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Juvenile Court Judge Diaz reflects on first year on bench
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Juvenile Court Judge Joe Diaz speaks after being sworn in on Dec. 31, 2015.

A few weeks back, Joe Diaz took a key to explore the Hall County courthouse annex where he used to work as an attorney.

With his Hall County Sheriff’s Office deputy escort, he reminisced on the old offices of Superior Court Judges Andrew Fuller and John Girardeau.

“Man, I’ve been around too long,” he said.

Diaz will soon take an office there since his transition from longtime litigator to Juvenile Court judge in 2016. He worked in private practice for 23 years for domestic cases as well as criminal defense.

With a year under his belt, Diaz said the change has been rewarding. A night owl by nature, once drafting motions at 2 a.m., the judge now enters the courthouse around 8 a.m. before taking to the bench 30 minutes later.

One downside Diaz described was a downturn in debate and argument.

“Suddenly, people defer to you a lot more than you might be used to. I’m always one that loves to engage in spirited debates,” he said. “It’s harder to do that now, even off the bench.”

Having a background in family law, Diaz said he felt the transition was smooth in getting into the issues surrounding Juvenile Court. The court handles cases related to the well-being of children in their home environments and behavioral issues for children younger that 18.

Compared to in Superior Court, the cases have more than two sides and are not decided on a moment in time.

“You go into court and you argue your case. You win, you lose, you walk out. That’s the end of that case,” he said. “In Juvenile Court, we’ve got these kids for anywhere from a month to five years, so it’s a process.”

With regular meetings between he and fellow Juvenile Court judges Lindsay Burton and Alison Toller, Diaz said he feels he brings a balance in perspective.

Burton and Toller both worked in the Hall County District Attorney’s office. After leaving private practice in 2014, Toller started as an assistant solicitor in DeKalb County.

After joining the Hall County judiciary, Diaz praised the innovation and work outside of the box. Of note was a movement spearheaded by Toller on tackling both delinquency and who takes care of the child.

“Sometimes, kids have both problems, and it can be challenging to try to address the needs in just one side without addressing the some of the underlying issues on the other side,” Diaz said.

The tactic has been to bring better communication between the Division of Family and Children Services and the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Hall County DFCS Director Hannah Rule said the issue is coordinating resources that one department might not have.

“They’ve got neglect issues at home as well as their own behavior issues, and it’s getting services in that can address both,” she said.

An example of this would the individualized counseling for a child in Juvenile Justice compared to family treatment options through DFCS.

“We might go in and add some substance abuse counseling for mom, which is something that DJJ wouldn’t be able to do,” Rule said. “They might come in and do a mentor for the child that would be able to work with the child on things like job skills and other probation requirements.”

DFCS and Burton have also been pushing an initiative to identify more local foster families and support for those families.

“It’s a heavy undertaking to get into that kind of thing. It’s not something small that we’re asking of people ... But I think once people become aware of the issues or the problems, a lot of people are willing to come forward,” Diaz said.

Burton previously told The Times the number of Hall County children in foster care has risen to 255, a statistic rising to new heights each month.

“The demand for our services is as high as ever and increases, so I don’t expect it will get any lighter anytime soon,” Diaz said.

Juvenile Court and Probate Court are slated to move into the annex when reopened. County officials said the move would extend the life of the courthouse by up to 18 years.

“That’s the biggest impediment in my opinion to us getting a lot more work done is that only two of us can be on the bench at a time,” Diaz said.

According to Hall County officials, the annex will take another 12 to 14 months before it will be ready.