Her dream was to advocate for those in society who have no voice. So The Honorable Donna Quigley Groman, Superior Court Judge and Chair of the Delinquency Supervising/Site Committee of the Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in Los Angeles, decided to devote her career to seeking justice for children and young adults caught up in the legal and prison systems.
“Early on I was representing children, young adults, parents whose children were taken away from them, and relatives trying to get custody of children,” says Groman, a ’76 graduate of Stony Brook with a degree in economics. “I had many challenges as a child and young adult, and I wanted to be able to help others who found themselves in the same unfortunate position that I did.”
Over the years Groman has been deeply involved in community work, providing free legal assistance to incarcerated women, earthquake victims, immigrants, AIDS patients and others. She currently works on a number of policy issues related to juvenile justice in her role as supervising judge at Kenyon.
Last year she was named the Wilmont Sweeney Juvenile Court Judge of the Year “in recognition of her outstanding commitment to obtaining better outcomes for California’s children and families.”
After starting at the University as a computer science major and struggling through a few math courses, Groman switched to economics, not knowing what she would do with such a degree. The idea of law school piqued her interest after a friend told her that was what he was doing.
“One of the reasons it seemed a good fit for me was that I was interested in advocating for those who did not have a voice,” says the Brooklyn native. “Plus, I’ve always liked the contact with real people, especially kids.”
Groman passed the bar and moved to Los Angeles to start her own practice. In 1997 she applied to be a hearing officer in the juvenile court. Although commonly seen as a training ground for new judges, juvenile court required a deep-seated passion for the work involved.
“The cases are very complex,” Groman explains. “You have to have the desire to spend time getting to know the families coming before you, because chances are they’ve had long histories in the court. Putting brand-new judges there who didn’t want to be there was a total disservice to the families. So I decided that I could do better, because I was devoted to working in that court for the remainder of my career.”
She applied to be a referee, the term used in California to represent someone who performs the duties of a judge without having the same constitutional powers. From there she was promoted to commissioner. She ran for election in 2004 and became judge.
Projects she’s involved in to help Los Angeles children and youth include developing a collaborative court program for victims of domestic sex trafficking, programs with police and probation departments to reduce the number of referrals to the juvenile justice system, and strategies to ease transition back into school and the community for kids who’ve been sent to probation camp. Parent involvement is an important part of the process of getting services for their children, who are in a precarious situation and could easily be seduced into a life of crime.
“When you work with a juvenile court, the focus is on rehabilitation,” explains Groman. “You have an opportunity to work with kids, and research now shows that incarcerating kids causes more harm than good. A lot of policy is being developed now to look at alternatives to incarceration.
“The most challenging part of my job is getting each of the huge bureaucracies in this very large county to work together. What happens in the courtroom day to day can be very sad, but the hardest thing is to see a county that has so many services available not devote the resources that they should or waste resources by not working together.”
While Groman was an undergraduate at Stony Brook, she played on both the women’s basketball and softball teams under Coach Sandy Weeden. In 1972, Title 9 had just passed, ensuring equal resources for women athletes, but change was only just beginning at Stony Brook. The women’s teams had to play games in the men’s practice gym.
“But we had a great time,” says Groman. “There was a lot of camaraderie. The thing that was so significant about Coach Weeden was that she demanded our total effort. She also showed me how to lift weights. Back in those days it was unheard of for women to lift weights.
“I was on campus recently and I was blown away that women have their own locker room and a video room where they can watch replays of the games. There are scholarships for women athletes. There’s a room where the women can study and get tutoring. I think that’s phenomenal.”
By Toby Speed