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Everyone knew San Mateo County Supervising Juvenile Court Judge Marta Diaz loved kids and really wanted to make a difference in the troubled lives of those hauled before her. That had been obvious her three years on the bench. But few were prepared for the 5-foot, 1-inch woman’s volcanic reaction to the Dec. 26 murder of an 8-month-old dependent of the court — a death, many say, that could have been prevented had anyone paid heed to months of warning signals. Diaz issued a withering report in April that blasted the entire system, including herself, for failing to protect little Angelo Marinda. “I was surprised that she took such a stance throughout that proceeding,” says Bonnie Miller, a partner in San Carlos’ Jackson & Miller who handles dependency and delinquency cases before Diaz. “It was very courageous of her, and I think there will be major changes as a result — and for the good.” “She really jumped into it, and should have,” agrees retired First District Court of Appeal Justice Zerne Haning III, a member of a committee formed after the Marinda murder to investigate the county’s child services system. “We should not have children who are dependents of the court killed.” Diaz can’t talk about the Marinda murder because dependency proceedings for the boy’s 2-year-old sister, Ashley, are still before her. But, in general, she says, she’s personally devastated if a child in her court’s care suffers in any manner. “I really believe that if they don’t affect you, you shouldn’t be doing the job anymore,” she says. “You want the right thing to happen, but if something happens along the way, it’s just an incredible feeling of failure.” At 49, Diaz seems ready-made for juvenile court. By all accounts, she had taken the place by storm even before finding herself in the eye of one following the death of Angelo. She has created programs that help assess children’s needs as they enter the system, rather than later when the programs may do no good. She has founded a program for the county’s schools that teaches kids respect for all races, genders and sexual orientations. She has pushed for, and gotten, a separate drug treatment camp for girls. And she was instrumental in the county landing a $21 million federal grant that’s supposed to pay for a new juvenile court, juvenile hall and probation department, replacing facilities that are at least 50 years old. “She’s done more for the juvenile court and modernizing juvenile hall than anyone ever up there,” says San Mateo County Superior Court Judge John Schwartz, “and I’ve been here for 35 years.” “She’s an independent thinker,” says Haning, a former San Mateo jurist. “She’s not intimidated by pressure or public opinion. She’ll do what she thinks is right. If she sees the boat leaking, she’ll fix it. She’s not one to let problems slip by.” A problem, however, did slip by in the case of Angelo Marinda. Diaz leveled some of the harshest criticism at herself in her report on the death. She said she should have been paying closer attention to how social workers were handling the case. The case files gave clues that Angelo was in danger, but she said she failed to see the signs. “Ultimately, the responsibility for Angelo’s death rests with the court,” Diaz wrote. “I should have been far more vigilant in safeguarding my dependent child.” Despite the self-criticism, Diaz earned hard feelings from just about everyone intimately involved by making the ugly details of the case public. In fact, nearly all the lawyers and social workers in the Marinda matter either declined comment or didn’t return telephone calls about Diaz or the case. “The people who were criticized were not happy,” says Gerard Hilliard, managing attorney of San Mateo County’s private defender program. “She was critical with a lot of areas, and I think with good reason. “As a result of what she did, there has been a significant increase in the quality of service by the human services agency,” he maintains. “There’s been a renewed awareness of the mission and thrust of the court, and I think in the long run it’s going to have a beneficial impact on the system. “It was a very gutsy thing for her to do.” FROM WARM AND FUZZY TO REALLY, REALLY MEAN Born in Oakland, Diaz was raised in San Mateo, where her father, Roberto “Chico” Diaz, a Cuban-born horse jockey from whom she inherited her small stature, had year-round access to the tracks at Bay Meadows, Golden Gate Fields and the long-gone Tanforan — all three at which he had great success. She’s married to San Francisco lawyer John Boessenecker, whose novels — such as “Badge and Buckshot: Lawlessness in Old California” and “Gold Dust & Gunsmoke: Tales of Gold Rush Outlaws, Gunfighters, Lawmen and Vigilantes” — have earned him a fair amount of fame among California historians. In her spare time — of which there isn’t much — Diaz says she loves the opera, romantic movies and Major League Soccer, especially the San Jose Earthquakes. A voracious reader, she consumes everything but books on criminal justice — too much like work, she says. And she tries to run five miles a day to prepare for the tasking job of making decisions that affect children’s lives. It’s a post many jurists try to avoid, but Diaz actively pushed to be a part of juvenile court. The mother of two teens, she has a feel for kids and believes that, more than ever, they need adults’ guidance. Today’s adolescents face problems with drugs and alcohol that didn’t exist 50 years ago, she says: “Our drug babies have come home to roost.” Diaz runs her courtroom with forceful compassion. She’ll treat you right, but you better not rub her the wrong way. On a late July afternoon, a little girl begins weeping quietly but uncontrollably as lawyers try to work out a hearing date to determine where she, two sisters and a brother will live. Speaking softly, Diaz is trying to comfort the child, when the three girls’ father suddenly, and loudly, objects to the court date, saying he could lose his job. “Sir,” Diaz admonishes, “you could lose your children.” Diaz orders the man to be in court on the appointed day and to wear something more proper than the old shirt and dirty jeans he’s wearing on this day. Tension is still lingering when the boy’s father asks to hug the kids. The man is suspected of molesting his son’s three half-sisters. “There have been too