WEST OLIVE — The two candidates running for an open judge seat in Ottawa County spoke in a public forum earlier this week to introduce themselves to the community.
Paul Kraus and Mercedes Watts are both vying for the nonpartisan Family Law judge seat that was just added to the Ottawa County 20th Circuit Court.
“This is a position that is going to handle some of our most vital cases for Ottawa County — child abuse, wards, custody, guardianship, adoptions,” Kraus said in his opening statement Monday, Sept. 19. “The kinds of cases that have a lasting impact on our communities for generations to come.”
The forum took place at the Fillmore Street Complex in West Olive. It was organized by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Each candidate introduced themselves to the room of area judges, attorneys and citizens before taking turns answering prepared questions from a moderator. They spoke of their experiences, familiarity with community resources, and what barriers and challenges they witness in the family court system.
Kraus, who’s worked in family law for 17 years, is currently the senior assistant prosecuting attorney for Ottawa County, in which he handles child abuse cases and manages the family division for the prosecutor’s office.
Watts is currently a public defender for Ottawa County. Previously, she had her own firm where she practiced family and landlord-tenant law.
“I know how much a community can help someone,” Watts said. “I’m equipped to be effective and fair from having lived through it myself. I grew up in poverty. My mother was in an abusive relationship with my father and my father was also an addict. So, having grown up with that and seeing how my mother struggled to get away, and then once she did, how our community took us in and how they helped lift us up.”
From her own experiences, Watts said she was inspired to help others like she and her mother were helped.
Kraus, whose parents were missionaries and community volunteers, first pursued a career in teaching before realizing he wanted to be an attorney. He said what hooked him was being able to make a lasting impact on families.
“For me, it’s always been about public service,” he said. “Most people stay within child protection law for two years because of the burnout, and I have to say those first two years were pretty difficult to get through. But surrounding yourself with mentors, trainers and going to do trainings with the community really made a difference for me.
“It’s the only area of the law I know that has the impact to make a generation change within the families and for the children. … As a community, we have to do everything we can to protect the most vulnerable.”
Watts said one of her biggest concerns and changes she’d like to make if elected as judge are petition orders to remove children.
“I’ve practiced in multiple counties across Michigan, and what I’ve seen is when a petition order is received, it is immediately signed,” she said. “The first hearing isn’t held for 1-2 months down the road. But by then, all the damage has been done — families torn apart, children traumatized and countless money has been spent needlessly.
“What I want to do is hold a hearing before that removal happens. So much comes out during these hearings, and I believe they are vital before deciding if a child should be removed or not.”
Watts also referenced the Michigan Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform, whose data-driven work shows a disproportionate effect on youth of color in the system.
“Minority youth are petitioned for court at two times the rate of white youth and more than 1.5 times as likely to be adjudicated as their white peers,” Watts said.
“Minority youth are detained at six times the rate of white youth. And the average length of stay in detention is seven days longer, and minority youth are placed as state wards at three times the rate of white youth. And there is limited attention statewide to ensure that the residential system is equipped to serve youth of color effectively.”
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The new judge will eventually serve in the centralized Ottawa County Family Justice Center that’s being built at the Fillmore Complex. The space is slated to open in 2024.
“Right now, all of our abuse and neglect cases are handled here at the Fillmore Complex,” Kraus said. “All of our domestic cases, such as divorce and custody, are handled in Grand Haven. So, because of that, you can have two judges assigned to a family not knowing what is going on with that family. Now, having a one-judge, one-family model … is going to mean vastly superior results for families because a judge is going to now have the sense of the entire picture.”
Kraus said the building will be specially designed for families, with calming colors on the walls and spaces that appeal to children.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8. To register to vote and look at candidate information, visit mi.gov/vote.