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Public defender finds passion, connections

When Katrina Roberts calls herself "just a mom,' it's about like Spiderman calling himself "just an arachnid.' Roberts, a former hairdresser, and her husband Guy, a truck driver, have seven children '“ four of whom were adopted through the foster care system, some of whom have physical, emotional or developmental problems, none of which scared Roberts.

"I just knew I could love it all away,' she said.

For her kids with special needs, Roberts became ferocious about advocating for their best interests with the Mahomet school district. "I live up to my name,' she said. "I'm a hurricane.' So imagine what happened when she discovered that one of her children had abused a sibling.

Roberts began fighting to get the abuser help, while trying to keep the rest of her brood safe. Ultimately, she and Guy made the heartbreaking decision to relinquish guardianship (though not parental rights) of the abusive child back to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, in hopes of forcing the agency to provide more services. This process meant court hearings, and since the Robertses couldn't afford an attorney, the family court judge appointed them each a public defender. Katrina didn't know what to expect. "I thought, '˜Was this going to be someone new, fresh out of law school, who didn't know anything?' "

Instead, she got Pam Burnside, a lawyer who has spent her entire legal career '“ all 15 years '“ with the Champaign County Public Defender's office. It took a couple of meetings for Katrina, shell-shocked and distraught from the family trauma, to realize that this middle-aged woman with a wardrobe of sweat pants and sneakers matched her commitment to the case.

"She's not about appearance; she's about the work,' Roberts said. "She just appears to be a very passionate person for justice. I don't get the impression that she's like this just with me, or that she's in the public defender's office because she couldn't cut it anywhere else. She's doing exactly what she wants to do.'

As a matter of fact, she is. Burnside, 54, seems to view her profession less as a means to make money and more as a way to make a positive impact. She has taken on every specialty in the PD's office '“ traffic, misdemeanor, felony, and juvenile delinquency '“ and now handles the long, complicated and heartrending cases that comprise the abuse and neglect docket. The public defender's office represents not only people facing jail time who can't afford an attorney, but also parents faced with the possibility of losing custody of their children to the state, which is how Katrina and her husband qualified.

Burnside has worked in this office even longer than Randall Rosenbaum, who is the chief public defender for Champaign County.

 "For anybody to stay in our office for any length of time, you have to be committed to the kind of work we do," Rosenbaum said. "We deal with a lot of people who are angry at the police, angry at the system, people who have mental health problems, substance abuse problems. So working with these people on an everyday basis is not for everybody."                

Burnside, however, continues her work even outside the office. She has been an officer in the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement Colored People, including serving as president in 2003 and 2004. She has been a member of the Champaign Community and Police Partnership (formerly the Community/Police Relations committee) since 2003. During the summer, she even took in a homeless family '“ a young mother and six kids under the age of 8.

Vernessa Gipson, director of school and community partnerships at the Regional Office of Education, has been impressed by Burnside since meeting her years ago when Burnside was assigned to the public defender's juvenile delinquency caseload and represented some of Gipson's clients.

"It was easy to recognize that she really cared about her clients. Getting a plea was not her first priority; proving their innocence was,' Gipson said. "Juvenile and DCFS cases appeared to be as important as her criminal defense cases.'    

Burnside said she wanted to work for the public defender's office so she could provide legal help to whoever needed it regardless of their ability to pay. "I'm not cut out for private practice,' she said. "I could never make people pay. I am just not wired that way.'

The only other place she ever applied to work as a lawyer was, ironically, at the Champaign County State's Attorney's office. She said she was attracted by the potential for influencing charging and sentencing decisions.

"I still to this day think that I would've made a big difference in that office," Burnside said. "Because my mindset and my life experiences are different than the average attorney, I think that I would've brought just a little more humanity to what we do here in our criminal justice system.'

Her experiences begin with a childhood in Pontiac, where she was the oldest of three kids, all girls, born to a farmer and a housewife. Her parents wanted all the daughters to marry local farmers; Burnside knew she didn't want to do that.

"I don't think I had any aspirations; I just wanted to get out of Pontiac, get away from home," she said.

She went to a secretarial school in Peoria, then worked a variety of secretarial jobs, including stints with the attorney general's office and two different law firms. Along the way she lost the support of her family.

"My parents didn't like my lifestyle, and the fact that I was dating men of color," she said. "My best friend was a black woman. I couldn't buy into their biases, and I wasn't going to lie to them. They cut me out of their will and everything." Burnside, who is white, has two bi-racial sons, but never married.

