Kingman judge takes statewide role as advocate for children

KINGMAN - It wasn't a difficult decision for Mohave County Superior Court Judge Richard Weiss to lend his voice and face to First Things First's new statewide advertising campaign.

Weiss, who hears child welfare and dependency cases in Kingman, has been a long-time strong advocate of First Things First, a statewide agency created by Arizona voters in 2006. Funding comes from an 80-cent per pack increase on tobacco products, which provides money for programs in 31 regions of the state that give children the necessary tools to begin school healthy and ready to succeed.

"First Things First is a big part of my fabric right now," said Weiss. "It really gets to the heart of the community. Why wouldn't we spend $1 a day now to help children instead of $100 a day to house criminals? Education is very important and a lot of criminals don't have their diplomas. We're seeing the same in child welfare.

There's a lot of dysfunction from generation to generation. How do you bring people out of hopelessness and into promise?"

Weiss is one of three professionals in Arizona who recently gathered at a studio in Phoenix to prepare radio, television and newspaper ads about First Things First. Weiss represented the juvenile justice system and was joined by Lyndy Jones, a pediatrician in Tempe representing medicine, and Nicole McNeil, owner of Early Language Learning and Arts Studio in Phoenix and representing education.

The message Weiss offered was simple: "Strong families are the building blocks of a strong society. As a juvenile court judge, I know that what happens to kids in their early years sets the foundation for a lifetime. That's why First Things First partners with communities across Arizona to strengthen families and empower parents in their role as their child's first teacher."

To Weiss, the main vehicle for helping children in Mohave County is First Things First, which created the La Paz/Mohave Superior Court Infant and Toddler Mental Health Team in 2009 through a grant. Led by Weiss, the court team, which serves Kingman, Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City, receives $400,000 annually and provides professional development and support for anyone who works with or has children in the birth to age 5 group. It also coordinates services related to the health, development and social needs of vulnerable young children and their families.

Since its inception, the court team has implemented a number of improvements. Those include specific days set aside to hear dependency cases involving young children in baby court. Also, case managers from Mohave County Child Protective Services and Mohave Mental Health are assigned to work with the children, and specialized training is provided to foster parents and caregivers.

As a result, said Weiss, parents are engaging more readily in their case plans and the court team is seeing a shorter time until at-risk youngsters go to permanent homes. Weiss said projects are in the works to better educate the attorneys representing children so they get a bigger voice in court, as well as to increase parental representation so everyone can participate in solutions.

"As we develop with First Things First, it really takes someone in judicial leadership," said Weiss. "If the judge is not committed to this, no one is. Best practice models show there are few judges who see the big picture. Those who are involved should remain in their roles and help society grow and improve. There are a lot of needs here and it's a significant challenge to bring the services of urban areas to Mohave County."