By Mishele Wright - www.chronicle-tribune.com
Since assuming Judge Randall Johnson’s term in Grant Superior Court 2 more than two years ago, former prosecuting attorney Dana Kenworthy has made several changes to better the judicial system and save the county money.
Johnson stepped down from the bench in June 2010 because of health concerns.
Because he had been sick for a while, cases had accumulated in that particular court. Though Kenworthy didn’t have much time to prepare for her new role, she didn’t hesitate in getting the court caught up.
“(Johnson’s) illness made it difficult for him to handle the things that needed to be done, so when (Kenworthy) came in there was a backlog,” said Superior Court 3 Judge Warren Haas. “He wasn’t able to physically do it. She just worked extremely hard.”
Though Kenworthy’s term is still technically temporary, she is the only candidate for Superior 2 judge next month. Johnson does not plan to resume his position.
A long road to the bench
An Amboy native and graduate of Oak Hill High School, Kenworthy said she’s always loved Grant County. Attending college at Ball State University in Muncie was her first time in a big city.
“I felt like a very small fish in a big pond,” she said.
She double majored in criminal justice and psychology.
It wasn’t until she began working in the Grant County Prosecutor’s Office that she decided to attend law school. She was an intern in the office while still a student at Ball State. She joined the staff full-time in July 1994 as a criminal investigator and later began working as the community education coordinator.
She tried working in a big city as a paralegal with an Indianapolis law firm, but decided it wasn’t the right fit. There wasn’t much interaction with other people, and the work she was doing in civil cases wasn’t appealing.
After working on three jury trials as an intern at the prosecutor’s office, Kenworthy said she determined her niche was prosecuting cases.
“I felt like I had a knack with working with victims of crimes, especially little ones,” she said.
In May 2001, she was hired as a deputy prosecutor in the Grant County office. Most of her cases involved juveniles, child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence.
“All were very high-stress cases, and figuring out how to separate home and work was difficult,” she said.
“I always had a tendency to get attached to the kids. There were days I’d go home and cry about those kids.”
She was always impressed, however, with how children involved in the cases handled the situation. Most were resilient, she said.
When asked to take the bench for Johnson, Kenworthy said it felt right. She had talked to Johnson two years earlier about his intention to run again. When he told her he didn’t plan to run for re-election, she decided she was going to. The job, however, fell into her lap a couple years earlier than she was expecting.
Superior 2 in particular appealed to her because of the types of cases that are tried in that court.
A whirlwind shift
Kenworthy described the transition from prosecutor to judge as a “whirlwind.” She was sworn in on a Thursday, and her first day was the following Monday. She only had a few days to wrap up her cases at the prosecutor’s office and review the court docket for her new post.
Though the jobs are different, she said, she’s always been an advocate for the law, and that didn’t change with the switch.
“I’ve had to adjust the way I think and look at both sides,” she said.
She was faced with a lot of work when she first took the bench. Kenworthy said she had 17 trials in her court that year. This year there has only been about six trials in Superior 2 because the court has caught up.
Kenworthy said as of April 2010 the average age of new pending cases was almost one year and 11 months and as of April 2012 the average age is less than six months.
Cases are moving through the court faster, despite more new case being filed following a redistribution of the caseload — in 2010 131 felonies and six misdemeanors were filed in the court, and in 2011 that increased to 215 felonies and 43 misdemeanors.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “It was a bit like triage when I started.”
Now that there is no longer a backlog of criminal cases, Kenworthy is focusing on the civil cases that haven’t had any activity for a while and clearing them from the docket. Earlier this year there were 85 juvenile cases with no activity for six months, 38 CHINS (child in need of services) cases without any activity for nine months, 472 divorce and domestic relations cases with no recent action and 601 juvenile delinquency cases with no activity for 180 days.
Currently all the cases have been cleared except for 87 delinquency cases and three divorces.
Haas said when Kenworthy took office there were several cases that had been taken under advisement by Johnson. Instead of inconveniencing litigants and attorneys by calling them back for another hearing, she listened to the previous hearings so she could make an informed decision.
A love for kids
While a lot has changed for Kenworthy, one thing hasn’t — she is still an advocate for children.
“She’s made changes with the juvenile (system), which is her first love, I think,” Haas said. “She’s always cared about children and families.”
Kenworthy said her love for children began in college when she worked at a daycare center. The kids were 3 to 5 years old, and when they got in trouble they were sent to her office. Though she originally took the job to help pay for college, she said it was an eye-opening experience.
“I quickly started to bond with those troubled kids,” she said.
In the past she served on several boards, including Court Appointed Special Advocates, Family Service Society and First Light Child Advocacy Center, to benefit children. She said she had to resign from those boards, as well as others, when she took office.
