His candid comments regarding the circumstances surrounding his court cases and the concern they cause him gives a rare glimpse into a man who takes his profession personally as he weighs all the facts to decide what is in the best interest of each child, for whom he feels responsible.
Swafford, who grew up in Bradley County in a very conservative Christian home and joined the Marine Corps where the ideas he valued were further reinforced, said, “I’ve been the juvenile and general sessions judge since 2006, and it’s a big challenge. The terrible things we see and the bad situations make it a challenge. I go home and worry and cry about some of the things I see. But I do my best to do what’s right for all the children under my jurisdiction.”
While Swafford is responsible for general sessions civil, environmental and all juvenile court procedures, he admits, “All of my courts are important but I think the most important thing I do is juvenile.”
With two offices — one downtown at the Courthouse and one at the old jail on Johnson Boulevard, Swafford explained, “I do juvenile justice, which is delinquent and unruly juveniles, at the old jail. I also do dependent, neglected and abused children — which I do at the downtown Courthouse. I also do child support and there’s a lot of parents out there not paying their child support today. I know of one instance in Bradley County where one gentleman has seven different children by seven different mothers. The count is up to like $200,000 he owes in child support. That’s a real challenge.”
Swafford said he also handles paternity and legitimation cases, which deal with children born out of wedlock. He admits, “I had never heard the term, ‘baby daddy and baby mamma until I took this job. But that’s what it is today. You don’t have husbands and wives anymore. You have baby mammas and baby daddies.”
Swafford said in the six years he has been judge, he’s seen some pretty bad cases, some impossible to forget.
“I had a 2-year-old that had a broken leg, a ruptured spleen, a dislocated shoulder, face beat black and blue, and burned with cigarettes. Believe it or not, those parents didn’t think it was their fault. The worst ones are the ones that don’t believe it’s their fault and I hate to tell you, it’s right here in Bradley County.”
Addressing methamphetamine abuse in the county, Swafford said, “I do sometimes five emergency removals a week in Bradley County. People outside the court system don’t see that, but I keep seeing it over and over again. Methamphetamine, methamphetamine — it’s a plague. We work with the family as long as we can. In dependency and neglected and abused children, what we normally do is remove a child from the home, then work with the mother and father and try to get them to address whatever their problem is.
We have people with no home, no steady income, substance abuse problems, you name it, we see it. We give them a period of time to try to work with their problem, with help from the state. If we work to the point that we see we cannot fix it, then I do one of the most terrible things that I have to do — It’s called termination of parental rights — where we take those children away from their family forever.”
Swafford, who grew up and graduated from Bradley Central High School and went on to graduate from the University of South Carolina Law School, admits it can be disheartening to see such conditions in his own community, adding, “We try to work with the family. We try to keep the child in the home, but when we see that we absolutely can’t, we take them away. We hope we can get them to a family that will adopt them and give them love and guidance, but it can be frustrating.”
Swafford added, “It’s almost unbelievable some of the attitudes I see in court. Ultimately, I believe it’s because they don’t follow Christian principles. I fight to try to take care of the children. I use ‘best interest of the child’ as my guiding principle. That’s what the law tells me. I have to follow the law. I have to listen to the facts, but the single most important thing is, ‘the best interest of the child.’”
Bradley County’s juvenile department has also developed some innovative ideas, according to Swafford, who praised Terry Gallaher, the juvenile director, for his hard work to make his vision a reality.
“He is a fine man and the key to our success in the juvenile department,” Swafford said. “Judge Deacon put in place a juvenile drug court, which meets every Wednesday. We’ve been having some good success with that. I believe there’s only five or six juvenile drug courts in the state, so we’re very blessed to have our drug court.”
Swafford said Gallaher, who also grew up in Cleveland, helped start a new program that works with athletic coaches from the local highs schools for them to talk with the children in detention. The new program is affiliated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“The problem with most of these children is they don’t have somebody in their life that loved them enough to be a role model and tell them right from wrong, as well as give them some authority and guidance. That’s the problem,” Swafford said. “This new program has been a great success. I also have [court-related encounters with] some bad children that have good parents. Kids can get with the wrong kids and go astray. But 90 percent of the trouble is caused by 10 percent of the people and unfortunately, sometimes I’m dealing with the fourth, fifth and sixth generation.”
According to Swafford, Campus Court and Family Court are really designed to help the schools. He explained, “When I first came into office, one of the complaints I got was that we weren’t addressing the schools’ problems fast enough. One school told me, and it’s true, ‘If we have a problem with a child and you don’t hear the case for a month or six weeks, the child doesn’t remember what they’re in trouble for.’ So we created this intermediate level — this family court — to address those cases.
“If campus court doesn’t solve it and family court doesn’t solve it, they come up to me in juvenile court. The buck stops here. I try to be the good guy, but sometimes I get the reputation for being the bad guy. Being a child’s friend is good, but you can’t always be the child’s friend. At times you’ve got to be an authority figure. I don’t get any pleasure from being hard or cruel. Normally, by the time they come up to juvenile court, we’ve been working with them a long time.”
In the end, Swafford said he feels that working with children and their families is worth the time he spends on the bench and in those quiet moments alone when his heart aches for the troubled children of his community.
“I’m blessed to have this job, and I give my best effort every day,” he said. “I go home sometimes and worry and cry about the stuff I have to deal with. We try to save every family, but some families can’t do it, and you’ve got to move on. You’ve got to give a child the opportunity to find a safe, stable loving home. I wear many different hats, I have many different responsibilities, but always I try to do what I hope and pray is in the best interest of the children.”