The Bullpen


(Fact - Drawn from Memory)


            When I started in the court system just out of college, I worked as a probation officer in the Probate and Family Court.  At that time, probation officers in our Court were also referred to as Family Service Officers.  Regardless of the title, the primary functions were and still are mediation, investigation of child custody and parenting time, and child support enforcement.


           In later years as a judge, there were times when I would give one of our probation officers an assignment only to get a call later in the day from our Chief Probation Officer  asking politely if I was sure I wanted whatever I had just assigned to be done. Sometimes I’d pull it back and sometimes I’d leave it in place.  But always, running through my mind when those calls came, were memories of my time as a Probation Officer when my colleagues and I shared a tiny office we called “The Bullpen”.


           There were eight of us crammed in a small room of an historic but run down courthouse.  Windows were leaking, the plaster was crumbling, but we had a great sense of camaraderie and shared purpose.  We’d work in the ‘Pen writing our case notes and sharing tales of the day’s work while we waited for our next mediation assignment.  After we had completed a mediation session, we would report the results to the court and, perhaps, participate in the hearing.  Sometimes, one of us would return from the courtroom with a glum look which could only mean one of two things:  either the outcome was a disappointment or, more ominously, the judge had ordered an investigation that, to our mind, carried an unusual burden or seemed unnecessary.


           I had just such an experience in a child support dispute between two parties.  I had mediated the issue between the mother and father – back and forth, until finally the parties were only $25.00 apart on what each felt the child support order should be.  I reported back to the judge feeling pretty good about the outcome and ready for him to make the final call.  But that is not what happened.  The judge ordered me to do a “financial” investigation - that is, investigate the father’s finances and evaluate his business.  He was a TV repairman.   


            It was a long trudge back to the ‘Pen for me that day.  “$25.00 crummy dollars apart”, I muttered under my breath.  “25.00 dollars apart!  Come on, Judge!!  What are you doing to me??!”  I reported the outcome ----- “an investigation!!!” ----- to my colleagues in the ‘Pen who ribbed me for achieving such an unlikely result for a child support dispute.   


           This was back around 1978.  The man ran a television repair shop in a rundown business section of Dorchester near where I grew up.  He was very gracious – perhaps he knew this was an exercise in futility.  There I was, taking an inventory of the number of old run down televisions piled in the shop, looking at crumpled handwritten invoices.  “Do you have any bank accounts?” I asked.  “No, all payments are cash.”  “What about this TV?” I pointed.  “I don’t think the owner of that one is ever coming back.”  “What about this one?”; “They don’t even make parts for that one anymore.”  He’d point to another hulk and say “I figure I’ll make $25.00 for fixing that one.”


            I managed to write up a short report that was inconclusive, given the reality of the records available.  When the parties returned to the court, there was more negotiation and compromise until we finally bridged the $25.00 gap and resolved the case. 


           In the end, I suppose some good did come of it all.  It left me far more receptive to calls from our Chief Probation Officer and better prepared to figure out whether a referral made sense and whether the task could be accomplished.  It gave me a sense of whether I was sending the probation officer down the long hall muttering under his or her breath.      


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