Teen Court director helps kids get back on the right path

SANTA FE (AP) – Jennifer Romero doesn’t look much older than the teens she works with. Katelyn Nicholson, 16, an “attorney” in the Teen Court program that Romero oversees, guessed she was about about 25.

Romero will turn 31 in March.

“She has a really young energy,” Nicholson said. “She’s really understanding of how teenagers think. A lot of adults just don’t know how teenagers act and how they feel inside. She does.”

Alexander Mojarrab, 18, has worked with Romero for two years and said one of her strengths is that she treats her teen charges like adults. “She’s not estranged from our thought processes or experiences.”

Romero says Teen Court of Santa Fe County helps give her that insight into teens’ minds. On any given Wednesday night, she’s at the First District Court building in Santa Fe, watching as teen attorneys portray would-be Perry Masons and teen defendants attempt to defend themselves.

During a recent court session, a boy charged with driving without a license or registration confessed to those charges, but said he did not run his father’s truck into a neighbor’s wall – where police found the vehicle.

Although some of the young offenders’ tales may seem outrageous, Romero said it’s vital that adults pay attention.

“I feel like sometimes they think they don’t have anyone to listen to them,” she said.

Romero began working with the program in 2007 as an assistant to then-director Alice Sealey.

Sealey still remembers her first meeting with the young applicant. She couldn’t help noticing that Romero was far along with a pregnancy. She knew that was not grounds to deny a woman employment, she said during a recent interview, but she admitted that she wondered at the time if Romero would give birth and then decide to leave the court program, opting instead to stay home and tend to her newborn.

She hired Romero anyway. “I had this sixth sense that Jennifer was too fabulous to pass up,” Sealey recalled. “It was the best decision I made in my life.”

Sealey retired in 2012. Now Romero, the mother of two, runs the more than two-decade-old restorative justice program. Hearings are held weekly for kids ages 12 to 17 who have been charged with crimes such as shoplifting, possession of marijuana or alcohol, disorderly conduct and assault.

Youth offenders are defended, prosecuted and sentenced by fellow teens, but they must admit guilt at the outset. Teen attorneys are trained by professional working lawyers who volunteer their time to support the program, which has offered a second chance to thousands of teens who may otherwise have fallen through the cracks and into the juvenile justice system.

Romero was not the type of teen who needed a second chance. She was a strong-performing student who worked so hard to earn credits that she graduated from Capital High School a year early, as part of the Class of 2001. She never ended up in court, she said, although she sometimes gave her mother grief, as many adolescents do.

Growing up in Santa Fe and Tesuque, Romero dreamed of going into the medical field. That all changed one day when she saw a cousin run into some barbed wire, which sliced open a leg.

“I almost passed out. The blood. I changed my mind quickly,” Romero said.

Instead, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from The University of New Mexico and a master’s degree in social work from New Mexico Highlands University.

Her husband, Isaiah, saw the job opening at Teen Court and urged her to apply, saying work with youth would be a good fit for her. She got her application to Sealey just in time – an hour before the closing deadline.

Romero said Teen Court has been a lifesaver for local families.

“Teen Court is important because it helps families get through that period of time when life gets difficult during the teenage years, when parents need support and teens need direction,” she said.

But at Teen Court, Romero said, heartache often walks hand in hand with second chances. Some parents express bewilderment or disappointment that their children are caught up in the court system at just 12 or 13.

“They’re good kids at home,” parents will say.

Romero agrees. “I said they are all good kids. They just made a mistake. They need redirection and a second chance. That’s what Teen Court gives them.”

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