Court intake worker earns state awardOne day in the late 1970s Julie Dollahon walked into the Pierce County Department of Human Services, met the director and asked if he had any job openings.
By: Judy Wiff, The Republican Eagle
One day in the late 1970s Julie Dollahon walked into the Pierce County Department of Human Services, met the director and asked if he had any job openings.
While Dale Melstrom didn't exactly hire the young social worker on the spot, it was close. She started as a fill-in for a woman on maternity leave, was offered a permanent job in December 1979 and three decades later brings to the job an enthusiasm, professionalism and kindness that her peers celebrate.
This fall Dollahon received the Wisconsin Juvenile Court Intake Association's annual award.
As intake worker, Dollahon is usually the first social worker youngsters in trouble with the law meet, said Joy Lynn George, who prepared the paperwork to nominate her friend for the award.
"(Dollahon) provides them with an opportunity to be heard and to take responsibility to make things right — her work ethic is like no other," wrote George. "She doesn't quit until the job is done and done well."
"She is one of the best social workers that I have come across in my career," agreed supervisor Julie Krings. She said the 30-year-veteran is dedicated to the youth in the community and has earned the respect of local teachers, prosecutors and police.
"Every day is something new for her," Krings said.
Her colleagues dubbed Dollahon "the Statute Queen" for her familiarity with Wisconsin's Juvenile Justice Code, said Krings.
Dollahon accepts the title but said she was dumbfounded when the Juvenile Court Intake Association's president-elect called her to tell her she'd been chosen to receive the annual award.
"I was flabbergasted," she said, admitting the call left her speechless.
Dollahon, who graduated from Cumberland High School in 1972, said she hadn't thought of becoming a social worker until she took her first sociology class at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
"It kind of went from there, and I haven't regretted it," she said.
Her first job after college was with CETA — the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, providing information and referral services out of a one-woman office on Main Street in River Falls.
"I got all sorts of odd questions," recalls Dollahon. "It was a good beginning job because it forced me to learn all the resources in the area."
After a year at that job, she took a position with Fond du Lac County's social services department, working with foster families.
One of her tasks was to regularly drive six children to prison to visit their father, who had killed their mother.
"The impact of those bars slamming behind us when we went in has always stayed with me," Dollahon said.
She grew up on a farm insulated from anything close to jail or the sorrow those children faced, but that early experience convinced her she wanted to spend her life helping kids and their families.
"That just solidified for me that this was the right choice."
She stayed at that job for a year before marrying her first husband and moving to the Ellsworth area.
Her first six years with Pierce County were as a child protection worker, doing a variety of tasks from supervising delinquents to working with abused children to completing child custody studies.
"It was good training," Dollahon said. But she struggled with part of the job.
"Child abuse investigations were not a good fit for me. I didn't sleep nights. I cried all the time," she said. "I just couldn't bear to see what those kids were going through."
In 1985 when the county's juvenile court intake worker retired, Dollahon posted into that position.
For the last 24 years she has been juvenile court intake lead worker, a job that involves conducting initial interviews with alleged delinquents and their parents, evaluating how to proceed and consulting with the social workers assigned to assist the juveniles.
"I am the Statute Queen," Dollahon agreed, pulling from the shelf Wisconsin Juvenile Justice Code.
If co-workers have a question about the code, they turn to Dollahon, who can quote sections by heart, Krings said.
When police investigate an alleged law violation by a juvenile, they have three options, said Dollahon. They can give the kid a warning and send him home, they can issue a ticket or for a more serious case, they can refer the juvenile to intake.
When a referral is made, Dollahon schedules a conference with the minor and his or her parents. Those interviews give the kid a chance to explain what happened and Dollahon a chance to discuss the choices he made.
She's required by law to advise minors of their rights, including the right to remain silent, but few choose that option, said Dollahon.
"Most of them do talk," she said.
At the end of the interview, she must decide whether to give the child a warning and send him home, to offer a deferred prosecution agreement that usually involves community service and supervision by a social worker or to refer the kid to the district attorney for a delinquency petition. Reports of dispositions are sent to the DA for his review.
"With a lot of kids, I never hear from them again — that's all it takes," said Dollahon, noting that many of the children she sees get in trouble only once.
@subheads:Fights, theft and sex
@normal1: In all of 2008 police referred 200 Pierce County kids to juvenile intake. As of Oct. 5 of this year, they had already referred 205.
Many of the charges are the catchall "disorderly conduct" and most of those involve fights at school.
Years ago, educators handled those situations by calling parents. Now, said Dollahon, schools call the police.
"Things are different," she said. "(Educators) just feel they need to provide safety in their schools."
Another frequent offense is shoplifting.
"I keep telling them, there are cameras everywhere — you are going to get caught," said Dollahon.
Recently she's also gotten a lot of referrals for teens having sex with other teens -- which, to the surprise of many kids and their parents, is illegal.
"Kids don't know that," said Dollahon. "They look at me like I'm nuts. They don't understand until I actually show them in writing that it's against the law."
To bring home her point, she hands them a small red, white and black pamphlet titled "Sex: Are you willing to do time for it?"
But, said Dollahon, teen crime is not rampant here.
"We're very fortunate in this county to not have a lot of serious juvenile crimes," she said.
Ironically, years after she realized she couldn't deal emotionally with child abuse cases, Julie met and married Jim Dollahon, a county deputy who specialized in child abuse investigations.
"I couldn't handle those cases. He could," she said. But Jim's untimely death 13 years after their wedding set his widow on new paths.
For the past 10 years she has helped organize annual golf tournaments that raised money for child abuse and neglect prevention programs.
"We went well beyond what we expected to do," said Dollahon, noting that the efforts — which raised just under $100,000 —outfitted a juvenile interview room at in the Sheriff's Department and provided equipment for every police department in the county.
"Clearly his death resulted in a path I never thought I'd take," said Dollahon, who had to overcome fear of speaking in public to help make the tournaments a success.
She also started a support group for young widows and has served on the board of directors of the St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Program since 2006.
Dollahon admits that after 30 years as a Pierce County social worker, she is sometimes asked if she's thinking of retiring.
"Why would I do that?" she wonders. "I love it here."