Lake Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura will soon trade her judge's robes for a new job involving the welfare of children.
Gov. Mike Pence appointed Bonaventura in late January to serve as director of the Indiana Department of Child Services. Her departure ends a 31-year judicial career closing much the way it began — amid contention.
Bonaventura became Lake Juvenile Court judge in 1993 after serving nearly 11 years in Juvenile Court as a referee and a magistrate.
Shortly after becoming judge, she began a years-long battle with Lake County officials to secure more space for the juvenile court. Bonaventura filed a lawsuit in 1996 to force the county to build a new home for the juvenile court.
Ultimately, her fight was successful. The county paid millions to build the Lake Juvenile Court facility on 93rd Avenue in Crown Point, a light-filled, spacious center with modern courtrooms, a comfortable waiting area that can accommodate families, private conference rooms, and offices for probation officers as well as a juvenile detention center all in one building.
Bonaventura's administration also was the subject of nationally aired documentaries when she allowed production companies to show the process in Lake Juvenile Court and the stories of individual juveniles.
Now at the end of her judicial career, Bonaventura has attracted controversy with more attempts at what she deems reform and for speaking out about the method used to name her successor.
Officials from East Chicago and Gary and the NAACP sued Bonaventura over her decision to close the Gary court and consolidate it with the Crown Point-based juvenile facilities to save money. Opponents argue her move creates a hardship for low-income residents in the northern part of the county.
That lawsuit is pending.
She also recently drew the ire of fellow Lake Superior Court judges for challenging their decision to allow Judge Nicholas Schiralli to transfer into her soon-to-be vacated position.
She argued Schiralli's move to juvenile court would violate a Lake County-based rule and a number of Indiana laws, according to her letter dated Feb. 25. Bonaventura asked the Indiana Supreme Court to intervene and require her replacement be chosen through merit selection.
The Supreme Court justices initially declined to issue an opinion on her request in the absence of a formal legal challenge.
However, on Wednesday, three Lake juvenile Court magistrates filed a lawsuit to stop Schiralli from becoming the next Lake juvenile judge this month. Magistrates Glenn Commons, Jeffery Miller and Charlotte Peller asked the Indiana Supreme Court to give them the chance to apply for Bonaventura's former job.
The next day, it granted a temporary stay preventing Schiralli from becoming juvenile judge while it mulls its decision. On Friday, the state's high court named Senior Judge Thomas W. Webber Sr. to serve as the temporary Juvenile Court judge.
Bonaventura said while she was disappointed in the way her successor was chosen, she is ready to move on to the next chapter of her life.
"It's like a dream come true, really," she said. "I will work every minute of the day to make sure I don't let anyone down."
Bonaventura said much of her job will involve building bridges, mending fences and fine-tuning the work done by her predecessor, former DCS Director James Payne. Payne resigned last year amid allegations he improperly intervened in a DCS neglect case involving his grandchildren. He denied wrongdoing and said he was leaving to prevent more harm to his grandchildren and DCS.
Bonaventura said Payne was her mentor and did things that weren't necessarily popular but important.
"He was the pioneer, and I'm probably the settler," she said. "I thank him. Today, DCS is a better agency than it was eight years ago."
Bonaventura said she will spend the first few months transitioning into her new position but already has some goals she'd like to accomplish. Among them:
* The DCS hotline: A topic that has received significant attention from the public and elected officials, Bonaventura said she will want to focus on their recommendations and the ongoing study of the hotline to determine how it should work moving forward.
* Children's commission: State legislators also discussed creating a children's commission. Bonaventura said the commission's job will be to partner with DCS. "It can only help," she said. "We need partners — the court can't do it alone and DCS can't do it alone."
* Statewide visits: Bonaventura said she'd like to visit all 92 counties — speaking directly with judges, regional DCS directors and caseworkers. "I want them to see my face," she said. "I want them to tell me how I can do this better."
* Case management burnout: Bonaventura said she hopes her conversations with DCS employees will help her figure out how to reduce the turnover and burnout of caseworkers. She said DCS employees have to quickly make decisions with huge ramifications.
* Mental health for children: Bonaventura said she will continue to closely watch a DCS pilot project that officials hope will close the gap in providing mental health services for children.