well as juvenile delinquency matters. There are two dockets: One is child protection and the other is juvenile delinquency.
“Youth court jurisdiction is from age zero to 20. Youth Court law is very nuanced and unique. It’s not like any other court. The rules are very different.”
Does Youth Court have the same approach as courts for adults?
“Youth Court is remedial in nature, a problem-solving court. In Youth Court, we wrap around services for foster care and juvenile delinquency. We identify the needs of children and families and match them to resources in our community. The court ensures the accountability of all stakeholders and that justice for families and children is achieved.
“I view my role as a collaborative stakeholder in a larger system of care for children and families that requires me to stay abreast of mental health services, educational services, law enforcement, adolescent development, early childhood development, issues of poverty and the like.”
How have you worked to improve the foster care system?
“When I came to the court, we had 396 children in Hinds County in foster care. Hinds County had the highest number of children in custody in the state, which had not always been the case. The coastal counties have historically had the highest number of children in foster care.
“I began an assessment of children in foster care in Hinds County. What I discovered was there were children who had been removed several years ago, had been placed in foster care and had not found permanency.
“Once a child is removed, that starts the clock. The agency’s goal is to reunite the child with the family. There are federal timelines the state and county have to abide by in dealing with children in foster care. A child should achieve permanency in 12 to 15 months, no longer than 22 months.
“We’ve had 80 children who have exited foster care since July. That includes children reunited with parents or made available for adoption by a durable legal guardian, who can be a grandparent or another relative with whom the child has been placed for some time.
“We are still prioritizing the docket and continue to comb through it. Children deserve permanent, loving homes. Foster care was designed to be a temporary safety solution, not a long-term solution. Foster care should be the last resort for a child in order to provide a safe space.”
Why are children placed in foster care?
“Alcohol and drug use, neglect issues such as physical neglect, medical neglect or educational neglect, a situation where there is physical abuse or sexual abuse and the exposure of a child to violence in the home or domestic violence are some of the reasons why children are in foster care.
“What we see a prevalence of in Hinds County are housing instability and substance abuse. Hinds County has some of the highest rates of eviction in the country. The Casey Family Programs reached out to Hinds County with a pilot program for a housing initiative in partnership with the Mississippi Center for Justice and the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission. From August until December 31, we’ve been able to refer cases where housing is an issue to the program. The program assists families with issues such as rent, necessary repairs to maintain housing or enforcing terms of lease. That has been a huge benefit to Hinds County.”
If someone suspects child abuse or neglect, how can it be reported? “Call 1-800-222-8000. The report is anonymous.”
Does Youth Court help families find resources they need?
“An agency goal is to work with a family on a family service plan to address the issues. That includes services to children, counseling, parenting classes, alcohol and drug treatment services, services to address a family’s unique circumstances. A family service plan should be uniquely tailored to the needs of each family.
“Youth Court is only as strong as its community connections. We have to rely on the clinical community, the mental health community, the faith-based community, community-based organizations and a plethora of social services. Youth Court is uniquely designed as remedial and rehabilitative, not punitive.”
What is juvenile delinquency?
“Juvenile delinquency matters include alleged delinquent acts and status offenses. Status offenses include running away and truancy. Delinquent acts include offenses that would be a crime if the child was an adult.
“Youth Court is remediable so the goal is to rehabilitate and do early intervention. I’ve discontinued the practice of shackling in the courtroom for nonviolent and status juvenile offenders. One of the things that was very striking to me when I came on the bench was seeing young people shackled when their offenses were nonviolent or status offenses. They are already afraid of court and unsure of what is to occur. I thought shackling caused more harm.
“There are lot of children who present on the juvenile docket who have underlying mental health problems. They’re either unmedicated or untreated. That could be a result of not having adequate access, families who don’t have the resources to provide children with necessary mental health care or families who don’t know where to go. Youth Court is designed to identify the needs of those families.”
What is the Hinds County Youth Court Runaway Initiative?
“We’ve partnered with the School of Social Work at Jackson State University to develop a curriculum and have case managers track children who are repeat status offenders, starting in January. We want to determine how to help them stay safe whether a family needs to learn about conflict resolution skills, intervention services and family counseling, to name a few.”
What impact from COVID-19 have you seen on youth?
“We have some children who are bored, have no outlets and resort to delinquent acts because of peer pressure and opportunity. I hear children loud and clear when they come to court and tell me they’re bored or they want to learn a trade. The Youth Court will have an established summer work program by the summer of 2021.
“COVID-19 has also meant fewer eyes on children. The majority of abuse and neglect reports come from doctors’ offices and schools. If children are not in school because they are attending virtually, that means fewer eyes. When children return to in-person class, we anticipate there will be a rise in the number of abuse and neglect reports.”
What punishment is there for juveniles in Youth Court?
“Once a child is adjudicated as a delinquent, a child can be detained, be placed on probationary status with the court, required to participate in a work program or ordered to participate in Teen Challenge or a similar program.
“There is a juvenile drug court program where we work with children who have drug offenses. We just had graduation for youth who have successfully completed the program. We continue to operate that. It’s been going very well.
“We try to meet the needs of the youth so they can become productive citizens and members of society and not end up in the adult legal system in the future.”
What motivates you as a judge?
“When I became an attorney, I knew I wanted to help people. When I got into the work of child welfare practice, I saw this is where our most vulnerable citizens are. If I were to do anything meaningful, I wanted to dedicate it to the most vulnerable among us. If I can shift the trajectory of or a child and family that makes it worth it. This has been the most rewarding service I’ve been able to provide in my career.”
On a different note, when did you establish Jackson Foodies?
“Jackson Foodies started about five years ago in response to the growing challenge of businesses leaving the Jackson area. It now has 22,000 people on Facebook. It started with a conversation on social media about how Individuals could be conscious about where they spend money and support local businesses. The focus grew to become supporting local restaurants. We are fortunate in that Jackson has some of the best restaurants.
“Since I’ve come to the bench, I can’t be as actively involved as I was before. Each year, we have a Dining with Dignity pop-up restaurant for the homeless and food insecure. We weren’t able to do that this year because of COVID. What we usually do is partner with local chefs, restaurants and owners and wait staff and provide a five-star dining experience. We have partnered with Stewpot Community Services and Grace Place. We serve whole families when we do this event and expose them to different foods and the chefs prepare things they would prepare in their own restaurants.”