As the young offenders are brought into Juvenile Court, those with smirks on their faces and bad attitudes are quickly set straight. Others who’ve been there before already know better.
Judge Wayne Ellerbee runs a tight ship, and his reputation for chastising child and parent alike is the stuff of legend. He questions the young offenders about why they did the crime, and he often yells at and lectures the parents for not controlling, teaching and watching their children.
When it comes to those who have appeared in his courtroom for the last 40 years, Ellerbee is no-nonsense and as blunt as they come. Some of the youngsters straighten up and return years later to tell him what an impact he had on their lives. Others keep failing and finally grow out of juvenile court and into the adult court, which is far less tolerant of repeat offenders.
Ellerbee calls it like he sees it, and from his perspective, the issue begins and ends at home. He believes that society’s tolerance for bad behavior is at an all-time low, setting no standards and holding no expectations for those who do wrong. And he sees no reason not to point it out to the parents who bother to show up in court with their children, as some do not.
Thursday was Ellerbee’s last day presiding over a Valdosta courtroom, and today is his last as the Juvenile Court Judge in Lowndes County. Attorney James Council will be sworn in next week and Ellerbee will practice law full time, rather than splitting his time between his practice and the courtroom.
For 40 years, he has reigned over the Juvenile Court, and in 40 years, he has seen several generations of the same families, making the same mistakes over and over again. Not only does he hear the criminal cases, he also hears the deprivation cases. The cases that the Department of Family and Children’s Services bring to him. The hearings to remove a child from a parent and place them in foster care. The hearings that “could move you to tears in a minute,” he says. The cases that he won’t ever be able to forget. The abuse, the neglect, the indifference.
“You can’t ever quit trying to make a difference. You hope that you save some.”
Babies having babies
Judge Ellerbee says one of the biggest issues today is the level of tolerance in our society for bad behavior.
Babies having babies, no fathers around, no accountability — yet no societal censure. Mothers who lose their babies to foster care because they love drugs more than they love their children.
The number of cases involving drug abuse has steadily increased over the years to epidemic proportions, Ellerbee says, and yet there’s no treatment programs and few options.
“I see children who were born under the influence, who were going through withdrawal. Crack babies were an epidemic in the 1990s, and now these children have grown up to become social misfits, with a myriad of physical and mental issues and syndromes that can’t be fixed.”
Ellerbee said that cocaine and marijuana remain the drugs of choice, although meth is making inroads locally.
“Drugs see no economic barriers. These parents come from every background conceivable, white, black, Hispanic. Drugs don’t discriminate. They send these parents to treatment programs but drug addiction is not something you can correct. They have to want to be clean, and far too often, the temptation is too much for them. They’re the ones who lose their children permanently.”
For some, adoption is an option, with foster parents often adopting the children in their care. For others, a relative may step up, but Ellerbee says if the relative was so willing to help, they should have stepped in long before the state gets involved.
“As a community, we keep allowing this to happen. We’re not attacking the problem. Priorities aren’t where they used to be.”
Children committing crime
The youngest gang members Ellerbee sees in the courtroom are 10 and 11 years old. They are recruited at a young age, and the gang becomes their family, usually because they have no other family around. All too often, the judge says, the gang members are the only males in the lives of these children. They are the only male role models they have.
“Children go where they are loved. If it’s not at home, it will be somewhere else.”
Mothers often show up at Ellerbee’s law practice in town, asking him to “talk to” or “scare” their child, saying they can’t control them.
“As a society, we have given away so much of our personal responsibility that everyone feels entitled. Our government does everything else for them, why not raise their kids, too?"
Ellerbee says all too often, “I’m the only person in a child’s life they fear. They’re not afraid of anyone at school or at home. I give punishment, real punishment, and I have the same standards for everyone. Children want boundaries. They want structure. They want punishment. And sometimes, I’m the only person they’ll ever meet who will give it to them.”
In the old days, Ellerbee could give a child the choice between juvenile detention or the military. Many young men chose the military.
“In many cases, that saved their lives, but I’m not allowed to do that anymore. I’m not allowed to do many things anymore, which is one of the reasons I’m ready to step down after 40 years. It’s too frustrating to continue.”
Judge Ellerbee credits LODAC with saving many young offenders through their programs on shoplifting, for truancy and keeping kids in school and for “teens with tots,” helping teenage mothers learn how to be a parent.
Ellerbee says the programs are essential and the community support is essential for the programs to continue.
David Troy runs LODAC and he is as full of praise for Ellerbee as the judge has for him. Troy credits Ellerbee with helping develop a truancy program that has cut the number of court visits for parents by at least 75 percent.
“Year before last, 300-plus parents from the Valdosta school system had to come to truancy court. Last year, less than 30 did. The same is true for the Lowndes system. Year before last, 100-plus parents came, and last year, it was less than 30 also.”
Troy says Ellerbee’s assistance with the program has been invaluable in keeping children in school and in the community.
“The judge doesn’t get the credit he deserves. We will definitely miss him.”
Ellerbee, the lawyer and the judge
A native of Columbus, born into a strict military family, Ellerbee attended Florida State University before going to law school at the University of Georgia. Among his classmates were Valdosta attorneys Converse Bright, Robert Cork, Bill Kitchens and Wade Coleman.
After graduation, he was offered a job at the firm of Young and Young in Valdosta, in 1964. In 1970, Judge Marcus Calhoun, the then-Chief Judge of the Superior Court, called the firm seeking someone to take the juvenile judge position.
“I accepted and in May 1970, I was sworn in. Every four years since then, for 10 sucessive terms, I have been reappointed by the Superior Court judges.”
Ellerbee continued practicing law as the judgeship is a part-time position, and he opened his own firm in 1983. Specializing in personal injury law, his practice is much different than the court cases he hears.
“I’ve practiced all kinds of law, from divorces to corporate cases, but I like the personal injury side because it’s more hands-on.”
In his first years on the bench, Ellerbee says the cases were much different than the ones of today.
“Back then, parents took care of their kids.”
Looking back, Ellerbee says he was a juvenile judge “at the best time that anyone could be a juvenile judge. You used to have a lot more freedom to correct problems, but the federal government has changed the rules so much. The options are nearly all gone.”
He says parents today don’t know how to parent or know how to discipline and control their children. He says it’s a fallacy that parents can’t spank their kids.
“They absolutely can spank their children but they cannot abuse them. Parents have a lot more latitude to control their children than they often think.”
In the mid-1970s, Ellerbee allowed a parent to spank a child in the courtroom. He didn’t tell her to, but he was still charged by the bar association. Retired Superior Court Judge H. Arthur “Mac” McLane represented him at his trial, which resulted in a public reprimand. It didn’t change his philosophy or the way he presided over cases. It did, however, briefly make him a celebrity as the late columnist Lewis Grizzard used the trial as the basis for a column.
Reminiscing about his time on the bench, Ellerbee says, “I have no regrets. I’ve always loved both being a judge and being a lawyer. I was fortunate to have been reappointed 10 times, and I can honestly say I’ve always treated everyone exactly the same,” adding with a slight smile. “Maybe that’s why I’m not more popular,” a statement that doesn’t appear to bother him in the least.