many hugs in this situation already, sir,” Diaz says. Indignant, the man flies into a screaming rage and has to be physically removed from the room. Throughout both confrontations, Diaz stood up from her seat, willing herself to look taller and glaring fiercely. “That’s why we have to go from being warm and fuzzy to being really, really mean,” she says to no one in particular. Moments later, Diaz is on the phone talking to her sons’ doctor. In mere minutes, she’s morphed from protector and enforcer to mommy mode. “She’s compassionate when she needs to be,” says Miller of Jackson & Miller, “and she’s stern when she needs to be.” Many say Diaz is a natural fit for the post because she has worked in the county’s juvenile court system as a prosecutor, a defense lawyer and now a judge. “She’s seen it from all sides,” says San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Margaret Kemp, who preceded Diaz in juvenile court. “And you get a good feeling for the kids that way — both good or bad.” Judge Schwartz says some judges assigned to juvenile court just mark time. “Marta’s not that type of person,” he says. “When she got up there and saw the problems, she went to work. She knew how that system worked up there, and instead of going along with the program, she took it upon herself to improve things.” ‘SO PAINED BY THE WASTE’ Diaz has accomplished a lot in her three years, many say. “She is innovative by nature,” says Peggy Thompson, the court executive officer for San Mateo County. Nearly everyone credits Diaz for being a driving force behind the new juvenile facilities, which are supposed to be ready for occupancy by 2006. “It is something that the county, the Board of Supervisors, the county manager and the court have been working on for three years,” says San Mateo County Chief Probation Officer Loren Buddress. “Our current facility is horribly dilapidated. It is run-down and in dire need of replacement. [Diaz] has been one of the planners and movers on that project.” Then there is KLEAR — Kids Learning Empathy and Respect — a program dreamt up by Diaz to crack down on adolescents’ language and behavior that disrespect others because of race, sexual orientation, gender, body size, whatever. “The concept of this is, early on you stop this,” says Thompson. “You don’t let it escalate. You don’t let kids bully other kids. You get them in a program.” Thomas Mohr, superintendent of the San Mateo Union High School District, says the program — which provides counseling as an alternative to suspension — has been a huge success. “The assemblies I’ve gone into, you could hear a pin drop,” he says. Mohr has high praise for Diaz on all fronts. If he needs advice, she calls. If he wants her to speak to students, she’s there. If something needs to be explained to the county’s leaders, she volunteers. “She is a standard-bearer,” Mohr says, “and a person who makes us all very conscious of doing our best to help students be successful.” Diaz says her idea for KLEAR came from a very troubled boy who appeared before her in court. A loner and an outcast, he fancied himself a Nazi, Diaz says, and no matter what she did she could not get to the bottom of what was causing “all this hate and vitriol.” The boy eventually killed himself. “I just felt so pained by the waste,” she says, and decided to do something about it. “She’s got that combination of academic ability and legal knowledge and common sense — street smarts,” says San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Dale Hahn, who was Diaz’s first supervisor back when she was a fledgling deputy DA. “There are relatively few people who have [all that]. It certainly was my impression that she was going to be a star from the beginning.” LIKE SISYPHUS WITH THE ROCK It was as a prosecutor that Diaz says she had an epiphany about juvenile court. While prosecuting a boy for robbery, she realized he was shorter than she was. “It was a huge wakeup call,” she says, and convinced her to start looking closer for motives, not necessarily to convict but to find out why a kid was in trouble, so she could try to fix the problem — even if the solution was time in juvenile hall. To this day, though, work can be frustrating, Diaz confides, because there’s only so much a judge can do in trying to keep a family together. “You feel like Sisyphus with the rock,” she says. “But unlike Sisyphus, every once in a while the rock makes it to the top.” A visit to Diaz’s courtroom on Tower Road high above Interstate 280 is like a trip to a teen’s bedroom. Rather than bare walls, there are works of art by Hispanic masters and posters of successful athletes and even a football jersey to inspire those who come through the court. There are jars of M&M’s and jelly beans, and in front of the bench sit a couple of teddy bears and a rocking horse. This is an atmosphere aimed at welcoming, not scaring. Diaz said she tries to stay in touch with the kids by strolling through the wards at juvenile hall every day, too. On one such visit, staffers go out of their way to chat with Diaz about their families and the confined juveniles’ needs. One girl who’s on an intense weight-loss program needs a special sports bra, and Diaz promises to find one. Girls having dinner smile when she arrives. And a once-promising young boy who’s just been brought back to juvenile hall after running afoul of the law again refuses to make eye contact with Diaz as he’s escorted past. While Diaz gets her share of flattering letters from the kids in juvenile hall, she says, there are those “who hate my guts and hope I get hit by a SamTrans bus.” “It’s not a job for people who want to be loved,” she adds. Diaz says she learned from her parents about being independent and self-assured. And she loves recounting how they met. Her mom, Gloria, ran a flower shop in the Mexico City hotel in which her dad, already a riding champ, was staying while in town for a race. They only knew each other briefly, but her dad proposed the day before he had to head home to the United States. Diaz says her mother had only two questions: Do you have a mom? And, would she be living with them? Dad said yes to the first and no to the second, and the two will have been together 61 years in November. Ironically, Diaz says with a smirk, “They raised me telling me never to do anything impetuous.”

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