Connie Rose, director of Family Service Society, said Kenworthy is still making a difference in the lives of children and families.
“I have looked at her as a mentor in understanding family dynamics, family challenges and in understanding what intervention services are so important in helping families find hope and a new direction as they’re seeking solutions to whatever their challenges are in their lives,” she said.
Rose said Kenworthy isn’t someone who makes quick decisions, but she is thoughtful and makes a point to gather information and do research before coming up with a plan.
“I believe through her listening and her initiatives, coordinated efforts have been made to strengthen programs and to explore what additional programs or services might be beneficial to our families and children,” Rose said.
Saving the county money
In addition to making positive changes to the court system, Haas said Kenworthy has spearheaded other changes to save the county money, including creating a full-time juvenile magistrate and pursuing several grants.
Last year Brian McLane was sworn in as the juvenile magistrate — which combines the part-time positions of juvenile referee and IV-D commissioner. That year, the county budgeted more than $148,000 for both positions’ salaries and benefits. With McLane as magistrate, the state picked up most of his salary and benefits, with the county only paying about $41,000.
As for grants, Haas said Kenworthy was responsible for getting money to pay for remote arraignment, in which parents who are in prison can appear for hearings without physically being transported to Grant County.
“Because of her getting that grant, the other courts were able to get the same technology to do initial hearings and some other hearings with folks who are in the Department of Corrections,” Haas said.
That saves manpower and time because a deputy from the sheriff’s department doesn’t have to travel across the state to pick up a prisoner, book them into the jail for a 10-minue hearing and then transport them back, he said.
“It’s a very expensive process that’s intensive for man hours and costs,” Haas said. “We can do it remotely now for many hearings … and that is largely done because of her help.”
Another grant Kenworthy got for the courts was for an interpreter to help non-English speaking defendants.
Kenworthy said she also made changes to the jury trial schedule in Superior 2 to save money. Instead of jury trials starting on Monday afternoon like they had previously, they now start on Tuesday morning. The change enabled the county to avoid paying jurors for only a partial day’s service. Jurors get the same set amount, as well as mileage, for serving a half day as they would a full day of service, she said.
Implementing a final pre-trial conference 15 days before a scheduled jury trial has helped determine if jurors actually need to be summoned. This helps reduce postage cost, staff time and public inconvenience because jurors aren’t called in just to be sent home if a last-minute plea agreement is reached. Kenworthy has set cut-off dates for plea agreements to avoid last minute bargaining the morning of trials.
She also implemented a fee for parents involved in CHINS cases. A CASA fee of $100 is required in each case, and in June 2010 Kenworthy began requiring parents who can afford it to pay the fee. Since then, the cost for pauper counsel in the cases has declined because parents are helping cover the costs.
A heart for volunteering
Kenworthy currently serves on several boards at the state and local level — Judicial Conference of Indiana Board of Directors and the Juvenile Benchbook committee, Indiana State Bar Association Civil Rights of Children Committee and the Improvement in the Judiciary committee, Grant County Evidence-Based Decision-Making Committee, Marion-Grant County Chamber of Commerce, Department of Children’s Services Regional Service Council for Region 7, Grant County Bar Association, Grant County Community Corrections Board, Marion Community Schools Friends of Marion High School Committee and Marion Mayor’s Commission Against Domestic Violence.
Kenworthy said she learned at a young age the importance of giving back. Her mother was a volunteer at a hospital gift shop, and the judge said almost every job she’s ever worked began with a connection she made through volunteering.
Rose said Kenworthy’s passion and love for children shines through her actions and through her communications both in her judicial position and through her personal community involvement.
“She chooses boards and activities to enhance the quality of life for kids,” she said. “She and her husband invest a lot of time into the development of youth.”
Husband Alex Kenworthy is a corporal at the Marion Police Department and currently serves as the school resource officer at Marion High School. He has coached youth sports, and the couple has served as licensed foster parents.
Looking toward the future
In the future, Kenworthy said she wants to continue improving the courts. She and Judge Jeff Todd are currently working to create domestic relations rules for parties to follow when going through a divorce to improve communication skills as they co-parent.
At the state level, she said she hopes to get more involved in policy-making. Areas of interest to her are the Department of Child Services call center and tracking prescription drug use.
Locally, she is waiting to hear whether the county will receive a grant to help pay for mediation and programs for families in litigation.
Seeking grants is important for the judicial system, and she plans to continue pursuing more funding opportunities.
“Our budget is ever shrinking,” she said. “We try to do the very best we can.”
She said she feels good about the direction the courts are headed and said all four judges work well together and have regular meetings where they communicate.
“I feel optimistic,” she said. “I think all of us are hard workers, and we make a good team.”