Wednesday, June 16, 2004

San Mateo County Times Online - Local & Regional News

San Mateo County Times Online - Local & Regional News

Judge Marta Diaz takes cases home -- and to heart

By Emily Fancher, STAFF WRITER

HER cases follow her home.
Judge Marta Diaz sometimes dreams of them. She tries to distract herself with gardening, running every day and gobbling up novels in the evenings. But sometimes nothing works.

She's charged with alternately protecting and punishing the County's most vulnerable children. For dependency cases, she must keep battered or neglected kids safe from their abusers. For delinquency cases, she must discipline kids who can't seem to follow the rules.

"All of the cases are extremely difficult and most, if not all, are extremely sad," Diaz said.

"It's hard to shake them off at the end of the day."

The case that most haunts her is that of 8-month-old Angelo Marinda, who was shaken to death by his father over Christmas 2002.

"It was my negligence that allowed ... this tragedy to happen," she said recently.

"If I had been doing my job correctly and monitoring that (child welfare) department in a very aggressive way ... I don't think this would have happened."

Diaz's decision to open the hearings and case files to the press angered some in the County who felt betrayed and exposed.

But she became a hero to others.

Maria Gomes, who was practicing immigration law at the time, was so inspired by Diaz's investigation and so appalled by Angelo's case that she decided go back to working on dependency cases.

"The judge has a lot of integrity," Gomes said.

"She took responsibility instead of sweeping it under the rug, and that made her a standout."

Gomes said Diaz is straightforward and doesn't mince words.

Others have found Diaz, a small woman with a sharp voice, to be a commanding if not intimidating presence in the courtroom.

Diaz never pictured herself speaking from the bench. She thought she'd be standing in front of a classroom teaching "Don Quixote.

A San Mateo native, she graduated from Hillsdale High before attending college in Mexico and returning to the Bay Area to get a law degree from UC Berkeley.

After law school, she spent 13 years as a prosecutor, four in juvenile court.

She found the work so compelling that she quit the district attorney's office to become a private defender for the juvenile court.

When a friend suggested she become a judge in 1996, she laughed at the idea.

But in 1997, she was appointed to the superior court bench and by 2000 was overseeing the juvenile court.

Over the years, she has noticed that the cases in juvenile court have become more difficult and complex than they used to be.

Families deal with drugs and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, poverty, and psychological and health problems.

"The problems seem insurmountable," she said.

Despite all the upheaval over the past 18 months since Angelo's death, Diaz believes the child welfare system is on the right track to change.

"We need closure," she said, "and we need to recognize this is an incredible opportunity to do what we do in a very different way. To do it in a much more effective, humane and compassionate way. Everybody is working for the same agenda and that agenda can only be the safeguarding and protection of children and helping families. In that order."


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