NEW PORT RICHEY — He just as easily could have spent the day romping with his 2½-year-old grandson or reading the novel he never had time to open while serving as a circuit court judge for the Sixth Judicial Circuit.
Instead, Judge William Webb, 67, spent New Year’s Eve, the first day of his retirement, at the Pasco County Courthouse — officiating at the adoption of a group of children he had shepherded through the court system.
Webb wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Judges need to see the happy ending,” he said.
In his usual unassuming manner, Webb marked his retirement from 21 years on the judicial bench with little fanfare. His absence, however, reverberates throughout the Sixth Judicial Circuit’s courthouse in New Port Richey where Webb presided over an untold number of arraignments, hearings and trials.
“I definitely have some big shoes to fill,” said Judge James R. Stearns, who is assuming Webb’s role presiding over the Unified Family Court division. “I had the pleasure of having him as a mentor, and there’s a well-worn path between our chambers. But I always know he’s just a phone call away and won’t hesitate to be here if needed.”
Presiding in the family court is arguably one of the most emotionally taxing and demanding assignments in the circuit court system. Every day, judges must make weighty decisions that can affect a child for life.
“As a senior judge, Judge Webb had his pick of assignments,” said Stearns. “But he chose family court. He chose to help children and worked tirelessly to ensure they were safe and protected.”
Webb served as the administrative judge for Pasco County for seven years. But the opportunity to head the state’s first Unified Family Court division in 2003 was a challenge Webb said he couldn’t turn down.
The family division, among nine divisions of the Sixth Judicial Circuit serving Pasco and Pinellas counties, has undergone an extensive makeover in the past decade.
At the start of the 21st century, Florida’s Department of Children and Families, responsible for investigating and managing complaints of child abuse and neglect, was embroiled in controversy. Investigators, burdened with overwhelming caseloads, were accused of failing to conduct follow-ups and of falsifying reports.
A 4-year-old Miami girl was the impetus for reform. Rilya Wilson was in foster care under DCF’s supervision in 2000 when she disappeared from the home of her caretaker. DCF investigators didn’t discover her disappearance for two years. She never has been found.
Her case led to the establishment of the Unified Family Court System whose motto is “One family, one judge.”
Because child abuse and neglect cases often involve domestic violence, drug abuse and sexual abuse, families previously had to appear in multiple courts before multiple judges. The division consolidated these cases into one with a focus on the child.
The state gave counties the option of using their sheriff’s offices to conduct child protective investigations.
“Initially, the Pinellas and Pasco sheriff’s offices didn’t apply to take part in the program,” said Webb. “But they soon realized that law enforcement was the obvious choice for investigating complaints of abuse and neglect.”
Six years ago, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office began investigating all complaints of child abuse.
“The caliber of the investigations improved dramatically,” said Webb. “It just made sense. Who can investigate a crime better than law enforcement?”
He noted that working within the sheriff’s office allows the child protective investigators to take advantage of law enforcement resources including having a deputy accompany them to homes where violence could erupt.
Webb oversaw other improvements during his tenure with the family division.
Vowing to resolve all cases within a year so children aren’t left to languish in the foster care system, he mandated that all child abuse and neglect complaints go before a judge the following day, even if it meant juggling already-packed court schedules.
“This is a critical part of the process because it’s when we decide if there is probable cause to remove the child from the home, decide where to place the child, assign the parents an attorney and appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the child,” said Webb.
Webb also ordered that a home study be conducted within 24 hours and a case manager be assigned to draw up a plan to deal with mitigating issues that might have led to the child abuse or neglect including anger management problems, substance abuse, poverty and a lack of parenting skills.
Rather than depend on an overburdened state social worker to follow the case, the family division now enlists the aid of Youth and Family Alternatives of New Port Richey, an independent agency that offers substance abuse help, family counseling and foster care and adoption services. BayCare Behavioral Health and The Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute, also in New Port Richey, offer counseling and substance abuse treatment programs of which the court often orders parents to take part. Each parent receives a case plan stipulating programs or classes that must be completed.
The goal, said Webb, is to help the parent resolve the issues that led to the abuse or neglect with the aim of reuniting the family.
Throughout the year there are scheduled judicial reviews of the case to ensure the parent is following his or her case plan.
“I’ve been criticized for also conducting status hearings between the mandated reviews to make sure the system is working as intended,” said Webb.
His hands-on approach has led to outbursts by parents in court and even death threats.
“Every case is difficult,” said Webb. “The judge has to balance the welfare of the child with the rights of the parents. And sometimes that means terminating their parental rights.”
Whether the child returns home, is sent to live with a suitable relative or is placed in the adoption system, Webb’s objective is to give the child a permanent home within 12 months.
In the 13 years he presided over the family court, Webb witnessed hundreds of children successfully reunited with parents as well as hundreds adopted by loving families. He occasionally receives a card or letter from a child, thanking him for his efforts. They serve as reminders of the effect he has had on lives.
“The most rewarding cases are when it is clear that a child’s life was saved or drastically improved by my actions,” said Webb.
But he is quick to point out that he is just one cog in the wheel.
“The real heroes are the child protection investigators who put in grueling hours under emotionally charged conditions,” he said. “They are overworked and underpaid but always unerringly polite and professional.”
As for retirement, Webb has no definite plans.
“I’d just like to spend some time with my wife,” he said.
He met and married Mary Webb 48 years ago.
“We met at an intern party in Cleveland. She was a nurse. I was an undergrad. And it was love at first sight,” said Webb.
The couple relocated to Pasco County in 1974 where Webb worked as a prosecutor, an assistant state attorney and a private civil and criminal trial lawyer before succeeding Judge Lawrence Keough on the bench in 1994.
Between raising their son and daughter, Mary Webb earned master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of South Florida and the University of Florida and served as a full professor and associate dean in the USF College of Nursing before retiring last year.
As he leaves behind his robe and gavel, Webb said he is confident he is leaving his court in good hands.
“Judge Stearns has a great deal of knowledge in this area of the law and I was very happy when he volunteered to replace me,” said Webb. “I feel very fortunate to have been allowed to do this work. It’s been an honor.”