Chesterton Tribune

Mary Harper honored with Niequist Award for helping troubled youth

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By VICKI URBANIK

Porter County Circuit Court Judge Mary Harper rested her head in her hand when it was announced in her crowded courtroom Thursday who wasn’t the recipient of this year’s Marilyn J. Niequist Memorial Award.

Up until that moment, Harper thought that Tammy O’Neill of Prisoners and Community Together would get the prestigious award, given annually in Porter County to a person who has dedicated his or her life to helping troubled youth.

Harper stayed up late Wednesday night working on a speech honoring O’Neill. She carried the speech into her courtroom, where a large crowd of youth workers, probation officers, prosecutors, attorneys and others gathered for the awards ceremony.

But when Porter County Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Amy Beier thanked Lloyd for serving as a “decoy,” all eyes fell on Harper, who sat almost motionless in her bailiff’s chair as her family members, previously hidden in the jury room, filtered into the courtroom.

As Harper’s husband, attorney and judicial candidate David Chidester said, “we pulled a fast one on Mary.”

Named in honor of the county’s former chief juvenile probation officer who died at age 50 in 1982, the Niequist Award recognizes someone who has carried on Niequist’s dedication to troubled youth.

In her first six years as circuit court judge, Harper has spearheaded the formation of several major programs affecting youth and their families. Among them are Project Attend, a collaborative effort between the probation office and schools aimed at curtailing truancy in very young students; the Juvenile Summit, a collaborative effort between community agencies and the courts; and a mediation center where families can obtain assistance in settling disputes without having to come before the judge.

But perhaps her most far-reaching endeavor so far has been the establishment of the Family Court, which, despite getting almost no funding from the county, has been recognized statewide as a model program that integrates different court cases affecting the same family.

Harper has also served on the boards of the Family and Youth Services Bureau, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Portage Mayor’s Commission Against Domestic Violence, the Porter County Early Intervention Planning Team, and the Porter County Community Corrections Advisory Board, among others.

“There’s no stronger applicant (for the award)… than Judge Harper,” Beier said.

Beier described the judge as a community activist who takes a hands-on approach to her work and is usually on the front end of identifying and solving problems.

Dennis Morgan, director of the FYSB, said Porter County has a history of wonderful circuit court judges and that Harper has continued the activism of her predecessor, Raymond Kickbush, who took a political risk when he spearheaded the opening of the new Juvenile Services Center.

“The county is a much richer place for your many contributions,” he said, turning to Harper.

Harper broke into laughter when, after Chidester took the podium, he jokingly took credit himself for creating the Family Court. He also said he “got a hearty chuckle” by seeing his wife work into the night on the speech for O’Neill.

Juvenile Court Magistrate John Shanahan spoke of his and Harper’s annual visits to fifth grade classrooms, where their talks are aimed at keeping kids out of trouble. Shanahan said Harper has a profound interest in the students’ lives.

“I don’t know quite frankly what it is that drives this woman,” he said.

For her part, Harper lauded the staff for juvenile probation, detention and Family Court, saying that the real value of one’s work is “the people around us.”

She also praised every judge in Porter County. Though she is the one who oversees the Family Court, every judge has to participate to make it work, and every judge agreed the program was needed.

Harper said one motivation for the Family Court was her experience in seeing kids accompany their parents to court on charges, and then seeing those same kids charged with the same offenses later as adults. She noted that every child has potential, but she questioned the contributing factors, such as alcoholism, drug use or repeated stresses, that would make a kid truant, and then later turn to crime.

She expressed hope that “with the talent you have in this community,” court programming for troubled families translate to less abuse, less neglect and less truancy.

Past Niequist award winners have included Morgan; Ann Baas, former juvenile probation chief and now with the FYSB; former FYSB worker Mark Lutze of Jackson Township; and Kathy Spears, principal of the Porter County Alternative School, also of Jackson Township.

 

Posted 7/12/2002