GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Harrison County's longtime youth court judge is about to retire. Judge Michael Ward is stepping down at the end of this week after 32 years on the bench. WLOX News talked with the retiring judge, who reflected on his service and the troubles facing families today.
During his decades on the bench, Judge Michael Ward has witnessed a disturbing degradation in the behavior of young people.
"Most of the cases we're getting now, the majority of the cases are where children are assaulting their parents. And it's just unbelievable to me. That never happened when I first went on the bench. You never had a case where a child assaulted a parent," said Judge Ward.
The judge has no idea why today's juvenile offenders have become so callous.
"It's this lack of respect. It's unbelievable. They fight in the courtroom. They curse. They will curse at the bench. It's a lot different than it is downtown," he said.
While such behavior is shocking, other cases are more heart breaking. Like child abuse.
"That's disheartening. Really. And I think this year, the latest numbers I've seen, we've had about 1800 child abuse and neglect cases. And that's just in Harrison County. So, you can imagine what it's like through the whole state of Mississippi. And we don't have nearly enough social workers to deal with this," said Judge Ward.
Judge Ward says while dealing with a crowded court docket is an ongoing challenge, everyone should be concerned about a terribly under funded Department of Human Services.
"They're on the front lines. They're the ones that go out and ferret out the abuse and neglect that leads to abuse and neglect in the future by those same children. And they don't have sufficient numbers, they don't have sufficient training. Something really needs to be done about that," he said.
The judge realizes his work is worthwhile when someone remembers and appreciates a past appearance in his court.
"All of a sudden they'll come running up to you in Walmart and say, you know, 'You said this to me and now I have a job, I've got kids and I appreciate what you've done.' Occasionally you'll get that. And that's really good," he said, smiling.
Judge Margaret Alfonso will become the new youth court judge in Harrison County.
Judge Michael Ward's last day on the bench is Thursday.