Pearl Youth Court Shutters After Judge Allegedly Kept Mother from Child Due to Unpaid Fees

On Wednesday, the Pearl Municipal Youth Court closed permanently, and Youth Court Judge John Shirley resigned as youth court judge after Cliff Johnson, with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, told Pearl officials about Shirley’s order blocking a mother from seeing her child until she paid court-ordered fees, a press release from the Center says.

Judge Shirley entered an order on Aug. 22, 2016, prohibiting Johnson’s client, referred to as “Mother A” due to strict youth court confidentiality laws, from having any contact with her baby until she paid court fees in full, the press release says.

Fourteen months later, Judge Shirley entered an order on Oct. 25 reversing his earlier decision and returning custody to “Mother A.” The mother was not represented by a lawyer in the Youth Court proceedings. Mississippi law allows youth court judges to appoint counsel for parents in youth court matters, but Johnson says that rarely happens.

“As a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi, I am no stranger to injustice, but for a judge to prohibit an impoverished mother from having any contact with her baby until monetary payments are made is shocking and repugnant,” Johnson said in the press release. “Such orders are tantamount to judicial kidnapping.”

Johnson conducted an investigation after “Mother A” contacted him, and contacted Pearl officials to inform them of Judge Shirley’s order and his belief that Shirley has issued similar orders in several other cases conditioning custody or visitation on payment of money. After receiving Johnson’s demands, including that Judge Shirley be fired and the Youth Court closed, the Pearl Board of Aldermen met in an emergency meeting on Wednesday evening.

At that meeting, Judge Shirley resigned from both his Youth Court and Municipal Court positions and the Board voted unanimously to close the Youth Court permanently, the press release from the Center says.

Pearl was the only city in Mississippi with its own youth court. All other youth courts operate at the county level. Matters previously handled by the Pearl Youth Court now will come under the jurisdiction of the Rankin County Youth Court.