"You're looking at a non-traditional chick here," she said.

 In the 1980s, Burnside enrolled in a paralegal course at Illinois Central College in Peoria, as a way to make a graceful exit from a job she didn't enjoy. By the end of her first semester, her business law professor '“ a former federal prosecutor '“ began bugging her to push on toward law school.

"I just laughed at him. I said 'No! I've got two kids!' " Burnside recalled. But the professor recruited other faculty members to help her set goals, and she went to Bradley University on scholarship, double-majoring in criminal justice and sociology with a minor in black studies. She subsequently was accepted at several law schools, and chose the University of Illinois for proximity and convenience.

Among the members of her section during the first semester of her first year of law school was Julia Rietz,  now the state's attorney for Champaign County. "She and I have worked in the Champaign County court system for the past 16 years, since we both graduated from the University of Illinois College of Law in 1993," Rietz said in an e-mail. "She goes far beyond what is required of her in court and genuinely cares about her clients and our community."

With two young children, no car and no income other than food stamps, Burnside was a non-traditional law school student. On days when the public schools weren't in session, she had to take her sons with her to class. When she needed to go to the law library to study for final exams, she relied on other grad students living at Orchard Downs to baby-sit. 

"We developed a support system. A lot of African students, international students, just swallowed us in and it was awesome," she said. "We survived it, but I don't remember much of it."

Burnside believes those years made her a better public defender '“ not just because she was learning the law, but because she was walking in the shoes of her future clients. Living on food stamps, juggling never-ending financial crises, familiarized Burnside with something she calls "triage mode," and she often sees it in the eyes of the people who sit on the opposite side of her desk. 

"I know that when I'm stressed or when I'm overwhelmed, I don't take care of personal business. [It's] 'Okay, what emergency do I have to deal with today?' That's what I deal with, and then I go on," she said. "That's what poverty does to individuals, because you're always in that crisis mode. . . . The eight years I was in school, I was in that mode."

No longer in poverty, her salary, in the low $60,000s, still doesn't stretch much past her mortgage, insurance, car repairs, and payments on her $175,000 student loan. But her older son, Marcus Morris, calls his mother's job in the public defender's office "a perfect fit." 

 "I thought she would get jaded, but she always stuck to her morals and her beliefs," he said. "If she believes you don't deserve to go to jail, she'll fight for that."

Marcus is 29; his brother Jason Morris is 27. Jason works for a local furniture rental store and has one child; Marcus lives in Chicago and recently left his job with a facility for the mentally ill to study to become a personal trainer. He said the main complaint he hears from his mom about her job concerns clients who withhold information from her.

"When her clients lie to her, that makes her more upset than anything else. She hates when people keep stuff from her," Marcus said.

Burnside has decorated her office with Cubs paraphernalia, a collection of baseball caps, pictures of her family, and prints of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. It's her way of trying to show clients who she is and what she cares about, in hopes of enticing them to open up to her. "This way, it's harder for them to say, 'Well, that white woman, she's not gonna understand me,' you know, 'Her head's not gonna be in the right place.' It's easier to get their trust," Burnside said.

Her goal, as she describes it, is to allow her clients to make their own decisions, but to arm them with everything they need to make informed decisions. If that means copying statutes for them, she makes copies. If it means writing a legal memo, she does that. And occasionally, if it means yelling at them and letting them yell back, well, that's why there's a door on her office that closes.

"It's hard for me to just say, 'No, I'm not going to do that.' It's important to me that my clients understand why I'm making the recommendations that I'm making, and that they buy into it," Burnside said. "If they don't, they're going to walk out of my office and out of the courtroom feeling as though they have not had a fair chance at the criminal justice system."

Katrina Roberts, the mother of seven who is hoping the legal process will result in DCFS providing more services to her daughter, feels lucky to have drawn Burnside as her legal representative.

"I want to go up against the system, and I happened to get an attorney who supports me in that," Roberts said. "I may lose, but they'll know they've been in a fight."

This experience with the legal system, and with Burnside in particular, has inspired Roberts '“ a 50-year-old woman whose only education past high school was beauty school '“ to register at Parkland Community College's paralegal program. She has her acceptance letter displayed on her refrigerator.

"Pam's passion," Roberts says, "is contagious."


By Dusty Rhodes/CU-Citizen Access

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.